Friday, 9 June 2017

Reducing my carbon footprint without saving money

Usually I focus on home energy but recently I have been thinking about reducing my whole carbon footprint. It turns out I can use the same principles I have been using for home energy across other sectors too. Some of these strategies save money, but there are ways to spend it again and still save emissions.

I reckon the footprint for me and my beloved looks something like this. Yours will probably be somewhat different – for example ours is very low on travel because neither of us commutes to work, we don’t even have a car, and we usually take our holidays in the UK by train. However we are not unusual in that goods and services is a large chunk. So what can we do to reduce emissions over all sectors?
Carbon footprint for my household, estimated based on home energy use, travel distances and spending on other goods and services.

We have already made considerable efficiency improvements to our home but it is large and so our gas consumption is still a significant part of our footprint. So is electricity – but this can be expected to decrease as our electricity supply is decarbonised. We are helping to make this happen sooner by buying 100% renewable electricity from Ecotricity. Once we have done all we can to reduce our heating energy the logical next step it to switch to renewable electricity using a heat pump.

A lot of our other emissions are also due to energy use - for manufacturing and transport, heating buildings and so on. These could be made more efficient and/or switch to renewable electricity. This is a choice made by the people running those organisations.

However some emissions are more fundamental. For example where there are animals there is manure which is an important source of greenhouse gases. Cattle and sheep are even worse as they belch methane. It is very hard to reduce these sorts of emissions, except by consuming less animal products. Another example of non-energy emissions is cement manufacture, where the chemical reactions involved release CO2. Even if you use renewable heat to fire the limestone this process would still be a serious emitter. Sometimes it is possible to use different materials for building and landscaping instead of cement or concrete.

I have often talked about the four strategies for reducing carbon emissions in the home but in practice they work across our whole lives, not just at home. Here they are with some examples:
  • Reduce waste. Don’t buy stuff you don’t need or won’t use. Don’t throw stuff away if it is still usable or fixable. At least see if someone else wants it first. Usually it is a good idea to buy stuff that is durable and won’t need to be replaced quickly.
  • Reduce service. Take your holidays in the UK or Europe as often as possible. Drink tap water instead of bottled mineral water. Eat less meat (though I don't regard this as a reduced service, rather the opposite.)
  • Increase efficiency. If you have to buy a car, choose one that is economical to run. Walk or cycle or use public transport instead of using the car where possible.
  • Switch to renewable energy. Choose a 100% renewable energy supplier. Try to buy stuff from companies that are actively reducing their emissions too

The first three strategies are usually good for saving money too and many of us are already doing them. However when we have cash to spend we have choices. This is especially the case with luxury goods and presents. Do you buy your beloved a new games console or a cashmere sweater? A ride on a helicopter or a yacht?

When it comes to presents and luxury goods here are some tips for low carbon choices:
  • Choose natural materials over high tech stuff, glass or pottery.
  • Choose hand made rather than factory made (because more of the cost goes on looking after people rather than materials and energy).
  • Choose something that has already been made: antique clothes, furniture or books, or a rare oil painting. (But not an old master made with older paints like egg tempura because you will then have to air condition the space you keep it in to protect it.)
  • Choose stuff that needs little upkeep, such as a cat rather than a large dog or horse.
  • Choose experiences rather than stuff as long as they don’t involve a lot of motorised travel.

We can also campaign for policies that will encourage industry and services to make low carbon choices. The most direct way to achieve this is with carbon taxes. The nice thing about taxes is that they raise money that can be spent on useful stuff like schools and hospitals. Or the revenue raised can be used to reduce other taxes like VAT, which doesn’t distinguish between low and high carbon goods (see also Welfare cuts versus carbon tax).

If we have money in the bank we can influence carbon emissions through our investment choices. Avoiding shares in fossil fuel sectors does not necessarily mean less returns. You can also choose to invest directly in green energy projects through bonds or shares (for example see Thrive Renewables and Trillion Fund and I would have recommended the Green Investment Bank but that is uncertain at the moment, see Green Investment Bank sell off regarded as a disaster).

Some of our emissions are directly down to us - like gas for heating and fuel for our cars. We can reduce these by careful use and by investing in energy saving measures and low carbon heating. Other emissions are due to other people’s choices – for example electricity supply, manufacturing and running commercial buildings. We still have some influence on these, either through our buying choices or by campaigning for regulations to encourage reducing emissions. Finally, if we have money left over we can choose to make green investments. Being green does not mean forgoing all luxury and living like a miser. These days you can even buy an electric SUV!

Here are some more of my blog posts that relate to this topic:
How much difference can we make if we change our diets (Jan 2017)
Counting the benefits of electric cars (June 2016)
Why don't hotels tell us their carbon emissions  (May 2016)
Investing in community energy - what to expect (April 2015)
Wealth and carbon emission (in Sweden) (Aug 2012)
Does saving energy reduce your carbon emissions; avoiding the rebound effect (May 2011)
Carbon emissions from leisure activities. (May 2011)

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