I have to be honest, I have a tendency to glaze over and switch off when people start harping on about carbon footprints, food miles and climate change. It’s not that I don’t care and it’s not that I don’t think that there is a real value in living in an environmentally friendly way – it’s just that I think I have the environmentalist’s version of compassion fatigue syndrome. For example, we all know that there are starving children in Africa all year round, yet I only seem to reach into my pocket for my wallet and a tissue to cry into when Children in Need time comes around. So it is with green issues – as selfish as it may sound, I think I need reminding from time to time of the realistic benefits, not only to the planet, but also to myself, of living green. Otherwise it’s too easy to ignore.
In my latest article for Our Green Earth, I look at the example set by one man called John Cossham. He may be a bit of an eco-extremist with his über-green ways, but reading his story made me feel guilty that one person can be doing so much while I am doing so little. Researching and writing the article was the reality check I needed, this month, to take stock of what I am doing or not doing or could be doing to reduce my carbon footprint. I’ll probably need another one in a month or two though…
[Edit 3rd December 2010: Sadly, Our Green Earth no longer exists but the owner has very kindly handed back copyright of my articles to me. Here, for your reading pleasure, are New Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint…]
New Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint
Using the Government’s “Act on CO2” website, I’ve just calculated my carbon footprint and discovered that I am responsible for the emission of 7.08 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. While there must be a significant margin for error using a crude (but well designed) tool such as the Carbon Calculator, this worries me. The average person in the UK has a carbon footprint of 4.35 tonnes per year, which puts mine well above the national average (1).
My carbon footprint
I was a little shocked that my carbon footprint was so high as I don’t own a car and use public transport every day. Having said that, my rented flat is very poorly insulated and I have a guilty pleasure: my love of foreign travel. I love exploring new countries and cultures and inevitably get there by plane. I took three short-haul return flights in the last year and dread to think of the CO2 emissions during my “career break” in 2007/8 when I visited 17 countries in 12 months! Do I feel guilty? Yes, although maybe not as much as I should do. Will I stop flying? Honestly? It’s unlikely. So what can I do to reduce my impact on the environment?
The Smallest Carbon Footprint in the UK
In my quest for answers, I came across the remarkable story of John Cossham, winner of an Oxfam competition to find the person in the UK with the lowest carbon footprint. Compared to my monstrous 7.08, John’s is just 0.45 (2). How on our green earth does he do it?
Big investment, big difference
John says, “Being green is about doing whatever you can; it’s not about wearing hair shirts or spending vast amounts of money”. Thank goodness for that! John has radiators in his home but says that he and his family haven’t used them for almost 5 years. Instead, they have invested in two smoke-free wood-burning stoves to heat the rooms of the house as well as to heat water for baths, washing-up and making tea. They regularly take logs and scrap wood out of skips to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill, and of course as a free fuel. They also use the stoves to cook on, although they do have a gas hob. John would like a wood fired oven but, he says, “you have to be realistic” (2).
In addition to the wood stoves, John and his family use low-energy appliances, don’t own a mobile phone, always switch off plugs at the wall sockets and follow a vegetarian, almost vegan diet since, apparently, the meat and dairy industries add a “hidden carbon footprint” to our lifestyles. Healthy living, of which his veganism is a part, is also important to this eco-friendly family since healthcare costs the environment dear too. The vast resources used by the medical sector could be greatly reduced if people were healthier, and walking or cycling instead of using a car or even public transport is likely to increase the nation’s fitness as well as reduce our carbon footprint (2).
Clearly, John Cossham is an extremist in the world of eco-warriors but the fact that one man is doing much whilst I am doing so little makes me feel somewhat ashamed. It would be so easy to reduce my carbon footprint, even a little, with a bit of effort. I’m guilty of leaving plugs switched on at the wall, leaving the TV on standby and, with the best intentions in the world, I always seem to forget my reusable bags when I go to the supermarket. I’ll be honest and say that I doubt I’ll be giving up the foreign holidays any time soon (unlike John who never flies and doesn’t believe that people should), however, he does say, “There is no secret to reducing your carbon footprint; people just need to look at the energy they use within their home, their diet, the transport they use and what they do in their community” (2).
Ten Tips for Lessening your Environmental Impact
By making small changes gradually, a little extra effort could go a long way towards reducing our impact on our precious environment. Here are a few small ideas that I’ve discovered while surfing the net (on my energy-efficient laptop that I promise to switch off when I’m finished!)
- Don’t send Christmas cards this year. Save paper, postage, transport miles and trees by sending e-cards or just calling your loved ones to wish them a Merry Christmas
- One man’s trash is another’s treasure. Instead of throwing away unwanted furniture, toys, clothes, books and appliances and condemning them to landfill or incineration, why not join your local Freecycle group and give away your unwanted belongings. It’s amazing what people will take off your hands!
- Keep carrier bags in your bag or coat pocket so you’re never unprepared for a shopping trip. At some shops you can even earn extra loyalty points for reusing bags, too.
- When replacing household appliances, be sure to choose the most energy efficient models, an A or A+ rating is the best. You’ll save money on your bills too.
- Energy is still being consumed when your appliances are on standby or when the plug switch is on. Get into the habit of switching off appliances when you leave a room and don’t leave things like mobile phones and iPods charging over night – an hour or two on charge is usually sufficient.
- I have a friend who lives opposite a supermarket and yet drives there to do her weekly shop. Consider the environment and your health and walk or cycle short distances. For local journeys, support public transport and park and ride schemes.
- Sign up with the Mailing Preference Service to stop receiving junk mail. Less waste, less annoying letters from credit card companies.
- Investigate the insulation in your home. Even if you live in rented accommodation and don’t have any control over things like double glazing or loft insulation, simple changes like hanging thicker curtains, laying rugs over hard floors and using draft excluders can make a significant difference to your energy usage.
- Don’t buy bottled water. Plastic bottles are a major source of waste as many still can’t be recycled. Tap water in the UK is perfectly safe to drink as it is, or you can buy an inexpensive filter to make it taste nicer.
- Reduce, reuse, recycle. Sorting your household rubbish properly means that more can be recycled and less waste is land filled or incinerated. Reuse tubs and jars, or save them for a jam-making friend or Freecycler.
- Act on CO2, http://www.direct.gov.uk/actonco2
- Southgate, S, How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint, The Ecologist 39: 1, 2009