A few months ago I sat down with a member of my family and did the WWF’s (no, not that WWF) online carbon footprint test.
It’s quick, it’s reasonably sensible, and it comes with decent advice and an explanation of how your footprint is calculated.
I scored better than I’d expected – my carbon footprint clocked in at a bit less than the 2020 goals – 8.5 tonnes of carbon per annum compared to the 10 tonnes we need to get to for disaster to be averted – but it’s still higher than the global average, which is not a huge surprise given where I live.
For a more detailed look at the whole schebang around that, I give you the gift that is Kurzgesagt:
And as we’re here, for your mates who may be a bit like, “yeah, climate change whatever” I offer you as always the beauty that is Information Is Beautiful:
There’s a huge amount of conversation around climate change and What We Can Do, and I figured, since I harp on about the politics so much, I may as well also be a scribbler and talk about the personal too. This isn’t just ‘cos a story is better than a stat – it’s also ‘cos one of the big arguments against taking action is that to genuinely make a difference, we’re gonna have to lead dystopian lives eating ashes and spite.
This argument is nonsense.
Together we can make a safe and beautiful world, in which we still watch Queer Eye while eating cake. And I love cake.
With this in mind, I figured I’d air my pants in public, and talk about how my carbon footprint breaks down.
First, though, some caveats:
71% of all global emissions come from 100 companies. Here they are!
So you and I buying bamboo toothbrushes, while great, aren’t ever gonna be as awesome as you and I voting for an actual climate policy. Voting to hold corporations to account. Voting for a green new deal. Signing petitions, getting involved in community action – whatever it takes to stop billion-pound industries and the tiny minority of ultra-wealthy who own them, profiting from screwing up the world. If you do one thing, please vote. It makes a world of difference and you have the genuine power to change things. You are the awesome-sauce.
The other major caveat is this: as I go through my carbon footprint and how it’s worked out, be aware that this is the footprint of a woman with several serious perks in life. The first is that I’m not currently skint, although who knows how the economy is gonna plan out? While aspects of getting eco-friendly are significantly cheaper than our current batshit consumerism (see: eating less meat, fixing instead of binning, recycling, shopping thrift etc.), there is a huge ‘lifestyle’ industry of people trying to sell you more ‘eco-friendly’ stuff no one needs, for twice the price. This sucks.
The most valuable thing money buys is time. If that means more time shopping around for eco-friendly buys or hanging down your local second-hand store to find the perfect pair of jeans, that’s a genuine drain on resources. So if you are that person holding down a tough job during a recession while trying to look after three screaming kids, and you’ve got your eco-conscious buddy shaming you for not living off lentils from a mason jar served on a bed of kale they grew themselves, then your buddy is a jackass. This is not a blog telling you that you’ve failed, ‘cos that is bullshit. You’ve got real life, and you are bossing it. All your buddy has got are flipping chickpeas and an attitude problem. This post is not some manifesto – it’s just my life, in all its messy pros and cons. What that means to you, if anything, is your business and no one else’s – life is tough, and did I mention that wherever you are, whatever’s going down, you are the awesome-sauce? Dude: you are the condiment of dreams.
The final thing I’ve got going for me is I live in the inner city. I don’t have to drive to my local supermarket; local transport is good, and frankly, I can walk most places I need to get to, including for the work I do.
All that said, let’s be clear: it is possible to live in a future where our carbon footprint is reduced and be happy, comfy and full of so much cake. Caaaakkkkeeee….
And so read on!
So WWF breaks down your carbon footprint into four areas – Stuff, Home, Food and Travel. Each component contributes a certain percentage to your footprint – so for example, if you fly everywhere but have a vegan diet, you might still have high emissions courtesy of lots of planes and so on. I break down pretty evenly, but given that so much of sustainability is painted as choosing a life of ashes and sackcloth, I intend to rate how difficult each aspect has been on the Mad Max Scale, where 1/10 is ‘it’s all fine and dandy, there’s clean water and lush greenery and some funky drumming’ and 10/10 is ‘not the wheel of fate nooooooo!’.
