Apologies – this post is LOOOOOOONG.
So long in fact I have had to give it sub-headings – madness!
I’ve been reflecting recently on how I can reduce my carbon footprint, and how to navigate the ins and outs of caring for our environment in an increasingly plastic-filled world. The fact is, I travel an awful lot, both for work and for pleasure. Usually by air, and I worry about all that C02 I am contributing to global warming. I also purchase an awful lot of products that are wrapped in plastic.
A friend told me recently you can just pay £20 or so whenever you fly to offset your carbon – in other words, I can be lazy and pay someone to plant a tree on my behalf so I can jet around the world. I am unsure about carbon offset schemes and how effective they are, but I must admit to being very ignorant about it all, so I’ve been doing some research to try and figure it all out.(Please note that my “research” has been ad hoc and not at all systematic, and I discovered that a lot of it was from quite a few years ago, so my deepest apologies if any of my assertions appear to be out of date with current thinking!).
The Carbon Offsetting Debate
I’m sure it’s a good idea on some level, but it seems both weird and lazy to me. I did some extremely brief research into it – this excellent article was my starting point, which led to several other articles and then a couple of books…. Some viewpoints are not terribly measured – both the pro and cons camp often come across as wildly hysterical on the subject of carbon offsetting (it seems to be a hot topic for debate). Comparisons to the Catholic Church’s antiquated system of paying for absolution of sins abound…
George Monbiot and most of the others I’ve read so far seem to agree that Carbon Offsetting, while sometimes well-intentioned, is not a very sensible long-term solution for a wide range of reasons:
“We fool ourselves if we think that we are making a like-for-like swap when seeking to offset our emissions. What we are actually doing with offset schemes, such as tree planting, is confusing biological carbon for mineral carbon”.
“You shouldn’t “kid yourself” that carbon offsetting can somehow lead you towards a status of carbon neutrality. It patently can’t. But that shouldn’t disguise the fact that many of the projects that carbon offsetters support are in of themselves “good” projects worthy of our support.”
And this rather impassioned and hysterical one struck a chord with me (especially in terms of the middle-class, NGO hand-wringing angst, which is pretty much where I’m coming from!):
“Offsets are rubbish because they don’t work in a technical sense, as treating a person’s CO2 emissions/offset so-called balancing act as a discrete closed loop ignores what’s going on elsewhere with the entire carbon/anthropogenic emissions cycle – this is why we try and work towards binding global reductions overall. Offsets are NOT helping here – there is no guaranteed net reduction. Gold-standard schemes etc are all examples of middle-class NGO hand-wringing pro-business angst – yes WWF, I mean YOU!!! Asking someone – inevitably in the developing world for reasons of cheapness! – to take on your carbon reduction is morally and ethically indefensible. If you asked an African to give up smoking on your behalf and you carried on how does that improve your health? What if they’ve never smoked in the first place? They prevent behaviour change – keep on flying, everything’s fine!”
There are certainly some interesting debates, and I have purchased a book or two to try and understand more about what I can pro-actively do to help the planet, but it seems to be a fairly complex debate with no clear answers. In some cases, carbon-offsetting and sale schemes seem to have been a fad that hasn’t worked.
“By selling us a clean conscience, the offset companies are undermining the necessary political battle to tackle climate change at home. They are telling us we don’t need to be citizens; we need only to be better consumers.”
How it works (as I understand it) is that companies and manufacturers are allocated a certain number of carbon permits, and if they don’t use them all (by reducing their emissions) they can sell them on to other companies that are more polluting and don’t have enough permits. Meaning that the buying and selling of carbon permits as an asset might make them more valuable as a commodity but doesn’t actually stop a company from polluting – they just have to pay more to buy more permits.
My new book, The Rough Guide to Green Living, seems to agree that while the original economic principles behind offsetting and carbon permits as a marketable asset were sound, the caps and allowances weren’t strict enough, meaning that they are not valuable enough commodities to be worth anything for trading purposes.
