This year is on course to be the hottest year on record. According to data from NASA, fourteen of the 15 hottest years on record have occurred since the the year 2000. Climate change is here, and it is time to do something about it.
There is an argument doing the rounds that Britain is a such a small country that anything we do to attempt to halt climate change is pointless. The USA and China, so the argument goes, consume so much stuff, and create so much CO2, that any attempt to get our own house in order is redundant. Other people say that an individual can do nothing against a tide of humanity that is seven billion strong, and rising.
Of all the privileged, passive-aggressive, lazy, shirking arguments that I have heard, these are the worst, the most snide and the most damaging. They are simply a way of avoiding personal culpability for something that is quite literally everybody’s responsibility.
In Britain we produce 12.5 tonnes of CO2e (Carbon Dioxide Equivalent) per person per year, against a global average of 4.25 tonnes per person per year (a lot of figures are bandied around, but these are pretty representative). Not only are we, as individuals, among the most culpable for climate change, but as citizens of a developed, rich nation we are among the most able to be doing something about it.
In an evolutionary sense, it’s not entirely our fault. One reason that climate change has been allowed to become such a powerful force is that humans are forever battling with the fact that while we are adapted to live on Pleistocene plains, we actually work in a call centre in Swindon. For our caveman minds, which developed hunting mammoths and dying at the age of thirty, it is really hard to imagine an existential threat when one isn’t feeling immediately threatened by, say, the gaping maw of a sabre-toothed tiger. Avoiding discomfort at all costs is a pretty innate human flaw. It is really hard for us to imagine damage that is not directly visible, or feel the inclination to do anything about it. Now the damage of climate change is perfectly visible we don’t really have that excuse any more.
The other huge problem we are facing is that our culture revolves around oil. Everything about the way we live involves burning it in some way, from the fact that I am writing this on a laptop, to the fact that you are now more likely to live far away from your family that at any other time in history, to the fact that our beauty regimes contain things called ‘microbeads’ for absolutely no reason whatsoever. So making changes is going to take a fairly fundamental shift in the way we live.
Nevertheless, every single person in Britain could do more to stop the ravages of climate change.
We have seen over the last forty years that in matters of global consequence top-down approaches don’t work. Just last month our new Prime Minister scrapped the Department for Energy and Climate Change. Politicians are almost invariably wealthy, short termist and lobbied by vested interests. They do not have enough of a stake in the future to really bother about it (it’s not their fault, really. Most people would be the same in their position.) Paris COP21 was a step in the right direction, there are already warnings that its targets will be missed. If we really want to mitigate for the worst ravages of climate change, we need to take personal responsibility for our actions.
So. Want to save the world? You’re going to have to make some sacrifices. I mean, not earth-shatteringly difficult sacrifices. Just fairly tricky sacrifices that will alter your life in a reasonably fundamental way. Here are nine:
- Stop travelling abroad. If you want to notch up the most greenhouse gas emissions in the shortest amount of time, hop on a plane. Take an annual holiday in the Med? Flying from Gatwick to Kos, return, emits 0.57 tonnes (570kg!) of CO2. You can ‘offset’ your mileage by paying a company to plant trees for you, but it’s a bit of a cop-out, and the trees will take years to grow, while the damage done by flying is pretty immediate. A simpler answer? Just go to Cornwall. Need your annual fix of skiing? Head to Scotland. The skiing there isn’t bad (for now). In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably say that I flew to the Arctic Circle for my holiday this year. Total CO2E: 460kg. Oops.
