What the Hell are Carbon Footprints, Exactly???

These days we’re surrounded by buzzwords that were the refuge of loony lefties and new-agers just a few years back. Global warming, greenhouse effect, carbon footprint. Well, it seems that the panpipe lovers of yesteryear were onto something, and these are now processes that we all need to get our heads around. Yes, that means you.

However the popularisation of such concerns, and the mainstream use of such terminology, doesn’t necessarily make it easier for us to quantify all of this, as individuals going about our daily business. Officially, according to Davie Philip at Sustainable Ireland, our carbon footprint is “A measure of the impact you have on the planet, by the amount of carbon dioxide you emit by consuming energy”.

Ok. But what exactly does that mean for us, sitting here reading our papers? Well, it means we can now calculate how bad little-old-you are for the environment, and what humans should do, hopefully and eventually, to become ‘carbon neutral’.

But, I hear you cry, surely little-old-me can’t do as much as big-old countries like the US, China, Japan and India who are doing the vast majority of the damage? This may be true, but we’ve lived in a bit of an ignorance-bubble since the industrial revolution, when most of this nasty business began, and now we are enlightened.

This means no more head in the sand, it’s-not-my-fault philosophy. Every action has an equal but opposite reaction, and for too long we’ve been taking without giving. Natural resources, pollution, trees…we’ve been taking and taking without consequence. But guess what? There is a consequence, and we’re now learning how serious it is.

So to that end, every little tiny bit adds up, and if every little tiny person does there little tiny bit the total effect could be impressive. Plus, the US and China aren’t going to listen to little-old-us, so we should buck up and do the things we can as individuals, hopefully causing a social pressure which will change what is culturally acceptable across the globe, in the long term.

But if you’re just fundamentally self-centered, and really couldn’t give a toss about the trees and the whales, then there’s another reason that may sway you. In most cases the changes you need to make to become more eco-friendly have the reciprocal effect of being better for your health, much cheaper, and quite easy to do.

So, we know that everything we do has a knock-on effect. This is our carbon footprint. The manufacture, shipping, production, destruction and consumption of absolutely everything you do every day takes energy, and this often produces what are called ‘greenhouse gases’.
These aid ‘climate change’ (or ‘global warming’ or the ‘greenhouse effect’) by collecting in the atmosphere. This changes our atmospheric make-up, reducing its ability to protect us from the sun. A certain amount of this ‘climate change’ is normal, but humans have pushed it to the limit over the last few hundred years by producing too many gases. The main greenhouse gases are methane, nitrous oxide and- the principle contributor- carbon dioxide.

This simple explanation is probably quite clear and makes sense, but does it feel relevant? No? Didn’t think so, but it’s still important for us to understand it. What makes it relevant is looking at our lifestyle choices and determining what we could do differently to reduce our footprint. Checking who is better, what is average and what is downright unacceptable.

Without further technical terminology, let’s get down to business and look at our carbon footprint in an easy-to-understand way. Our footprints are broken down into two categories: primary and secondary. Still with me? Well, common sense should prevail and with a little thought we can figure out that primary is the bad stuff, the emissions that we directly pump into the atmosphere. For example, burning fossil fuels by travelling in a car or plane, and heating your house with coal or gas. The secondary footprint is the indirect carbon dioxide emissions that we cause through our lifestyle. For example, the products we buy in the supermarket, from their manufacture to their eventual disposal and break down.

Let’s take elements from an average Irish person’s life and look at the footprint they produce. Firstly, as a reference point, we need to check the average carbon footprint. Each footprint is measured in the number of tonnes of carbon we use a year (through converting this carbon into our old gaseous friend carbon dioxide along the way, by burning it, for example). Davie Philip tells me where we stand, “the US average is 20 tonnes, the European average is 11. Ireland weighs in at 17 tonnes per person making us the world’s fifth highest emitter”.

Yikes. Philip reckons we should be emitting no more than 2.5 tonnes a year each, so as a nation we’re really gas. Ok, I’m sorry, the gas jokes stop there. A tonne is 1, 000 kilograms. So we’re each emitting about 17, 000 kilograms a year, which is about 3 elephants or just under two double-decker buses in weight. So, we’ll start the day with our mug of coffee and piece of fruit. These add to our secondary, indirect footprint. Any food that has to be imported from abroad, like coffee, has more than likely been flown here (and/or transported in big lorries and boats). Since aeroplanes (and big lorries or boats) are huge contributors, buying coffee or kiwi fruit increases your footprint considerably. So, should you not buy the kiwi? Well, it will certainly increase your footprint, but so will buying a piece of fruit which has been grown in a greenhouse down the road I’m afraid.

