This article was first published in Tribe, our digital magazine. It’s a better reading experience and doesn’t have ads. You can download it for free on iPhone and Android.
Honest to a fault, I can’t make it through the first line without holding my hands up to admit: ***spoiler alert*** you’re not going to completely erase your carbon footprint in just five steps.
Unless of course your untimely death eerily coincides with you reaching the end of this article.
That’s the bad news, sorry for click-baiting you.
Let’s jump very quickly to the good news: this isn’t one of those virtue-signaling lists of dos and don’ts designed to make you feel eternally guilty for all the times you have used a tumble dryer.
Rather than denouncing 21st-century living, let’s have an honest and open discussion that encourages us all to recognize tokenism and face up to what we actually can do to reduce our carbon footprint.
I’m not going to promise you will like — or even agree with — everything I have to say. But I think having the conversation is more important than listing a few tips and tricks which may appease our culpability but are ultimately too oversimplified to create the real cultural changes that need to take place.
Step 1: Stop trying to buy your way out of the problem and take an honest look at your own impact — ouch!
I’m going to get the most brutal step out of the way nice and early.
Please know that this isn’t said with a holier than thou tone. I am glaringly aware of my own half-assed attempts to make myself feel better about my carbon footprint.
I pat myself on the back for not eating meat and diligently rinsing out my soup cans for the recycling bin, only to conveniently mentally gloss over my frequent air travel.
As with all change in life, we need to be truly aware of the actual problem, rather than throwing a few good intentions at it whilst blissfully ignoring reality.
Take carbon offsetting for example.
You may decide to have a well-earned break in Miami. You work hard and for obvious reasons, sipping a cocktail on South Beach sounds a lot more compelling than a fortnight in a static caravan 60 miles down the road.
So you book your flight, stock up on sunscreen, and decide to pay to offset your carbon footprint for the flight — voilà — guilt-free vacationing for the morally superior.
We’ve become accustomed to being able to throw money at a problem, but when it comes to our own individual responsibility, do we really think it can be that simple?
A study from the European Commission found that three-quarters of offset projects were unlikely to have resulted in any fewer emissions.
Because technically speaking, for something to count as genuine offsetting, it must be in addition to what would have already happened — it needs to be extra.
The difficulty comes in deciding whether those emissions would have been offset anyway — and with pressure on governments to reduce the carbon footprint it’s likely they would.
Secondly, the offset project must be permanent. Planting a tree may seem like a cheap and easy solution, but trees can be destroyed: get cleared away, burn down, or be killed by pests. Then we’re back to square one.
At the risk of completely raining on your parade, on top of that, concepts like offsetting become dangerous when they give the illusion that we can cancel out the bad by making up for it with good.
It can mean that we are less likely to make changes in how we live if we feel like we don’t need to worry about how much we consume because we can always magic it away later.
Giving a damn enough to take any action is admirable, but if we really want to make significant changes in reducing our carbon footprint we have to begin by being brutally honest with ourselves.
We have to be prepared to ask: where am I going through the motions to make myself feel better?
What is the real truth about where my actions have the most impact?
Even if we ultimately choose not to change every negatively impactful habit, we still need to start by getting real.
Step 2: Consciously cut down on needless consuming
Consumerism is an unavoidable part of modern lives, but overconsumption is something we have individual control over.
Everything from the food that we throw out from the fridge at the end of the week, the bottle of water we buy rather than taking our own flask, to the new outfit to “cheer ourselves up” — there are 1001 decisions we make every year that have an impact.
In isolation, they don’t seem like a big deal, but I wonder how much excess you would find in your own life if you noted down for a month everything you bought that you didn’t actually need.
Consumerism is so challenging because it’s not really about “stuff”. It’s about how that stuff makes us feel. The societies most of us are born into having an invested interest in making you equate more stuff to greater happiness.
The reason the consumerism trap is so damn difficult to claw your way out of is because they’ve done such a good job at strengthening this association that consuming really does make us happier, albeit for a very short time.
We get a dopamine hit when that Amazon parcel arrives on the doorstep. We imagine that the new object of our desire will bring more to our life, that it will make us more in the process — which gives us pleasure.
Fast fashion is indicative of how overconsumption plays out within modern society.
An exceptionally profitable business model, such low prices create a disposable culture that encourages us to buy mass-produced goods that have been designed to be quickly thrown away shortly afterward.
In the words of the comedy duo “Flight of the Conchords”:
“They’re turning kids into slaves just to make cheaper sneakers, but what’s the real cost ‘cos the sneakers don’t seem that much cheaper. Why are we still paying so much for sneakers when you’ve got them made by little slave kids? What are your overheads?”
I joke about what is so clearly an ugly and exploitative side of human behavior because it highlights the absurdity of just how far our greed has grown.
Not only are 93% of fast fashion brands not paying workers a living wage and propped up by child labor, but the fashion industry is also responsible for 8% of carbon emissions.
I know that mindless over-consumption was a regular part of my life until I reached my 30s.
I swear the number of cushions I insisted on continuously buying for the sofa must have equated to at least 1% of the world’s carbon footprint alone.
