Updated: Nov 28, 2020
Pragmatic, climate-friendly tips for everybody.
On May 11, 2020, the next phase of deconfinement has started in some European countries: shops are will reopen and people are allowed to see each other again. A date for the reopening of the restaurants is not yet known, but one thing is sure: Europe is slowly ramping up.
Each one of us is looking forward to a sense of normality and to a life like before. But what does "normal" mean, and do we want to go back to "before"? The phase of confinement showed people what impact human economies and consumption have on the planet. In fact, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere will continue to rise for 2020 - despite COVID. If humanity continues to emit CO2 in the rhythm of pre-Corona, our planet will warm by 1.5°C until 2028-30 - that is the limit of the Paris climate agreement.
So: why not start the period of deconfinement with a few individual climate-resolutions?
[Source: Brenna Quinlan]
To get an idea of what "a lot" or "little" impact is, let's take a quick look at the CO2 emission per capita figures. I choose Luxembourg as I am a native Luxembourger: the average Luxembourger emits 20 tons of CO2 per year [you can probably carve out the emissions from "fuel tourism and add on trade emissions]. By comparison, the European average is 8.8 tonnes. In order to achieve our climate goals, we need to reach 2 tons according to the Paris Climate Agreement by 2050 and in the long term these emissions must be down to ZERO.
What can you do to reduce your carbon footprint on the planet? You've already heard that eating less meat, flying less or consuming less is beneficial to the climate - but how much CO2 impact does it have? I am going illustrate through 6 tips how you can reduce your carbon footprint and make your contribution to a more climate-friendly world.
1. Switch: from red to white meat or fish, or why not to plant based food immediately?
Many of you may know that meat consumption is not good for the environment. I want to translate that into numbers, especially with regards to red meat. The average Luxembourger eats about 30 kg of red meat per year – that’s about 600 grams per week. 75% of Luxembourgers are convinced meat eaters. It requires 25 kilos of feed to produce one kilogram of meat. Beef convert only 2% of the calories from the feed into calories in the meat – a tremendous effort to produce minimal nutritional value for humans.
Most of the livestock is fed with soy. Luxembourg imports around 15,000 - 25,000 ton per year for agricultural purposes. Soy is known to be controversial: first, it contributes to deforestation in South America and second, it often is genetically modified [up to 75% of imports in Luxembourg by 2017].
All these inefficiencies can be translated into a CO2 figure: one kilo of red meat emits between 40 and 60 kg CO2e. The numbers for chicken, pork and fish are more favorable (between 3 and 7 kg CO2 per kg of meat), as these animals are not ruminants and have a more efficient "Feed Conversion Ratio", but they also have a big impact on the planet. Plant-based products are usually only a fraction of the meat with values between 0.3 and 2kg of CO2 per kg of product.
One steak or hamburger of 250 grams less per week saves up to 0.7 tons of CO2 a year if it is replaced with white meat or fish (or 0.8 tons if replaced with plant substitutes) for a year. You can also go one step further by abandoning red meat entirely: with a radical switch from red to white meat or fish, you save up to 1.6 tons of CO2 while a vegetarian diet up to 1.7 tons of CO2 and a vegan diet even up to 2 tons of CO2 a year.
So, why not introduce a vegan day, a vegan week or a vegetarian month to your schedule?
2. Car and airplane: be climate conscious about your choices
A lot of politicians tell you to take more public transport and fly less by plane. Here too, a look at the numbers shows: a citizen who drives 12,000 km a year emits about 2.4 tons of CO2 from car exhaust alone. A weekend trip to London add about 0.3 tons to the bill and one intercontinental round-trip to New York around 3 tons [economy class].
If you choose the bus over car, you can reduce your emissions by 1.8 tons, which equals to about three quarters of car emissions [assuming bus seats are not empty ...]. If you drive 12,000 km by electric car instead of a combustion engine, you can reduce the emissions by about a quarter, or about 0.6 tons [electric cars are NOT emission free and the savings depend on the model]. The current confinement setup also showed that 1-2 days of work-from-home per week will be doable in the future, which also impacts positively the CO2 balance.
Air traffic is often shamed as number one climate issue. Of course, from an individual’s perspective, flying is a huge expense for the personal climate balance and flying less is one of the biggest individual actions to slow climate change. However, only a privileged part of the company flies regularly: in the EU, 43% of transport emissions come from private cars (air traffic: only 13%).
[Source: European Parliament]
Yet, even if the euphoria for a trip this summer is limited as a result of the current virus situation: foregoing one intercontinental flight saves a lot of emissions, for instance 3 tons for a round-trip to New York or even 8 tons for a roundtrip to Sydney.
Holidays at home or in Europe? Sounds good!
3. CONSUMPTION: Consume more consciously
A new dress for a special event (ordered on the internet or bought in a retail store) – worn once and then never again. The new iPhone, because, well ... it's the new iPhone of course. Quickly to the electronic shop, because the old TV doesn’t work anymore. Sounds familiar? Today's textile and electronics products are broadly available and often at cheap prices.
The average citizen buys between 30 and 50 clothes a year, causing 0.6 tons of CO2. 1000 euros spent in IT equipment, smartphones or TVs cause between 0.3 and 0.5 tonnes of CO2. The entire consumption of physical products can make up to 38% of the print, or 3 - 6 tons of CO2 per year.
In the consumption sector, there are two possibilities: the first lies indirectly in the hands of the consumer, by informing and actively choosing an environmentally “friendly” product and by actively looking for alternatives. That can be the jacket made from recycled plastic instead of normal plastic or the Fairphone instead of the iPhone. Unfortunately, the eco-friendly products are often not at the same level of performance than conventional products [Anecdote: I've tested many, and not all were able to convince me] and can't attract the average customer.