For anyone who hasn’t seen the Mad Max films – especially Thunderdome and Fury Road – stop reading this now, go watch them, then come back comforted in the fact that it doesn’t matter that there will be minor, teensy spoilers ahead.
I did – famously – buy a new computer this year. I say famously, because I ended up replacing the screen I’d had since 2001, and also cleaning out the keyboard I’ve had since 2008, after twitter informed me that it was a fetid swamp of biscuit crumbs and semi-sentient grey fur. This was the only big, new purchase I’ve made for… oooh… a long time.
My old computer, by the time it died after twelve years of staunch service, was not unlike the King of Uberwald’s axe. (Again, if this is a reference that leaves you puzzling, stop reading this now, go read all the Watch books by Terry Pratchett, but especially the Fifth Elephant, then come back knowing that there wasn’t really a spoiler, but full of literary delights none-the-less.) If you have replaced, over twelve years, the GPU, the HDD, the cooling fan, the RAM and the DVD reader, is it in fact still the same computer? I suppose the PSU and the motherboard were the same. They were the plucky components that could.
I rarely buy new clothes, mostly because I don’t know how to dress myself. Increasingly when I do, it is via Oxfam. However that takes time and effort, so even though it’s cheaper than any alternative, I’m gonna call it a Mad Max 4/10 for being a bit of a pain in the bum. If I understood fashion, it would probably be a 7/10, but then there does seem to be this magic tipping point where you suddenly understand clothes so well that you can basically walk into a charity shop in a bin bag and emerge looking like Helen of Troy, so maybe that knocks it back down to a fun 2/10 and a nice day out thrift shopping? I guess it depends on your mad fashion skills.
Toiletries and cosmetics. Again, I don’t really understand much about either, but a few minutes googling ‘who does environmentally friendly products’ sent me mainly to Body Shop and Lush. They both make big beef out of being sustainable, and for actually paying both its taxes and its staff properly, Lush continually does well in the rankings. It is also ridiculously expensive. Body Shop is mildly less expensive, but still, more than I’d usually pay. There is also a lot of nonsense surrounding eco-friendliness in toiletries. I’m happy if something isn’t full of plastic micro-beads or killing fish, but spend more than two minutes looking this stuff up and you waddle into debates over whether something is vegan, organic, non-organic, tested on bunnies or made from nut butter farmed by warlords. Frankly, I don’t really have the time, so tend to stick with Body Shop or Faith In Nature – the latter of which has the perks of doing bulk buys and thus reducing packaging – on the basis it’s probably less bad than other things, and not too horrifically expensive overall. On the Mad Max Scale, I’d say this is a 5/10 just for being a flipping minefield of lifestyle gurus and argan oil, when all you wanted was some soap.
I aim to eat meat once a week, tops. And I love sausages. Going more veggie has been… tough. I’ve basically had to learn how to cook from scratch again, and how to overcome my inherent suspicion of… well, basically all vegetables after a youth of Things Boiled At School. However I am aware that the perks of veg are numerous. It’s better for me, sigh, it’s cheaper, sigh, and it’s hugely better for the environment than meat production. For these reasons more than anything, I’m gonna rate Doing More Veg as a 4/10 on the Mad Max scale.
If I actually went full vegan, that’d probably be a good 9/10 to pull off, because ice cream! Ice cream…. but to be honest, meat once a week and some fish occasionally seems well within guidelines for what it takes to have a healthy life and not screw up the planet. Not least as, though we need to move away from meat generally in our agriculture, it turns out that growing avocadoes is basically a mafia-run, water-guzzling racket of torment and despair, and I still, to this day, don’t know what a chia seed is. Still probably better for the planet than a diet of pure beef, but damn. And don’t get me started on quinoa.
