Saturday, January 25, 2020


 What is the single biggest thing an individual can do to reduce their carbon footprint?

An ECI colleague was recently asked to give a short overview of renewable energy and climate change issues to school sixth form students. They presented in advance a dozen quite interesting and difficult questions, to which a number of colleagues contributed suggested answers. It was a smart set of questions and the answers may be of interest to a lot of adults too. So in my next few postings I intend to summarise some of our collective wisdom. This is the first of those questions.

The English writer Sydney Smith: “It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little. Do something.”

Al Gore: “Use your voice, use your vote, use your choice.”

The above quotes raise some profound questions to which I hope to return, but let’s start with the simple question of personal carbon footprint. The answer may be very different for different people, as no two people start from the same position, have the same tastes or have the same opportunities. For example if you are a vegetarian, cutting down on meat is no longer an opportunity for you to make further reductions. And if you always go on local cycling holidays, there is no point suggesting you cut down on your flights. Similarly your daily transport choices will depend on where you live. So the right answer is to work out what is best for you, consider the biggest impacts of your own lifestyle, and prioritise what things you want to change. The most significant personal reductions are likely to come from food, travel choices, home energy use (especially heating); and consumer products, so I'm going to make several different suggestions. None of these incidentally are intended to make your life a misery or imply return to some pre-industrial fantasy world. Nor do most of them require expensive investments. But they are intended to be about a more clever use of resources.

Eating less meat is potentially one of the biggest ways to reduce our carbon footprint. The calculations suggest that beef has a higher footprint than pork, which is higher than chicken. Of course reducing food waste and excessive packaging is helpful too.

If you are already vegetarian and fly a lot for holidays, then fewer long-haul flights will mean a pretty large reduction in your carbon footprint. Driving, especially when with passengers, is a lot better than flying, if you have the time and inclination. Taking the train is better still. If you are using a petrol or diesel car, we can note that the biggest sources of excess fuel use are generally taken to be speed and congestion.

If we turn to other everyday activities then there a lot of small savings that people can make. But it’s worth bearing in mind that one of the biggest consumptions of energy in the home is for heating. Turning your domestic heating down by one degree C, if you can do so without discomfort, has been estimated to reduce consumption by up to 10%. Not heating the house when you are not at home will help too. And if your house still has an old-fashioned gas boiler then you should convert to a condensing boiler as soon as possible. It can cut your bills and your carbon footprint for heating by up to a third. Last but not least, there may be some major savings to be achieved by reducing the heat loss in your home, draught-stripping of windows and home insulation (if you have’nt already applied these measures).

Of the other substantial energy uses in the home the next most important are in the kitchen – cooking and refrigeration. Obviously there are small easy changes you can make which will reduce consumption, like making sure your refrigerator is not set too cold, or not over-filling your kettle. But when you come to change your appliances, pay attention to their energy efficiency ratings.

Still in the home, another simple but substantial energy saving is switching to LED lightbulbs. The energy saving compared to old -fashioned incandescent bulbs is over 80%. Again it is a simple step which both saves money and reduces your carbon footprint.

Finally there is the indirect impact of the energy and carbon emissions associated with the various consumer goods we buy. If we all reduced our consumption of manufactured goods, but especially those that have a high carbon content, then that would certainly be an important impact. This is a much more complex and contentious subject and I hope to address this and related issues in later postings. It is not always easy to tell which are the worst industries in causing emissions, but one recent report by the World Bank has claimed that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global emissions, more than aviation and shipping combined.

You should expect to see more public discussion on this in the future.


However the next question will be: Do individual actions have an impact or do they just help us feel good?

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