Ten Consumer Responses

Not only are the following effective ways to reduce your carbon footprint, or your use on Earth's strained resources, but some either save money or increase your sense of well-being and your quality of life.

1. Minimise use of petrol and biofuels

It seems remarkable that despite the hike in fuel costs (a hike which looks set to continue for a long time because of dwindling supplies), and despite increased road congestion, the RAC Foundation found that we are just as dependent on our cars today as we were a decade ago.

The RAC found that half of road users have never used a bus. Simply changing this by perhaps using the bus once a month, once a fortnight, or once a week would make a very large difference to the environment and to most traveller’s wallets.

For those who must drive, it is easy to minimise petrol and to save money by not only accelerating at a slower rate, but by driving slower. “Most cars achieve maximum fuel efficiency when travelling at speeds of around 30-50mph. As speeds edge above 55mph, fuel consumption goes up as much as 15% for every additional 10mph. So simply driving on the motorway at 60mph rather than 80mph can cut emissions and fuel costs by almost a third.” To be more specific in terms of emissions, simply “driving at 5mph below the speed limit over an 8-mile commute to work saves 250kg or CO2 per year.” Accelerating at a slower rate and driving slower actually leads to a much more pleasurable drive, as well as saving you money.

As noted in the Scientific Perspectives on the Environment, a number of supermarkets such as Tesco and Morrisons already mix 5% of their petrol as biofuel. Since April 15th 2008, all UK forecourts must blend at least 2.5% of their petrol as biofuel in order to help the UK meet its emissions quota. However, this is just a numerical fix, not anything to help the environment. The immense carbon emissions from chopping down the trees to create the plantations that will lead to the biofuel are not calculated in the UK’s emissions., even though the biofuel is sold here.

Is biofuel so bad? The problem is that we do not know where the biofuel has been sourced, so it has a very high percentage chance to have been imported from overseas. The creation of the biofuel market has set up competition over land, most notably against rainforest and against other crops. The rise in food prices that is causing misery around the world has also come from the biofuel market, since land that once grew maize for food is now used to grow maize for ethanol. This results in higher wheat prices which are starting to lead to hunger around the world. To give a comparison on the amount of crops taken over by biofuels, it may help to know that “the amount of maize needed to fill the tank of a Range Rover with ethanol fuel would feed a person for a whole year.”

So, buying biofuel is generally not an ethical option. On the whole, it diverts carbon emissions to another country, it contributes toward massive deforestation, habitat destruction, and human suffering around the world. By buying petrol from any forecourt in the UK, you as a consumer are now almost certainly contributing to these things. The only way to minimise contributions towards this is to minimise your use of petrol and biofuel.

Of course, walking and public transport are the least polluting modes of transport. “Hybrid fuel vehicles are twice as fuel efficient as a standard, similar-sized car, and trading in your four-wheel-drive or SUV for a medium-sized hybrid fuel car cuts your personal transport emissions by 70 percent in one fell swoop. For those who cannot or do not wish to drive a hybrid, a good rule is to buy the smallest vehicle capable of doing the job you most often require. You can always rent for the rare occasions you need something larger.”

One final easy way to save petrol is to ensure that your tyres are always fully inflated. If tyres are not fully inflated, the car has to use more energy to push it forward, since there is less of a cushion of air to support it.

2. Minimise use of unsustainable palm oil

"Recent surveying by the National Institute for Space Research found that forest clearance in the Amazon was actually speeding up. Urbanization and the creation of farmland for cattle feed and palm oil are probably the biggest factors, but logging remains a key contributor.” The scale of worldwide rainforest destruction for palm oil is shocking - “according to Friends of the Earth, palm oil plantations were responsible for almost 98 per cent of rainforest destruction in Malaysia between 1985 and 2000."

In May 2006, Friends of the Earth highlighted the “Oil for Ape scandal.” They explain that “oil palm plantations could be responsible for at least half of the observed reduction in organ-utan habitat in the decade between 1992 and 2003,” and that uncontrolled fires to create land for palm oil plantations threaten the orang-utan to such an extent that in one year the fires led to “the loss of 5 million hectares of forest and up to one-third of Borneo’s orang-utan population."

At the moment, it is impossible to know the origin of the palm oil that is in thousands upon thousands of products on our shelves. Not buying products that contain palm oil helps bring the environmental damage of palm oil down. Even better, though, would be writing to companies to tell them that you will no longer buy their product because it contains palm oil.

3. Minimise use of unsustainable forestry by-products (e.g. wood, paper)

According to Friends of the Earth, “up to half of the tropical timber imported into the UK is likely to originate from illegal sources” and “UK companies import paper made from Indonesian rainforest, damaging the last remaining habitat of the Sumatran tiger and Sumatran elephant.” The trillions of tonnes of paper used in offices each year need to come from sustainable sources. Recycled paper is better than not at all, although sustainable-sourced paper is better.