A second option follows the "Reuse" model: you can wear your festive clothing more than once, and sometimes an old wardrobe can look like a new one. CIothes can be bought in the 2nd hand store or, for special occasions, rented out from online platforms or clothing stores. Of course, many consumers are concerned about hygiene and quality, but with modern, specialized companies in this domain, these issues are getting radically improved. Also, for electronics there are 2nd hand platforms like Backmarket or rebuy.de that buy old electronics, check for quality and repair and then resell them - with a guarantee!
Why not consume more consciously? It doesn't always have to be the latest trend.
I would like to bust the myth of “local” and “packaging”: buying local is probably important to support the economy and contributes a small part to climate protection. However, only 5-15% of a product's emissions consist of transport emissions! Plastic leaves a lot of dirt in the ocean, but from a climate perspective, it is probably not more harmful than more sustainable alternative [of course, these alternatives are better for other reasons, such as for biodiversity or for protecting ecosystems]. Even if "local" and "no plastic" start to resonate well in our heads, it is more important to look at a product’s materials or ways of manufacturing from the point of view of climate than at the origin or packaging.
[Data Source: Apple]
4. Household: make climate-friendly investments
Households can also make reasonable investments to reduce their footprint. Smart thermostats, for example, can reduce heat consumption by 10-20% by switching on the heating only when the consumer is also physically at home [many modern homes already have this feature] or they are advice about high heat consumption in an empty room. This, of course, also results on financial savings.
Solar cells on residential rooftops - supplying electricity when the sun is shining - better insulation of the walls, wood pellet heater or the purchase of an electric car [which was mentioned briefly earlier] are further examples of how to reduce the household footprint sustainably. Not to mention the recycling bins that every household should have!
With these "smart" investments you can save about 2 tons [0.6 tons for heat and 1.4 tons for the solar cell - the electric car has already been calculated on it]. These investments often a stockpile of money, but the government offers financial support such as a premium for the electric car and refurbishments or tariffs on solar cells.
Even if examples 1 to 4 are illustrative and the CO2 footprint of everyone is different: you can control and actively influence a large share of your emissions. BUT, there is still a great deal of emissions that one cannot reduce solely with individual measures.
[Note: The table with the calculations can be found in the Appendix - LUX only]
There are still two steps to be taken as to how to deal with these emissions.
5. Carbon credits: compensate the emissions you cannot reduce (or do not want to ...)
Many people do not want or cannot give up on certain stuff. "Carbon offsetting" through CO2 certificates is a method by which you can offset your carbon dioxide emissions by avoiding or absorbing them somewhere else on the planet.
The most common example is the planting of trees which absorb CO2 over their lifetime. Even if these methods are not perfect [how does one know if a tree survives or what is done to the tree after all these years of absorbing?], it is probably better than doing nothing. It also signals a willingness for more such solutions, which are essential for lowering CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.
The vast majority of climate scenarios rely on so-called negative emission technologies to limit the temperature rise to 1.5°C. These technologies "suck" CO2 out of the air and thus reduce CO2 concentration in the atmosphere [such as "artificial trees", for example: Climeworks]. In the long term, these technologies are important, because they make CO2 disappear "at the touch of a button", provided that it is stored safely. Today, there are very few such projects, because they are (still) too expensive. A very important source of money for these projects are CO2 certificates – therefore, activity on this plan is already essential today to send the right signals.
Note: CO2 certificates should not be an excuse for not making individual efforts or for unlimited polling.
6. Become active: demand a “system change”
With measures as listed under 1.-4., carbon dioxide can only decrease by the factors that people have under control. Many factors, however, lie outside the direct control of the consumer. One example is the Luxembourgish electricity mix, which is not as green it seems. Food, clothing, electronics and infrastructure are also made from materials and processes that leave their footprint and for which there is often only a limited range of options. The consumer has no influence on these choices: for example, he cannot change the electricity from the power socket or the materials from which his products are made.
However, the consumer can develop an awareness of the fact that every product [whether environmentally friendly or conventional] is directly or indirectly linked to CO2 emissions. Even the most eco-friendly product still leaves a CO2 footprint on the planet. The manufacturing of each product involves entire industries - such as agriculture, textiles, cement or steel - all of which produce an end-product with the help of natural resources, energy and chemicals. As long as the energy is not completely renewable [the rate of renewable energy is global only at 20%], the chemicals are not biological or recycled and the raw materials are not recycled or regenerative, humanity’s consumption poses an immense pressure to the planet.
In other words: without a "system change" - from fossil to renewable and from destructive to regenerative - CO2 emissions cannot fall to zero! While this change cannot be brought by individual decisions alone, everyone has the choice to use his or her voice to express views, support initiatives, and thus increase the pressure on system-relevant institutions and actors.
After all, if we still emit CO2 in today's rhythm, we will reach our CO2 budget in 2028-30, and we should already be at zero. Recent studies show that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere - despite COVID 19 - will continue to rise for 2020. An improvement is not foreseen if our system continues as prior to Corona.
A "system change" is thus urgently needed: from fossil fuels and the exploitation of resources to a regenerative and sustainable economy.
A closing remark
My examples given here are illustrative and should give a perception to the reader how individual behavior can influence CO2 emissions. I don't want to condemn or talk nicely about any behavior. It is not possible to generalize either, as everyone differs in his or her lifestyle.
One thing is certain: without individual efforts at various levels [be it an adaptation of our own behavior and / or pressure on system-relevant institutions], we cannot save the climate and we are heading for the next crisis.
We all have a voice, and together we can be heard !