It wasn’t until I quit my job and was living in a tent at the beach in New Zealand that I noticed something. I was sleeping with a second-hand pillow from a charity shop and a blanket that said on the sales label “ideal for pets, has large stain” — and I’d literally never been happier.
I think that if we stand any real chance of curbing our consumerism, this internal realization is vital. We need to be able to understand, deeper than a conceptual level, that reliance on buying genuinely doesn’t satisfy us. If anything it keeps us trapped.
Step 3: Stop setting fire to the Amazon Rainforest
Another (intentionally) triggering title I know — especially after I lured you in by saying in the introduction that I wouldn’t guilt-trip you.
Rather than being a direct accusation of arson, this provocatively titled step is intended to highlight our role in environmental issues that at first glance can seem far from our own doorstep.
Brazil was once a global leader in forest conservation.
Between 2004 and 2012 the country managed an 80% decrease in deforestation. Since then, violent criminal networks, budget cuts, and arguably poor policy decisions have undone much of that good work.
That may be what’s happening on the ground — potentially 1000’s of miles away from where you sit right now — but the reason for this destruction is where we come into the picture.
Agriculture and increased demand for food consumption is the leading driver of global deforestation. That’s why the food you decide to eat has one of the biggest impacts on your own overall global footprint.
Government recommendations that advocate small, incremental changes like switching to reusable shopping bags are omitting the glaringly unpalatable truth that research points to: eating a plant-based diet save about 4 times more greenhouse gas emissions per year than recycling.
In fact, a 2009 report from The World Bank and IFC even went as far as saying that as much as half of all human-produced greenhouse gases come from meat, dairy, and egg farming.
Here we come to the big environmental crux of the issue. You may care enough to reuse your plastic bag, but how about enough to give up steak?
As Meat Loaf would say:
“I would do anything to reduce my carbon footprint, but I won’t do that, no I won’t do that.”
Step 4: Get out of your car and onto your bike
Unsurprisingly, the modes of transportation we choose are another of the biggest contributors to our carbon footprint. Almost one-quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions derive from transport.
Flights and cars obviously top the naughty list, with collective travel options like buses and trains fairing better.
More environmentally friendly options — like electric cars — may come to the rescue and ease the pollution burden, but walking or cycling are always going to be the best choices for the environmentally conscious.
The question is whether we are prepared to make room for the lifestyle shifts to accommodate this
Are we genuinely as reliant on convenient forms of transportation as we may lead ourselves to believe, or are we also a little bit lazy?
Just a generation ago, 70% of school children walked to school compared to less than half now. Plus, up to 60% of 1-2 mile trips are still made by car.
Anybody else ever been guilty of driving to the shop at the end of the street just because it was raining?
No? Ok, it’s just me then.
It may sound like a joke to suggest that one solution could be to stop going out as much, but maybe it’s not such a bad idea.
25% of all transport used in the UK is down to commuting or business reasons.
Whilst undeniably impractical for certain industries, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted how easy it would be for so many employers to implement remote working in our increasingly technology-supported world.
Do we need to queue for an hour every morning and evening when we can roll out of bed and start on those spreadsheets just as easily from the comfort of our PJs?
Step 5: Don’t have children or consider joining a Climate Action group to lobby for change in your community.
I’m feeling guilty about how demanding these steps are, which is why I really didn’t want to end by breaking the news that having one fewer child would save 58.6 tonnes of emissions per year.
Yep, afraid so.
It’s just another one of those unfortunate truths about the impact of our personal choices. It may come as good news to anyone feeling societal pressure to have children.
Next time somebody starts to nag that you really should be thinking about settling down and starting a family, you can smugly inform them that a Swedish study has confirmed that having children is the most environmentally destructive thing any of us can do.
Undoubtedly, this step is bound to be a controversial one, especially as you ponder whether giving birth to another human being subsequently makes you morally responsible for his or her carbon footprint for the rest of their lives.
So I decided to present an easier alternative to erasing a sibling. Perhaps a more practical solution is to limit the potential damage future generations have through policy change.
Making you feel guilty for not sorting your plastics is a great way to shift the responsibility solely onto your shoulders and away from governments and industries that stand to make the biggest difference.
It reminds me of when environmentalism became trendy amongst the middle classes and hotels around the world started to leave those little signs in the bathroom to tell you that you can do your bit to save the whales by reusing your towels.
Obviously, their motives are purely led by conscience and have nothing to do with saving laundry costs.
We undeniably all have an impact and are responsible for being part of the change we want to see — but recognizing our own limited individual power is surely part of that too.
Real and long-lasting change needs to be driven through large-scale policy shifts.
Research says that you’d need to recycle around 8,200 soda cans to offset your carbon footprint for a return flight from London to New York. So it’s safe to say that you and your yogurt pots have got nothing on the 100 companies which are collectively responsible for 71% of all global emissions.
Passively and patiently waiting for the Paris Agreement to yield results may get us nowhere fast.
Lobbying those in positions of authority and demanding change from decision-makers can help to keep the pressure on.