4. Minimise use of plastic

The Scientific Perspectives on the Environment explained the terrible cost of plastic in terms of biodiversity. Despite its poor environmental public image, in January 2008, China brought about an environment tour-de-force by banning plastic bags from June 1st. Because the Chinese used more plastic bags than any other country, it was wasting 37 million barrels of crude oil in their production every year.

The number of plastic bags being used in the world is hard to comprehend - 42 billion bags per month.

In 2002, Ireland passed the Plastic Bag Environmental Levy. There were some exceptions in the levy, for example, very small bags, but the levy was a real success, reducing plastic bag usage by 90%. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has indicated to retailers in the UK that unless they start charging for plastic bags voluntarily, he will make it law to do so.

5. Take holidays locally

In 2002, a study published in Nature magazine “examined the skies over the USA in the unprecedented three days after 9/11, when all commercial planes were grounded and for a short period of time the skies were totally free of contrails. Scientists compared ground temperatures for those three days with the same dates in previous years, using meteorological records. The findings appeared to suggest that daytime contrails might reduce ground temperatures, whereas night-time contrails have an opposite effect. Another study, also published in Nature, in 2006, looked at the impact of night-time contrails over the UK and concluded that night flights ‘are twice as bas for the environment’ as daytime flights. Its authors said that night flights account for only 22 per cent of air travel over the UK, but contribute as much as 60 to 80 per cent of the greenhouse effect attributed to contrails. Flights during the winter also had a greater impact, too."

The difference between daytime and nighttime contrails appears to be that, while they both form water vapour, the daytime contrails bounce some of the sunlight back out to space, whereas at night there is no sunlight to reflect, so there is an overall damaging effect at night.

It is disturbing to know that if only aeroplanes flew lower “cirrus cloud formation could be cut in half and CO2 emission lowered by 4 percent, while average flight times over Europe would vary by less than a minute.” Near the end of the flight, the speed with which a plane can land is very important for its carbon emissions – “if a 747 is “instructed to enter a holding stack while awaiting clearance to land, it will burn 100 kilograms of fuel for every minute that it is being held.”

Supporting aviation also seemingly sometimes supports unethical business practices. Even though they were obviously aware of emissions from aircraft, in March 2007 BMed – British Mediterranean Airways, a BA franchise – was found to be flying “an empty passenger jet between Heathrow and Cardiff on a daily basis just so that it can hold on to its lucrative slots at the London airport."

We know a number of things that should deter us from flying. Firstly, we know that it is an oil-expensive business, for example, “in 2005, aviation accounted for eight per cent of global oil usage – 83 million barrels of oil a day.” Secondly, we know that airlines do not act in the best interests of the environment. Thirdly, we know that even if they did act in the best way possible to protect the environment, air travel would continue to be an incredibly polluting endeavour.

The final reason to deter us from flying is simple – there are so many wonderful, local holiday destinations that it can bring much more pleasure to simply travel (by train or coach, preferably) to a UK holiday spot. It means no airports with their baggage checks, their customs and their advanced check-in, it means supporting the local economy and, perhaps most importantly, it means polluting less.

6. Offset Your Emissions, But Only as an Absolute Last Resort

Since it’s currently impossible to exist in the developed world without causing at least some greenhouse emissions, the only way to do this is to dip into the controversial waters of carbon offsetting….Simply put, when you buy a carbon offset you’re compensating for, say, one tonne of your own emissions by paying someone else to reduce theirs by the same amount. Since the air doesn’t care where the greenhouse gas comes from, the result is a balance. You’ve ‘offset’ your own emissions. Usually, the ‘somewhere else’ is a developing country, because that’s where the cheapest and easiest opportunities are to make a difference. For instance, if a hospital in India is using kerosene for lighting, your offsetting money can fund the switch to solar panels. This could help India to ‘leapfrog’ to the latest, cleanest technologies without having to pass through the various intermediate (and highly polluting) steps that we western countries did.”

Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund released a joint statement on Carbon Offsetting noting that carbon offsets do not reduce emissions overall “and therefore purchasing offsets should only be seen as a last resort after other measures to reduce or avoid emissions have been thoroughly explored and acted upon.”

There are a number of people and organisations that object to offsetting in principle. “Many see carbon trading and offsetting merely as an extension of colonialist profiteering from poor countries. Indeed, as Oxford academic Adam Bumpus said in a recent paper delivered to the Royal Geographic Society, ‘carbon offsets are premised on North-South inequity. You have to have a developing world if you’re going to get your cheap carbon offsets.’” This in turn may exacerbate the difference between north and south, helping the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor. For example, “to cancel out the CO2 of a return flight to India, it will take one poor villager three years of pumping water by foot.” Had he not been encouraged to keep using the foot pump, this might have been achieved in half the time with a diesel motor (which, of course, emits carbon).

