Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Why my (or your) carbon footprint matters

At the Ashden Awards in June, I was lucky enough to meet Emma Murphy, one of the founders of the green PR outfit, Life Size Media.  She combines great technical understanding of climate change mitigation with a creative flair for communicating the subject.  I mention this because they are now running a poll on the question, "Do you think it's important to know your carbon footprint?"  Quite apart from the audience selection bias of their followers, I suspect that very few people have a clear idea of their own carbon footprint and almost nobody can be sure of their own direct and indirect contribution to humanity's greenhouse gas emissions, the scale of which is illustrated beautifully by a post on Karina Rubiera's blog:

Here are some of the confusing carbon emissions measurements that I have come across today:
1) My local leisure centre used 6 million kWh of gas last year and its carbon emissions were almost 1500 Tonnes CO2e.  I go there once every few months: how much of that carbon footprint has my name on it?
2) The local boys' secondary school, that my son and I both attended and where my wife is a governor, had publicly reported emissions of 984 Tonnes CO2e in 2008.
3) Intensively reared lamb in the USA causes CO2-equivalent emissions of almost 40kg for every kilo of meat.  Some of this is due to methane emissions from the ruminant gut but much is due to the agricultural feedstock: lamb raised on hill-farms in Britain would, quite literally, embody much less carbon emissions than their grain-reared cousins imprisoned in American feedlots.
4) Duncan Clark, of 10:10 and the Guardian, has reflected deeply on the question of short-haul flights in his blog post today.  He concludes that our personal carbon emissions matter much less than the effect that our awareness-raising can have on those of others.

Of course, I agree that communication and awareness-raising are at the heart of the matter.  Duncan and Emma are both leading exponents of sustainability communications and yet even they, I think they would agree, have limited ability to reach out to the wider public, at home and abroad, and engage them in the battle against dangerous climate change due to fossil carbon emissions from unsustainable behaviours and practices in so many aspects of our contemporary lifestyles.  The clamour of commercial concerns, urging us to consume and spend so that they can grow and profit, is usually too loud and incessant for quiet voices of restraint and reflection to be heard.

This is one reason why I think it matters that each of us considers our own carbon footprint and makes sure to reduce it over time.  If you will excuse the clumsy analogy, it's the ethical equivalent of a medical thermometer for my environmental conscience.  The 10:10 campaign grabbed the attention of 100,000 people last year, along with 1000s of businesses and institutions, and focused them on the challenge of cutting their carbon emissions by 10% in 2010.  Positive, purposeful progress - what an amazing achievement!  It's still full steam ahead for the good ship 10:10 and their challenge to each of us now is to cut 10% every year.

However, it's not enough to know the amount of indirect emissions that feature in my personal carbon account simply for being a citizen - including healthcare, education, defence, government, transport and other infrastructure.  I cannot influence these through my own efforts.  The direct carbon impacts of my activities and decisions are much more important to me in measuring my personal responsibility for human-induced climate change.  I want to know, and reduce, the carbon footprint of my personal consumption - such as transport, diet, shopping, entertainment and home energy use.

Useful books and online tools abound to help me know my numbers but, where possible, I favour direct measurement.  It's simple, accurate and reflects my improvements every year.  At home, just put regular meter readings into a basic spreadsheet and, with a couple of standard conversion factors, you can see directly what progress you are making towards cutting your carbon year on year.  This graph shows our home's total energy use for the calendar years 2009 -11.

The next one is smoothed using Moving Annual Totals (MAT) for electricity and gas use, and carbon emissions, over the same period. You can see that the green line has been bumping along just above 4 Tonnes/year CO2 emissions since May 2011: by contrast, our home energy use in 2006 emitted more than 8 Tonnes CO2.

These direct measurements and graphs are not to everyone's taste but they motivate me to remain focused on our home's energy use.  If you don't want to make your own spreadsheet, Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute (ECI) have already done it for you!  Just sign up to iMeasure and they'll prompt you to type in your meter readings every Monday.  Over time, iMeasure shows you your home's energy consumption, and its carbon footprint, in a variety of ways.  The two features that I find most impressive are the weekly energy performance rating (A-G) that it gives your home and the rolling competition with neighbours in our local Carbon Club - we're nothing if not competitive!