Interestingly the book’s publishers donate a portion of it’s sales to Sandbag.org, in order to offset the carbon cost of producing the book itself. Sandbag allows you to purchase carbon permits and destroy them, effectively taking them out of circulation altogether. However a brief look at Sandbag’s website indicates that this service is no longer available as the market for carbon permits has bottomed out with more than 3 billion surplus permits kicking around now. (And also proving that my books are a good 10 years out of date and I’m not sure where to go next for useful (and current) information!).
And so then let’s look at planting more trees as a way to absorb carbon (if we assume that biological carbon and mineral carbon are the same and one can in fact absorb the other)….
Tree-planting – at what cost?
A few years ago, an NGO I worked for did some research in to “Land Grabs” – it’s where big corporations buy up huge tracts of land for production or what have you. For example, the New Forest Company, which is a major producer behind several brands of toilet paper and other paper products in the UK.
Have you ever seen the slogan “We plant three trees for every one we cut down”? Yeah, that kind of thing. I mean, if you actually stop and think about it properly – if all these companies planted one tree for every one they cut down, the entire rainforest would be re-planted. Hooray! But to triple that requires a huge amount of land and space – that these companies need to procure.
Now, even if they are planting trees, which is good for the planet, they are planting them with the sole purpose of cutting them down again to make more paper, which is a little spurious to me. It’s worth pointing out that very few of these companies are re-planting the trees in the actual rainforest where they were originally cut down, and many of them are not planting the same type of tree as has been lost, which may also affect the balance of carbon absorption (I don’t know for sure, I’m merely assuming that not all trees are alike…).
In one case study the NGO found that this forestry company had bought massive tracts of land in Uganda, directly from the Government. The Government agreed to clear this land on behalf of the company – but what does that actually mean? It means poor and vulnerable people who have been farming that land for generations, but have no legal claims to the land are suddenly homeless (Trees 1, People 0). It means the brute squad shows up in your village, gives you an hour to pack your belongings and leave before they burn your house down. In one case, the NGO spoke to a women who had a sick 2-year old daughter. She had left her daughter at home in bed while she went into the forest to pick leaves for medicine, and when she returned, her house was on fire, with her daughter still inside.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this story was selected by the NGO deliberately to shock and motivate people to action. It’s an extreme case. But it worked. Ever since reading that story in 2011, I have tried to only buy 100% recycled toilet paper, because I cannot bear the thought that a toddler was burned alive for the sake of something I wipe my arse with, however “sustainable” it claims to be. However recycled paper is doused in bleach and chemicals to make it white again, and is often hard to find in my local supermarkets.
I have recently discovered my local Oxfam shop has started selling bamboo toilet paper, by a brand called the Cheeky Panda (also available via Amazon) – bamboo is extremely fast-growing and therefore far more sustainable, and solves my problem nicely – so I shall try and buy either recycled or bamboo toilet paper from now on.
What about energy?
I recently had an interesting discussion with someone about the increasing likelihood of a switch to electric cars, which not only have a carbon footprint in the manufacturing process, but which is likely to lead to massively increased electricity usage, which governments need to plan ahead for and be able to manage. In Australia while I was there over Christmas, they had recently re-opened a coal-burning power plant to keep up with electricity demands… (this was not connected to electric cars, but as I say, there are often more sides to the debate than just “we should all buy electric cars” – if the electricity to fuel the car comes from coal-burning power stations, doesn’t that almost completely cancel out the carbon cuts?).
According to my new book/carbon bible, electric cars are still better than the alternative, however it also argues that driving up the demand for new cars to be manufactured could still be a problem, and that keeping and maintaining an older car (preferably with a smaller engine), to remove a potential new car from the production line, could also be a green option. (I’m paraphrasing a complex argument rather badly here, but the book outlines some interesting pros and cons).