Another area of theoretical concern is that “offsetting sets up a confusing cognitive dissonance in people’s minds – they are told both that ‘climate change is serious and huge and scary’ and ‘don’t worry you can continue as normal and just pay a few quid.’”

The length of time it takes to offset something is also a theoretical concern – “according to calculations in Carbon Trade Watch in 2007, under future cost accounting a flight to New York in 2008 … would be 80 per cent offset by 2020. Not until 2108 would 100 per cent of the flight be offset.” We simply don’t have this length of time to alleviate the climate crisis.

Even if the theoretical concerns are laid aside, there are serious practical concerns about offsetting. “Offsetting companies are mushrooming, and there is currently little or no regulation.” This means that companies can sell something as benefiting the environment when it has little, no, or even a negative effect. Forestry sink projects – projects where trees are planted with the money spent - are certainly the least favoured. “Coldplay, the rock group, sponsored 10,000 mango trees in southern India to offset the environmental impact of its 2002 album, A Rush of Blood to the Head. By last year, however, the trees, supplied by Future Forests, now The CarbonNeutral Company, had withered and died.” Rather disturbingly, “Mike Mason, founder of Climate Care, told the UK Parliamentary Environment Audit Committee in 2007: ‘I think planting trees is mostly a waste of time and energy’ – even though his company still sells as much as 20 per cent of its offsets from forest projects.”

Other projects can also be problematic – “Climate Care sold offsets … from 10,000 energy-efficient lightbulbs distributed in South Africa, only to find that the Government was already providing these free of charge anyway.”

One other notable problem with carbon offsetting is that the money going into the poorer communities seems to not always actually alleviate poverty. “In 2000, the US Congress’s Meltzer Commission found that 65-70 per cent of World Bank development projects in the world’s poorest countries had failed to make any difference to poverty. Try mixing the profit motive with that of development, as offsetting does, and one can only assume effective delivery of equity and poverty alleviation becomes even harder.”

It is clear that there are profound difficulties with carbon offsetting. “But there are some levels beyond which you can’t drop, and some forms of emitting (such as long-haul flying) for which there are no alternatives apart from not making the journey in the first place.” In these instances, carbon offsetting seems appropriate, but only through a recognised, gold-star rated vendor.

What we have to remember, though, is that carbon offsetting must be a last resort. “Even if offsetting can be shown to lead to real carbon reductions in poorer countries, we still need to make huge reductions in emissions in the industrialised world as well.”

7. Go vegetarian or, even better, vegan

This is not a popular option, but is sizeable in cutting our impact on the planet for two reasons – emissions and resources. “Sir Nicholas Stern’s report in 2006 states that agriculture is responsible for 14 per cent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Of these, fertilisers were responsible for 38 per cent. Livestock was the second greatest source of agriculture-related GHGs, accounting for 31 per cent. A 2006 European Joint Research Centre life-cycle analysis concurred, finding that the most significant sectors were meat and meat products, and the dairy sector. The FAO has more recently calculated that livestock generates 18 per cent of total GHG emissions (CO2 equivalent) – more than transport. It is also a major source of land and water degradation, not to mention a source of ammonia, which acidifies ecosystems. By making a meat-based diet the badge of progress we collude with the indefensible.”

“Astonishingly, farm animals are thought to account for around 10% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Part of this contribution is due to the fact that meat production uses a lot of oil – to power farm machines, mark fertilizer for feed crops, transport feed and animals, and so on. All told, meat requires around 10-30 times as much energy input per kilogram as corn or soya. But it’s also because cows and other livestock annually burp and fart a staggering 80 million tonnes of methane, a greenhouse gas that’s over twenty times more potent than CO2.” In 2007, the Food Climate Research Network found that “the livestock industry generates 8 per cent of all UK greenhouse gas emissions” and that “a vegetarian diet including cheese, butter and milk would probably not noticeably reduce carbon emissions because dairy cows are a major source of the biggest gas pollution from livestock – the methane released when cattle burp – a vegan diet would be better.” The study suggests that a vegan diet ignores some of the benefits of rearing animals, such as maintaining the landscape and soil quality. The numbers, however, speak for themselves – “going vegetarian could halve your carbon footprint from food to 1 tonne per year, but only if you cut back on dairy products too.” The rest of the emissions from the meat industry, it should be noted, are from the deforestation that is caused in order to create more grazing land. “The world’s largest exporter of beef since 2004, Brazil now supplies nearly every country, including emerging markets such as Algeria, Romania, and Egypt.” This is mirrored in the carbon emissions due to deforestation.

Eating meat is a particularly unethical way to eat in terms of global resources. The Guardian newspaper suggests 1kg of beef takes 7kg of grain, although the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology suggest 10kg of grain.