Again, a bit like toiletries, it feels like faddishness lurks just behind the broccoli.
Shopping locally is also a big part of the food carbon footprint. I am generally paying more attention to a) the air miles on a product and b) whether it’s in season. In this regard I’m massively aided by having a random cupboard nook in the flat that is exactly the wrong size to be useful for anything except the storing of bulk-purchased oats grown by a dude in Cheshire. However the fact remains that it’s not always easy to plan ahead for a week of local foods, let alone find them all, and I do love me some squishy fruit, so I don’t do well at this at all. It’s a skill I’m slowly learning, but for now, I’m gonna rate this a personal 7/10.
As a footnote to that, though there is a local farmer’s market on the weekend, damn it’s pricey (but nice) and the nearest store that offers 100% plastic-free purchases is a good hour away on foot, which is how I mostly travel especially during times of plague. Equally there are more food co-operatives springing up in the area, but they are few and far between, so going fully sustainable is probably still a 7/10. Thankfully lots of shops in the local area have started doing food with less packaging – including bigger shops like the local Co-op – so the basic exhortation of Tim Minchin to bring your canvas bags to the supermarket and, incidentally, reduce your plastic consumption, is an easy 1/10. Which is roughly the equivalent of a man playing a flaming electric guitar to the background of this blog post.
I was feeling pretty good about the home thing. I am on a 100% green energy tariff via Good Energy, and that does undoubtably give me a sense of smugness. When I signed up it was actually slightly cheaper than my previous energy supplier, partly because the previous supplier were shitters, but mostly because the UK government hadn’t decided that renewable energy was basically poison. How are the Tories angling to demonstrate their Green credentials, I hear you cry? Surely not by cutting 2,500 jobs from the environment agency since 2010? By refusing to even participate in climate debates? Or by letting coal and oil pay a 5% VAT tax (while still heavily subsidising the industry) and hiking the VAT on domestic solar battery systems to 20%? Which they did in October 2019, while blaming the EU for forcing their hand. Because there is nothing like hiking tax on renewable energy in the middle of passing the EU withdrawal bill while blaming Europe.
Anyhow… ignoring for a moment my rage at the blithe hypocrisy of our leaders, switching to a green supplier is easier than ever, and cheaper than ever, and so honestly, I’m still gonna call it a 1/10, and go bury my wrath elsewhere. And with renewable getting cheaper all the time, economics also suggests that the more of us switch, the easier it’ll be to win this argument.
What about the rest? Yes, I have LED lightbulbs mostly because, in my professional opinion, they’re finally great. There was a definite ten-year period where energy efficient bulbs were a sickly green and took twenty minutes to emit any actual light, but that is past. LED bulbs are also getting cheaper by the minute, knocking what could have been a 4/10 for cost and pallid hue down to a 1/10. Long live LED!
I live in a block of flats so don’t have any control over my insulation etc., but I keep things cold in the winter and just wear lots of jumpers on the basis that I’m easier – and cheaper – to heat than the entire flat I’m in. This would be a 1/10 except I have Reynauds, which means my fingers are blue much of the year. Sigh. 3/10.
I recycle basically everything, including fabric and small electricals. Because frankly, it’s easy. Thank you local council recycling services. 1/10.
And I do turn off appliances at the wall or not leave things on standby, mostly because of that time in GCSE Physics when, to explain the concept of Watt Hours, my teacher made us calculate the cost of leaving the TV on standby per year. It clocked in at around £48, which, on £2 pocket money a week, blew my tiny mind.
So yes… again, on the Mad Max scale, we’re probably only at a 2/10 tops. Which isn’t quite a flaming electric guitar, but might be like finding a nice oasis in the desert after someone tied you backwards on a donkey and stuck a plastic pigs head on you. Ah Mad Max.
My travel footprint clocked in at 28% of my overall output. To achieve this, I said I take trains for around 2 hours a week, and have done one medium-haul flight in the last twelve months.