I also discovered that I can switch my energy company to one that sources 100% of my electricity from renewable, carbon-friendly sources, which I think is worth doing even if it costs me a little more for my monthly bills. A quick google search revealed that Bulb is a good, viable option, my bills will cost the same, (actually slightly less now that I have switched), but do a bit more for the planet. If anyone wants to switch too, let me know in the comments and we can both get £50 credit too!
Plastic Living and Buying Local
I have friends who have become increasingly eco-conscious who have inspired me to think differently as a consumer. One friend for example loves sparkling water, but hates all of the plastic it generates so she bought a soda stream to try and reduce her plastic footprint and make her own bubbly water (Bravo! and we’ll leave the whole Soda Stream/Gaza Strip ethical debate for another time). Said friend also switched to bamboo toothbrushes after discovering how long it takes for a standard toothbrush to decompose in the ocean, and several other friends are taking more and more proactive steps to reduce their plastic, recycle more, and change their habits. Even the 9-year old daughter of a friend of mine has started making videos about how to live plastic-free!
Inspired by them, I have decided to try and do more personally – not just paying people to plant trees, but to make different consumer choices as an individual.
However it’s not as simple as it seems – according to my new eco-bible, buying things in glass or paper packaging can have a much higher C02 emission than plastic as it is heavier to transport, which therefore contributes to more fossil fuels being burnt in transit.
For example, my diet this year is going well, and I’ve lost a few kilograms so far (yay!), in part by having yoghurt and berries every morning. But today it occurred to me that it’s February, and my out-of-season berries are flown in from Chile and South Africa, leaving a massive carbon footprint.
So perhaps I need to try harder to buy locally-produced, in-season produce more often. Why not have local apples and yoghurt in winter, and berries in summer when they are in season and local?
(Except of course I went to the supermarket and discovered ALL of the fruit I like is imported, as it’s winter and very few fruits are naturally occurring in winter in the UK… But I decided to buy berries from Spain instead of Chile – it’s not much, but it’s a start.)
This in itself has always caused me a twinge of concern – why should my money go to local British farmers rather than poor Ugandan or Chilean farmers? Will changing my consumer behaviour leave the most poor and vulnerable behind? (Then again, British farmers are hardly wealthy and also need support). People vs Planet has always been a hard one for me (as someone who’s career is built around supporting poor and vulnerable people around the world, this is not as easy a decision as it might look). I realise that without the planet, there can be no people, but I also don’t want my consumer actions to drive more poor and vulnerable people into poverty. Which is another goal – buy more fairtrade products!
So what else can I do? I have read my handy guide books and realised that inadvertently I am doing a lot already. I live in a new-build house, which is extremely well insulated, all my lightbulbs are already eco/low energy bulbs, and my new boiler and smart thermostat are already on the most eco-friendly heating settings they could be on. I also recently got a new fridge and washing machine, new hob and oven, so they are all about as eco-friendly as they can be. (Caveat – it turns out gas hobs are much more carbon-friendly than electric, but I couldn’t afford the expense of getting mine replaced, so electric hob it is…)
I always turn lights off in rooms I’m not using out of habit, and I already either steam or microwave most of my vegetables when cooking as it’s quicker and more convenient than boiling (and tastes better if you ask me). The only thing I struggle with is boiling water for tea – my kettle requires a min of 0.5 litres and the gauge makes it hard to only boil one cup at a time. Even if I could only boil 1 cup, you always end up with the limescale in the dregs at the bottom which makes tea taste awful. Switching to a hob kettle is a better option if you have a gas hob, but sadly I don’t. Though I will try to do better at boiling only what I need, that one won’t be easy. I already barely eat red meat – often I eat vegetarian by default, sometimes chicken but I’ve never eaten a lot of red meat, and probably less than once a week. I will try to track this a bit more regularly from now on to see if I can reduce this further. (But what about cheese and dairy products?). Beef is increasingly being recognised as a major contributing factor – did you know that the C02 emissions from 1 kg of beef is equivalent to driving 200 miles in a car, according to some estimates?