- Don’t have pets. Sorry Fido. According to the book Time to Eat the Dog: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living by Robert and Brenda Vale, owning a pet is worse for the environment is worse than owning a 4×4. As the New Scientist summarises:”According to the authors . . . it takes 0.84 hectares [2.07 acres] of land to keep a medium-sized dog fed. In contrast, running a 4.6-litre Toyota Land Cruiser, including the energy required to construct the thing and drive it 10,000km a year, requires 0.41 hectares. Dogs are not the only environmental sinners. The eco-footprint of a cat equates to that of a Volkswagen Golf.” Worryingly, the report goes further. “If that’s troubling, there is an even more shocking comparison. In 2004, the average citizen of Vietnam had an ecological footprint of 0.76 hectares. For an Ethiopian, it was just 0.67 hectares. In a world where scarce resources are already hogged by the rich, can we really justify keeping pets that take more than some people?”
- Stop eating meat. Annoyingly, regularly chowing down on a hunk of cow flesh is a bit of an environmental no-no. Meat production accounts for 14-18% of all human-caused greenhouse gases. Not only does producing meat take up a huge amount of agricultural land, and a ridiculous amount of water, but it also produces pretty hefty amounts of greenhouse gases in the process. So just how bad is it? Here are some pie charts:
There are ways of eating meat with a clean(ish) conscience. Eating local wild venison is a good bet, as is wild rabbit, of which there are currently sixty million in the UK. Pretty delicious too. And chicken is over ten times better for the environment than beef. And while we’re on food:
- Stop eating imported food and grow your own. Tricky this one, particularly if you live in a city. Eating locally produced food involves sacrifices; it is often more expensive than cheap imported food, and it also means having distinctly less choice than buying from globally sourced produce (I once looked at the provenance of all the food I had bought in a Tesco shop, and was horrified to find that my food basket had been to more different countries than I had). But, then again, do you really need an avocado so badly that you are willing to pay someone to haul it all the way here from California for you? If you have access to a garden or an allotment then growing your own food through the summer months could save up to 100kg in carbon emissions.
- Get your house in order. There’s a distinct chance that if you are reading this you don’t own your own home (I believe my reading demographic is skewed towards young people, for whom the concept of home ownership is something that you read of in history books), so installing cavity insulation may not be a path available to you. But ‘getting your house in order’, from installing solar panels and efficient boilers to switching your electricity provider to a ‘green’ provider can save a significant amount of both money and carbon emissions. Just as important is reducing the amount of fuel consumption in the house. From personal experience, household energy consumption is pretty gratuitous. I mean, ask yourself – do you really need another cup of tea? Really? Really though?
- Wash less. Washing from a basin every other day will save 100kg CO2e per annum, not to mention significantly cutting down your water bills. Only using the washing machine for full loads, and on cold cycles, will save another 100kg. Don’t like the idea of being smelly? Bear in mind that halitosis is a condition that was invented by Listerine to sell mouthwash (the slogan? ‘Halitosis makes you unpopular’.)
- Join a political party. I don’t care which. Join up, and get your voice heard, and get climate change the attention it deserves in Parliament. Politicians serve the people, not the other way round. (In fairness I haven’t actually done this yet, because I’m waiting for Labour to sort themselves out).
- Stop driving everywhere and buy a bike. A couple of years ago someone nominated the bicycle for the Nobel peace prize, because it was ‘the most democratic means of transport available to humanity.’ They went on to say that each kilometre pedaled had a net benefit of about 10 pence for society, when compared to using a car. Driving a car adds over a tonne to your carbon emissions every year, so cutting down on car usage is one of the most effective things you can do. It’s not easy though. British culture is designed around cars. British people live further away from their families than ever before, shops are on the outskirts of towns, and getting to work generally involves a commute. If you really want to cut down your carbon footprint, it may well will mean sacrificing long trips to see loved ones, less weekend road trips, and even less trips to the shops.
- Do a bit of habitat management. More green stuff means more carbon dioxide absorbed, rather than emitted. Planting trees, laying hedgerows, digging ponds and filling them with weeds are not only good for local wildlife, they are also great for mitigating for climate change. Got a garden? Use it wisely, plant a small tree. Local conservation charities do this sort of work all the time, and are always looking for volunteers.
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