I actually take trains for significantly less than 2 hours a week, but I figured given when I do it’s for long journeys, I’d hedge my bets. Let’s face it, the real villain here is the plane. Which sucks, because air travel is convenient and the world is awesome.
So I’m gonna say right away that 1) even with one medium-haul airline flight my general lifestyle is still clocking in at less than my maximum carbon allowance and 2) moving away from airlines is gonna be an immediate 7/10 for me, not least as most of my air travel recently has been for work. A bit like busting out the evil warlord’s enslaved wives in the back of an oil tanker, it’s do-able, but takes some planning.
(Again, Information Is Beautiful has done a lovely look at precisely what emits what and how much, which I share for joy:)
The longest flight I’ve ever taken was to Japan and back. Realistically I can’t see any other way of getting to Japan or even the USA except by long-haul flights, as neither I nor my loved ones are likely to get the extra two weeks holiday required to just get there. That said, there are people who’ve done it, and they’re awesome. Practically, that’s not me. So I’m gonna leave flying long, long distances on the table as something that I just don’t think I’m giving up yet. And that doesn’t even begin to cover the food-miles mentioned beforehand.
There are things I can do – I’m a big fan of introducing a frequent flyer carbon tax, which the Greens are also all for, which make those who fly the most pay more for the journeys they take, thus limiting the danger of travel becoming only a rich-man’s game. I’m also a big fan of carbon offsetting, although currently the airlines seem more talk than actually doing it. However realistically I accept that much of the ease of air travel that we’ve grown used to in the last twenty years, kinda needs to go.
Thankfully in Europe, it’s now easier than ever to take the train. When I was growing up, this was the only way my family knew to get around. We’d pootle down to Dover, get the ferry, catch the train at Calais and off you go! It wasn’t particularly comfortable or fast, but it was one hell of an adventure.
The advent of the Channel Tunnel and the steady growth of the European rail network now makes this even easier. I’ve taken the train from London to Berlin, Vienna, Rome, Bologna, Avignon, Montpellier, Brussels, Amsterdam and of course, Paris. And it’s just flipping awesome. It can also be cheaper than a plane, if you plan it properly, and over some distances faster given you don’t have to spend 2 hours at either end being sold perfume or waiting for lost luggage – but I’m gonna admit that this is a 5/10 on the Mad Max Scale, because if you don’t plan it properly and try to book last minute, it can cost a small fortune. The same is true in the UK, where the sleeper train to Cornwall appears to be £45 if you get the timing right, or £200 if you blinked. As with so many things, a certain amount of scheming is required, and that takes time.
So What Now?
A huge amount of the conversation around living sustainably seems to fall into two camps – either we’re all gonna have to live like monks in a bleak future of suffocation and despair – or eat nothing but quinoa until the day we die.
How I live is in no way a guide, nor is it meant to be. We must all find our own way, within the boundaries of Real Bloody Life and the things it throws at us. But I figure there’s no point talking about climate change without also talking about a human experience, and my experience… is pretty unremarkable. Eat less meat. Plan in advance to catch a train. Turn off the TV. Buy a bit less stuff, less
often, or shop second-hand. Switch energy supplier. Vote. Even living like this, as a UK citizen I have a far larger carbon footprint that most people in the world. To maintain this lifestyle we have to systemically choose to invest in technology and energy, hold corporations and governments to account, and have honest conversations about what we value both as a nation, and as a global society. These conversations are bigger than not eating sausages all the time – but they are also easier to have if we are not afraid of change. If we have a vision of the future that isn’t, for all its chic apocalypse glory, Mad Max. The fight against climate change is going to define the 21st century, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless. But it doesn’t have to feel impossible. A little bit, in the smallest ways, we can all of us make a difference. And when all of us do, everyone does; and we still get to watch Queer Eye in our pants, and eat cake.