Similarly, I keep a little logbook in the driver's door pocket of my car, to record my fuel consumption.  I multiply the litres of diesel purchased by 2.68 (kg CO2 per litre) to calculate my direct driving emissions. I have to make some estimates for maintenance and embodied emissions in the car's manufacture: these last go down for every additional year that I keep the car on the road but do they offset the direct emissions from a newer, more efficient vehicle?  Mike Berners-Lee wrote this excellent piece in the Guardian, from his book, "How Bad Are Bananas?".  There was also a great decision tree for keeping or replacing an older car - I'll post a link if I can find one.

For travel by public transport, eating, reading, holidays, gadgets, etc., the Guardian's quick carbon calculator, posted by Duncan Clark in 2009 and created by Small World Consulting, is the best footprint calculator I know.

To sum up, I think it does matter that we each care about our individual carbon footprint, gain some idea of its size and become engaged in whittling it down over time.  It's not going to stop dangerous, manmade climate change in its tracks but it is an ethical, personal response to the moral challenge of treading lightly on the Earth and the living world that we continue to share it with.

Monday, 15 August 2011

A sustainable summer

A summer to remember!  The joy of rail.  The beauty of Italian cities.  The weak pound.  Endless blackberries.

We haven't flown abroad on holiday for several years, for rather obvious environmental reasons, yet we love the experience of European travel and are loathe to give up our annual immersion in other languages, cultures, climate and cuisine. This year, despite the poor exchange rate, we decided to travel to Italy for our summer holiday, to see places we haven't seen before and to give our 16-year old daughter a more memorable European experience.  We invested plenty of time up front in planning our itinerary and accommodation, so that we could book the right trains on Rail Europe as soon as they became available, 3 months before travel.  All our plans bore fruit, every train throughout the holiday ran on time and we loved the adventure of watching countryside, seas and mountains from our panoramic windows.  Our hotels in Paris, Rome and Venice were all well situated for exploring these great cities on foot and by underground or river bus.  Our most relaxing break was in an apartment overlooking the small village of Argegno, on the shore of Lake Como, which we reached by ferry and bus.

Last year, the carbon emissions from our family of four travelling to the Tarn region of southwest France and back, by car and cross-channel ferry*, were around 670 kg - or 170 kg CO2 per head.  According to Best Foot Forward, in their study commissioned by Rail Europe, the equivalent emissions for this year's holiday by rail for the three of us were about 135 kg - a mere 45 kg CO2 per head.  Conversely, if three of us had flown to Rome and back, our journey's climate change impact (including radiative forcing, due to the altitude of the plane's emissions) would have been 1,660 kg - or 550 kg CO2 per head, according to the Carbon Footprint calculator.

So, a European family holiday by train results in less than a tenth of the carbon emissions of the same holiday by plane.  The same holiday by car results in 3-4 times the emissions of the train but only a third of the plane.

Scaling this up, I have just returned from a fabulous week at Scout camp in Belgium.  22 of us travelled by Eurostar and 5 leaders took our kit across in a car and a van.  The GHG emissions from our 22 return rail journeys were just 57 kg CO2, the same as those from one single passenger making the same trip by plane!  Adding in the car and van journeys (475 kg CO2*) gives a carbon footprint, for 27 of us and our kit travelling to and from camp, totalling 530 kg - only 20 kg CO2 per person.

And the blackberries?  I'm not talking about the rioters' social medium of choice but rather the extended harvest of wild fruit we have enjoyed this summer.  Spurred on by the hot, dry spring, all our apples, blackberries and other wild food are offering a prolonged and bountiful harvest of succulent fruit.  Even the mushrooms seem to be coming out early this year - if you know what to collect and eat safely, you are in for an outstanding season of delicious, free food!

* Modern cross-channel ferries emit around 8kg per passenger (return journey), according to the Best Foot Forward study reported on the SeaFrance website.  I have included this amount in all the driving calculations shown in this post.