Warren Robertson
6 minute read
25 Feb 2019
2:06 pm

How to effortlessly reduce your carbon footprint

Warren Robertson

You need not alter your whole life to help save the planet.

Despite Donald Trump’s protestations, Global Warming is a real thing, and while The Carbon Majors Report pinpoints how just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, that doesn’t mean we as individuals should do nothing about it. After all, no one wants to be on “Team Donald”.

Donald Trump’s ramblings on global warming are of continuous concern to scientists around the globe. Credit: Twitter.

With all that in mind here are 7 easy things you can do to cut down on your personal carbon footprint.

Unplug Appliances

Appliances that are plugged in but aren’t being used still draw power. Studies suggest that this “phantom energy” accounts for roughly 10% of all power you use in your home or more than one month’s worth of your energy bill per year.

If you are super enthusiastic you could go around unplugging all your appliances before you go to work every day and instantly make that saving, both on greenhouse gas emissions and your pocket. More reasonably though, the advice is to unplug toasters, microwaves, kettles, the coffee machine, or all the dozens of other small things we probably use once a day, then only plug them in as we use them.

Change your lightbulbs

The old-style incandescent bulbs are still available in many stores and are significantly cheaper than their CFL (compact fluorescents) and LED (light-emitting diodes) rivals, so many people still use them. If this is you, stop.

Apart from the fact that CFLs and LEDs last up to six times longer than the old bulbs, CFLs use 40% less power than incandescent bulbs and LEDs up to 80% less.

In 2017 people switching to LED bulbs saved the earth 570 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, which is an amount similar to shutting down 162 coal-fired power plants around the world.

Wash your clothes differently

The appliances we use to wash and dry our laundry add up to a large percentage of our individual carbon emissions, but given the choice, no one is really going to go back to hand-washing in a bucket. The solution is to dial the washing machine back and wash all your clothes on the cold water settings. Cold water has been shown to do as good a job cleaning light to moderately soiled clothing as hot water and this one change could save as much as 75% of your washing machine’s carbon emissions.

The next step is to sell your tumble dryer. Old fashioned line drying is extremely viable in South Africa where we have plenty of sun and space for clotheslines. Popping a load in the dryer uses five times more electricity than washing that same load – the equivalent of turning on 225 light bulbs for an hour, and opting to line-dry will, therefore, save more than two-thirds of all the power you use washing your clothes.

Fly economy class

Flying is terrible for the environment. One return flight from Joburg to Cape Town adds the same as about one month of your car’s emissions to your personal carbon footprint. While the idealist’s solution would be for everyone to stop flying entirely, there is one small change that allows people to keep flying and actually still make an impact for the better to the environment; switch to economy class.

First Class and Business Class allow more space per seat, which means it takes more fuel to transport one person than the average economy seat. The fact that those classes also have higher “unsold capacity”, and allow extra luggage, means there is a huge jump in the amount of carbon being generated per passenger travelling.

In 2013, World Bank research suggested Business Class was three times harsher on the environment than Economy, and First Class is nine times worse. If all demand shifted to economy, over time plane class configurations would be changed to match, saving a not insignificant amount of carbon gas emissions in the process.

Reduce plastic

This one is a real hot-button topic, with detractors saying that using fewer plastic straws is doing so little it won’t save the planet, and others showing how taking away plastic straws actually harms the disabled.

The truth is that they are right. Making one small change to ditch straws or buy canvas shopping bags isn’t going to save the world, but if we all make a few changes it will certainly help.

Every day, 7 million plastic coffee cups are discarded in Britain alone after being used for just a few minutes. Less than 1% of these can be recycled.

Researchers estimate that 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in our oceans each year – adding to the estimated 150 million metric tons already in the sea. That is an amount equivalent to a garbage truck dumping a full load of plastic into the ocean every minute.

According to the Ocean Conservancy, plastic has been found in more than 60 per cent of all seabirds and 100 per cent of sea turtle species. If you eat fish just an average amount, you are at risk of consuming 11,000 fragments of plastic each year, according to a recent Belgian study. This is obviously unsustainable so no matter how little one effort seems to do in the grand scheme, it’s certainly worth taking charge of our own plastic usage.

Apart from buying plastic bags, or opting to use paper straws, options for helping to cut back on plastic include carrying a set of cutlery with you to avoid using canteen disposables, and not buying glitter for parties. Perhaps you could stop chewing gum (which is made from plastic) or start brewing tea with loose-leaf instead of plastic-infused teabags? Where possible, perhaps use aluminium foil, which is recyclable, instead of cling-wrap, which is not, and instead of buying bottled water, buy a bottle and fill it with water from home.

Swap beef for a different meat

Two researchers from Lund University in Sweden and the University of British Columbia in Canada found that if you stop eating meat for a year, your individual carbon footprint can drop by 820 kilograms of CO2, which is on average four times more effective than recycling. For the average South African, however, not only would pigs have to fly, but humans would have to forget how to shoot things in the sky for this to happen.

So what’s the solution? Quite simply eat less beef. Choosing to substitute just one serving of beef per week with vegetables can save roughly 300kg of carbon dioxide or similar greenhouse gases, which is the same as not burning 122 litres of petrol per year. But you don’t even have to go that far to make a difference. Substituting that beef for pork, or chicken once a week, also makes a significant saving equal to not burning 113 litres of petrol per year.

Have one fewer child

Living without using petrol-powered vehicles is not really possible in South Africa for most people who live in urban areas, but in countries where riding a bike to work is possible, this is considered the best way to reduce your own private carbon footprint.

There is one thing we can do which is actually much more efficient, however. While it’s probably the most audacious solution for anyone who is thinking of having a family, choosing to have one fewer child has been shown to be 25 times more effective at saving the planet than living your whole life without a car. After all, people who don’t exist don’t use resources, right?

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