My book has also busted a few myths (LOADS of people told me I should get a dishwasher, which seems counter-intuitive but apparently uses less energy and water than washing up by hand – however it turns out this is only true if your dishwasher is completely full every time you use it, and is stacked in the most efficient way possible – in other words, makes sense for large families but someone like me living alone is unlikely to use more energy washing up by hand). Also I HATE that there is a “right” way to stack a dishwasher. That annoys me a surprising amount.
So it’s great news that I’m already trying to offset what I can at home, but there’s not a lot there to change there based on the books I am reading. So changing my consumer habits it is – I realise that one person changing their habits is not going to change the world, but as they say, if enough people do it, who knows?
So here are some carbon and plastic-reducing goals I have come up with for myself – I may well add to these as I start to discover what else I should be doing!
Carbon & Plastic Goal 1: Try to purchase more local fruit and in-season vegetables, and be conscious where they are imported from.
Carbon & Plastic Goal 2: Try to only buy loose fruit and vegetables that are not wrapped in plastic.
Carbon & Plastic Goal 3: When Polly my beloved Polo dies, try to buy an electric or hybrid car next (if I can afford it), or one with a much smaller engine. Or consider converting my car to LPG fuel?
Carbon & Plastic Goal 4: Make more effort to remember my reusable bags every time I go shopping
Carbon & Plastic Goal 5: Check all lightbulbs in the house are energy-efficient, and that heating settings are as eco-friendly as possible.
Carbon & Plastic Goal 6: Buy all my toilet paper either as 100% recycled or bamboo alternatives
Carbon & Plastic Goal 7: Go to the Fairtrade shop in Headington to refill my Ecover laundry detergent and fabric softener bottles instead of buying new ones. Ditto refill washing up liquid bottles once the current ones run out. (I have already tried this and am very happy I can get all these bottles refilled instead of buying new ones all the time – one of the only really TANGIBLE reductions in plastic usage in my life so far!).
Carbon & Plastic Goal 8: Switch to an energy company where 100% of my electricity will come from renewable sources – done this already and it’s cheaper than my old energy supplier!
Carbon & Plastic Goal 9: Drive less often, only when necessary – try to walk or cycle as much as possible.
Carbon & Plastic Goal 10: Aim to eat less red meat – track and keep a diary of how often I am eating red meat, and aim to reduce this to 2-3 times a month.
Carbon & Plastic Goal 11: Buy more fairtrade products where possible.
Carbon & Plastic Goal 12: When I have my kid, I will try within reason to use reusable nappies and baby wipes and keep disposable ones to a minimum (obviously I won’t be able to manage this all of the time, but I can at least try as much as possible).
I would love to hear from you all if there is more I could/should be doing to further reduce my carbon footprint – do let me know!
Also I wonder if some of my goals will cancel each other out – for example, will buying loose, unwrapped carrots mean they are more likely to have come from Brazil instead of Suffolk? Would that mean I should choose plastic over carbon? Something to learn more about I suspect.
I am also realising as I read through this the immense class element to all of this – I have been conscious of fairtrade things, and alternative energy companies for a while now, but for years I had barely any money and needed to buy the cheapest things possible, which tend to be more exploitative. It’s only when one becomes middle-class enough, and has enough disposable income that one can afford to buy more expensive items which may be fairer to the producers, or non-plastic alternatives. I am aware that there are a huge number of people out there who care deeply about the planet but can’t afford to do much about it – I know because I used to be one of them. My colleagues and I used to lament people shopping in Primark, as it exploits poor factory workers in Bangladesh, but at the same time an NGO income often means you can’t afford sustainable cotton clothing and need to buy a £4 t-shirt sometimes. It’s a difficult balance and one that not everyone can afford to engage in. However it’s clear from my books that the problem has to be addressed at a global, international level, with stricter emissions goals and cuts, and tighter restrictions for polluters.
As a final plug, although it’s 10 years old, The Rough Guide to Green Living is a fascinating book, full of interesting facts, useful tips and has busted quite a few green myths I had believed in – I highly recommend it!