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Climate Change: What on Earth can we do?

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Wildfire in Llançà Spain July 2021 – Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy to despair when climate news is so bad. Unimaginable heat and wildfires in Oregon, Canada and southern Europe; devastating flooding in Europe and Asia; the Amazon, the Earth’s green lung, officially a net contributor to CO2 levels; warning signs of gulf stream collapse. And perhaps the most chilling news is that climate scientists are shocked because all of this was predicted to happen, but not this soon.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published this week confirms with alarming certainty that we humans are responsible for unprecedented warming of the planet and more frequent and severe climate extremes.

Climate change, largely caused by fossil fuels, is a profoundly serious threat to the interdependent systems of our finely tuned biosphere, and therefore to civilisation itself. Yet there is talk of opening a new oilfield west of Shetland. You really couldn’t make it up.

Climate change: what can we do as individuals?

Well, probably the first thing is to engage with our MPs by email, letter and telephone. Give them no choice but to act. Press them to make serious commitments at COP26 in Glasgow in November to reducing carbon emissions, to give meaningful support for insulation and renewable energy, to prioritise walking and cycling, to improve public transport, and to introduce ‘Passivhaus’ standards for new builds, a frequent flyer levy and compulsory labelling for air-freighted food. If you can, move any investments you have away from fossil fuel companies.

But given how swiftly this catastrophe is unfolding, what practical steps can we take? Realistically we need to do everything we can, but three areas of daily life merit particular consideration, because of their very significant emissions:

  • Transport
  • Space heating and power
  • Food and drink

Indeed, to meet the UK commitment to a 78% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2008 levels by 2035 (in effect a 60 % reduction on current levels), the government must cut meat and dairy consumption by at least 10 %, ensure a significant fall in driving and flying and, within the next five years, needs to be installing half a million heat pumps annually (as reported by The Conversation in April this year).

According to Statista (March 2021), UK per capita emissions in 2019 were 5.45 tonnes. For comparison, Canada, the US, Australia and Saudi Arabia were all over 15 and China 8.12, whereas Niger and Ethiopia around 0.10.  We need to get to 2.3 tonnes per capita globally, so the UK faces quite a challenge.

Transport and climate change

According to Sustrans (June 2020), transport accounts for 28% of all UK emissions, half of which is from cars, so cutting out unnecessary driving would result in huge savings. Journeys in urban areas are often faster by bike (easy by e-bike) and even sometimes on foot. Long distances are covered in a much more civilised and relaxing way by train. For urban deliveries cargo bikes are faster than vans, and result in less polluted air.

City bikes in Malmo Sweden – Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tax, insurance and maintenance for a year cost around £1,000 for an average car, even without fuel. Some people just have to use their own car, but unless it is a daily essential, big savings can be made by joining a car club. This means a car is available for the occasional essential journey, but non-essential driving falls dramatically. Annual savings of £3,500 are estimated for low mileage drivers (6,000 to 8,000 miles per year). Far from regretting this step, people seem to experience it as a liberation, as well as feeling more affluent.

Researchers at Lund University estimated in 2017 that going car free is the most effective action an individual can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, saving about 2.5 tonnes annually. More human interaction and fitness and less stress are bonuses.

Electric Car Charging in Amsterdam – Source: Wikimedia Commons

What about electric cars?

Electric cars do help to lower emissions, but there are still several problems:

  • Particulate pollution from tyres and braking systems contributing to asthma and heart problems
  • Time wasting traffic congestion, road deaths and maiming
  • Energy costs of car manufacture
  • Road construction and maintenance

Also the child labour used to obtain lithium and cobalt is unacceptable.

Being electric doesn’t avoid the fact that the air inside a car is more polluted than outside. See this Guardian report from 2017. Cars are an inefficient and damaging way of moving people around, unfit for the twenty first century.