Some experts say that the huge heaters needed for greenhouses are worse than aeroplanes in this regard. So the best thing you can have for breakfast is indigenous, locally produced, seasonal, Irish food. And remember, packaging (and the destruction of it) uses energy too, so pick loose rather than plastic-wrapped stuff, and compost or recycle rather than dump where you can.

Recycling also takes energy, of course, but a lot less than producing a brand new bottle or newspaper from scratch. And landfill dumps produce methane (another greenhouse gas) adding about 20kg of gas to your footprint, per large refuse sack. As well as landfills, methane is often produced through livestock and agricultural activity. Considering this, and the fact that most of the world’s carbon dioxide-absorbing forests have been felled for livestock to graze, being a vegetarian would also reduce your footprint appreciably.

Next is getting to work. Cars increase our primary, direct footprint. About 19 per cent of the average person’s footprint is caused through driving. According to Warwick University walking instead of driving any journey under 3 miles can reduce you annual footprint by about 600kg. You could also slow down. You will use about 25 per cent less fuel if you drive at 85 instead of 110 km/hour, so it’s cheaper too (not to mention safer).

Or you could sell your car and use public transport. In his book ‘Heat’ environmental writer/ activist George Monbiot reckons that if all the UK’s drivers started to use public transport carbon emissions for personal travel would be cut by 90 per cent. He also says that “one quarter of all car journeys cover less than 2 miles”, and that many people drive alone when they could share. So, best of all, if you get on your bike or walk you’re causing no emissions and keeping fit!

As we’re now cycling, we can use your gym membership money to ‘buy’ some trees to help offset our footprint. If a tree ‘breaths’ an average of about 1 tonne of carbon dioxide over a life-span of 40 years, and you need to reduce your emissions from 17 to about 2.5 tonnes, you need to buy about 14.5 trees a year. But remember, they should really be in a tropical location, and this is not a conscience-easing device so you to go and clock up a huge footprint. Reduction of our footprints through lifestyle changes is the primary objective.

After such a green day (and I don’t mean the US slang term for sitting around smoking weed), you get home and put the kettle on. But wait, you can save more energy by only filling it with one mug’s worth of water. For every cup you boil, about 25 cups of carbon are used. This entire process involves making the things you do more efficient. If you can dry your clothes on a line rather than tumble dryer, do. If you can turn your central heating down, even by a degree, do. If you can replace broken appliances with ones that carry high efficiency ratings, do. If you can take the neighbours kids to school, do. Switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs, which use 75 per cent less energy than normal ones. If every American home replaced just one light bulb the US would save about 600 million dollars a year on energy costs. And yes, ‘standby’ uses up to 30 percent of the total energy of the appliance, as does leaving your phone charger plugged in. The amount of electricity we use has doubled since the early ‘70’s, so be aware and be efficient.

Heating is also a big player in home carbon emissions, so good insulation can make huge differences and save cash. And why not give a green energy supplier a try? They support renewable resources like wind or sun, rather than finite carbon-loaded energy sources such as oil or gas. Most of us are probably going away on holiday too, and this is where our footprints can really ascend. Experts say that a single long haul flight, from Dublin to Australia for instance, can use twice your carbon allocation for the entire year. But before you jet off to London with a clear conscience, research also tells us that most fuel is used during take off and landing, so short haul flights can actually be less efficient. It’s a controversial topic at the moment as ongoing research suggests that emissions from planes are innately worse than others because they are emitted so high in the atmosphere. And when a plane can cover thousands of kilometers in just a few hours, it’s not actually the ‘mile per emissions’ ratio that’s so bad, which is comparable to that of a car, but just the sheer distance a plane covers.

Let’s say you fly to Madrid on a 747, which is about 1450km. Each passenger will use about 136kg of fuel, releasing about 423kg of carbon dioxide. This is the energy equivalent of having 3 sixty-watt light bulbs on continuously for a year, and would use your total carbon allocation for over a third of the year. Philip at Sustainable Ireland reckons the best things for us to do are “Insulate your home, buy locally produced food when you can, switch to renewable energy and look at ways to reduce the amount of fossil fuels you use in any way you can. Walk, or ride your bike, more”.

Of course the argument that individuals don’t do the big damage, and that developed-world countries (although worse) do more than, say, India for example, are legitimate. But if the developed-world doesn’t set the example and raise the bar, who will the developing-world follow? And if individuals don’t act as role models to their kids, and keep pressure on elected representatives through consumer choices and cultural awareness, who will care? So, come on, let’s pull our heads out of the sand and those green socks up today.

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