“Beef is among the worst culprits, but similar problems apply to most meats, farmed fish and, to a slightly lesser extent, dairy and eggs. Obviously all these foods have relatively high energy and protein levels, so a kilo of food is not directly comparable to a kilo of meat. But even taking this into account, the simple fact remains: we get less food out of most farm animals than we put in.”

The following are estimations from the non-partisan Council for Agricultural Science and Technology.

Table of Information

8. Buy locally-sourced goods

"Friends of the Earth estimate that the average meal in the UK travels 1,000 miles from plot to plate. In 2005, Defra released a comprehensive report on food miles in the UK, which valued the direct environmental, social and economic sots of food transport in Britain at £9 billion each year. In addition, food transport accounted for more than 30 billion vehicle kilometres, 25 per cent of all HGV journeys and 19 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in 2002 alone.”

Counting miles is not as simple as simply working out exactly how far away the food was grown. “For one thing, it makes a big difference how the food has travelled. Planes are worst of all in emissions terms, followed by cars and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), though if HGVs are fully loaded they can be relatively efficient, emissions-wise.” Of course, we should counts miles for all our products since “more than 90 per cent of world trade goes by sea,” and, as was noted in the Scientific Perspectives on the Environment, shipping is a major polluter. However, when focussing on food, this is less likely to be shipped because of the timeframes involved.

Buying locally-sourced food is not just a matter of carbon emissions, though; it is also a matter of what is known as a product’s “water footprint.” In essence, “buy imported food and you’re buying someone else’s water. Each Kenyan green bean stem is equivalent to four litres of water – and this from an officially water-stressed country. Buying this way is a new colonialism.” As much as people are nowadays talking freely about “carbon footprints,” it is expected that we shall shortly also be talking about “water footprints” because of acute water shortages around the world. If you buy produce from those countries, you are exacerbating their water shortage. This becomes an incredibly complex issue because without that trade the area may fall into ruin. The response to this argument, however, is that without water it will also fail into ruin, and it is better to have water to drink but no money in your pocket, rather than money in your pocket but no water to drink.

With carbon and water footprints in mind, it is tempting to simply by local produce all year round, yet this would be a mistake. “It’s important to look at the entire greenhouse emissions a particular foodstuff has caused, and not just on the road. For instance, growing tomatoes in greenhouses in the UK, with all the heating and lighting that takes, can cause more overall emissions that growing them in sunny Spain and then transporting them to Britain. And a study in 2006 by the Agribusiness and Economics Research Unit at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand, concluded that dairy products made in New Zealand and then exported to the European Union were twice as energy efficient as those made locally, and sheep meat for times more efficient.”

In other words, buying locally sourced produce is advantageous if one is buying local, seasonal produce. There used to be a time not too long ago when you would go down to the greengrocer and they would sell you whatever local produce was in season. This is by far the most environmentally beneficial way to eat, and it is only with the rise of supermarkets that we have become trained in having food all year round, even out of season.

9. Buy organic goods

It was noted in the Scientific Perspective on the Environment that pesticides are responsible for deaths in human beings and in eco-systems. It was also noted that organic food has now been proven to be healthier for consumers than non-organic food.

We don’t usually think about the pesticide residues that remain on our food, yet a 2004 report by the Pesticide Residue Committee (PRC), showed that there were trace elements. While the report indicated that “the vast majority of our food is residue free or contains residues at levels in accordance with guidelines,” it does show that some fruits were above acceptable levels.

Pesticide is not just used on food - “10 per cent of all pesticides produced in the world are used on cotton plantations.” Buying organic clothing and food therefore not only reduces our contribution to pollution of biodiversity, but it also reduces our carbon footprint because of the saving in fertiliser, which is expensive environmentally to produce.

10. Invest only in ethical businesses

"As long as we, as citizens, continue to but and to create markets for environmentally unfriendly products, the private sector will continue to produce these goods. So we, as citizens, say, ‘We don’t want this. I will not put my dollar in a product, whatever product, which is not environmentally friendly.’ Do you believe that the private sector will continue marketing products that will not be sold? So we also have a responsibility as citizens to change, and to make the decision-makers change their positions because, at the end of the day, we are responsible for our lives.”

Investment in ethical businesses is more than simple ethical consumerism, as important as this is. Ethical investment is an awareness of what our money is funding. Wherever we have money being held, whether it is by a bank, building society, or whether it is in shares, it makes sense to investigate the environment and ethical record of that business. It would be nonsensical to limit your carbon emissions but then have a mortgage with a company that heavily pollutes the earth.

Of course, businesses will always suggest that they have a strong ethical or environmental record, but investigation from other sources is always very helpful to see behind the advertising to the real facts. There are many places online to research ethical businesses, the most obvious being www.ethiscore.org.