Flying and cruising

Flying and cruising are also contenders for an individual’s biggest avoidable contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Per passenger a flight in standard class from London to Madrid produces around six times the greenhouse gases of the same journey by train. According to the BBC in February 2020, a return flight to San Francisco produces about 5.5 tonnes of CO2. Short domestic flights are proportionately worse because take-off is a large part of the fuel use.

Airbus A320-212 – Source: Wikimedia Commons

UK travel emissions are estimated to be 41g/km for rail, 171g/km for driving a car (no passenger) and 254g/km for a domestic flight. Surprisingly, travellers in business and first class triple the impact because of the extra space they take up. Perhaps counter-intuitively, sea cruising is estimated to produce even more emissions than flying. On a plane nearly all the emission come from the flying but on a cruise you are effectively living in a floating luxury hotel, complete with pools, theatres, gyms, cinemas, restaurants and bars, all of which take up space and generate their own emissions.

Cruise Liner – Source: Wikimedia Commons

Much business travel, as we now know, can be replaced by Zoom meetings. As for holidays, with a kaleidoscope of cultures, cuisines, climates, landscapes and languages across the Channel, all accessible by train and perhaps a ferry or two, it is no hardship to cut right down on flying. The forward-looking EU is busy bringing back former overnight rail services and establishing new ones, as well as planning new international high speed links. Instead of the indignities and tedium of air travel you can watch the endlessly changing scenery and enjoy stopping off at world famous cities on the way.

Climate change, space heating and power

Domestically, within the next few years we will need to replace gas boilers with heat pumps. At present, heat pump installation is too expensive for many to contemplate. Presumably as manufacture gets up to speed prices will fall but some support, perhaps a long term loan, is likely to be necessary.

What we can do now is make sure our homes are ready by being really well insulated and draught-proofed. This results in savings on bills and an increased level of comfort immediately and, because radiators fed by heat pumps are warm rather than hot, is an essential preparatory step. By installing solar water heating, photovoltaic panels or LED lights we can save gas and electricity.

Climate change and food and drink

Food choices make a big difference to an individual’s carbon footprint. Beef’s footprint is huge (when methane emissions are included) at 100kg carbon per kilogram of beef. Chocolate (34kg) and coffee (29kg) are, surprisingly, higher than cheese (24kg). Cheese, being a product of ruminants, has double the emissions of pork (12kg) and more than double those of chicken (10kg). Lower still are eggs (5kg), rice (4.5kg) and tofu (3kg). Most plant foods are less than 3kg. All amounts are per kilogram of product. These figures come from an Our World in Data report of March 2020.

Annual emissions from different diets are reckoned to be: vegan 1.5 tons, vegetarian 1.7, meat eater (no beef) 1.9, average meat eater 2.5 and frequent beef eater 3.5. So an average meat eater could save 1 ton by going vegan for a year and someone who already avoids beef could save 0.4. An American study concluded that halving all animal protein consumption gives comparable savings to adopting a vegetarian diet where cheese consumption is increased.

Shockingly about a third of food produced globally is wasted, accounting for 8 to 10% of total greenhouse gases.

Transport of food on the other hand is a surprisingly small part of total emissions for food, except where food is air-freighted. One kilogram of asparagus flown in from Peru is equivalent to one kilogram of home-produced pork. Air freight causes about fifty times the emissions of the same item carried by cargo ship. In the absence of air freight labelling, we can avoid out of season fresh foods, such as berries or green beans. This is from another Our World in Data report of January 2020.

One drink is worth mentioning in this context – water. In a country where we have clean water on tap, it is difficult to find any justification for bottled water. According to a recent Guardian article, manufacture, transport and disposal of bottles mean it has between 300 and 1,000 times the environmental footprint of tap water.

This is crunch time.

We really have left it to the very last moment to attempt to limit climate change. We are feeling the devastating and tragic effects already. We need politicians and big business to act decisively and immediately, but we shouldn’t underestimate the difference millions of concerned individuals can make. For the sake of this exquisitely intricate and beautiful planet, and a future for today’s children, surely we must try.


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