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In this series of articles (published in GreenSpirit Magazine) we look at a selection of practical and achievable things you can do to reduce your impact on planet Earth. We all know that the health of our planet is deteriorating as the human population grows, climate change and pollution increases, and wildlife and wild spaces suffer as we are now within what is termed the sixth mass extinction.

Many people feel depressed and helpless about this and wonder what difference they can make. But there are many things that we can do to reduce our own impact, and along the way we will inspire others and feel better that at least we are doing something, however small it may seem. All these small things can add up and make a huge difference. Be the change…

It’s important to consider the effectiveness of various actions when choosing what to tackle first. For example, you may think you are doing your bit by recycling your waste paper, but if you knew that was only a tiny bit as effective as something like changing your energy supplier, you may want to do that as a priority! A good source of information about the effectiveness of various actions, especially relating to climate change, is from Project Drawdown, which researched and modelled the 100 most substantive, existing solutions to address global warming – see www.drawdown.org.

Each article looks at five different actions you can take. They will cover areas such as climate change, pollution, ethics, land and water use, animal welfare and so on. Some may be obvious and some you may well have actioned already, but we hope you will find some inspiration and ideas from the suggestions. Right, let’s get started:

1. Electricity. Does your electricity come from a supplier who uses and supports renewable energy, or one that still relies on fossil fuels and funds fracking? It’s amazing how many ‘green’ people use the cheapest supplier, to save a few pence, rather than saving the planet! Some of the best renewable energy suppliers that you can easily switch to include Ecotricity (www.ecotricity.co.uk) and Good Energy (www.goodenergy.co.uk) – but there are others. Some also invest in green gas, which comes from organic digesters rather than fossil fuel-based gas.

2. Banking. Do you know how ethical your bank is, or is it funding activities (such as arms, tobacco or firms that test on animals) that you would rather not be paying for? One of the most ethical banks in the world is Triodos (www.triodos.co.uk) who provide current accounts as well as business and savings options, although there are others that take ethics seriously such as The Co-operative Bank (www.co-operativebank.co.uk).

3. Savings. Similarly, your savings or pension might be secretly funding activities you would be opposed to if you knew about it. For example, some UK pensions fund oil-drilling explorations in fragile ecosystems such as where mountain gorillas live in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are some stakeholder pension providers, such as Legal and General (www.legalandgeneral.com) who have an option of an ‘ethical fund’ for your pension savings.

4. Mobile Phone. Most people have mobile phones these days but many involve the mining of rare minerals with unethical practices, using slave labour and destroying habitats. The world’s most ethical phone is the Fairphone (www.fairphone.com/en) with a tariff from the Phone Co-op (www.thephone.coop).

5. Diet. Following a plant-based diet is now known as the single biggest thing you can do to reduce your environmental impact on planet Earth as it affects not only climate change but also land acidification, eutrophication (where excess nutrients cause algal blooms in waterways which kill all other life) and land and water use. In addition, a vegan lifestyle is better for your health and ensures you are not funding the shocking animal welfare practices that are destroying our planet. There are many sources of information to help you switch to a plant-based diet such as The Vegan Society (www.vegansociety.com).

6. Food Waste. This is a far bigger problem than many people realise. A third of all food produced is wasted and this is responsible for 8% of global emissions leading to climate change. On the Project Drawdown ranking (www.drawdown.org) reducing food waste came in as the third most effective and achievable way of reducing carbon emissions. Tackling this yourself is mostly common sense: plan your meals and shopping carefully so that you eat everything you buy. Don’t get drawn into deals (such as buy-one-get-one-free) which often lead to foods going past their best-before date and being discarded. Freeze leftovers for future use. Store food appropriately. Compost all your peelings and any fruit or veg that is too old to eat or starting to rot.

7. Organic Gardening. The weedkillers, pesticides and chemical fertilisers many people use in their gardens are bad for the wildlife, bad for the environment and bad for our own health as scientific studies are increasingly showing. There are many organic alternatives which are kinder to the earth such as seaweed feeds, homemade compost, hoeing, and netting susceptible crops. Remember the more green leaves in your garden, the more carbon that is taken out of the atmosphere, so grow as many trees, shrubs and other plants as possible.

8. Transport. This sector produces a huge amount of carbon emissions. We can partly reduce this by being careful not to buy products that have travelled from all over the world, and partly through our personal transport choices. If you can’t walk or cycle, then trains and then buses are the best choice. If you have to drive try car-sharing, or at least planning trips so that you do a number of things in one journey. If you need a taxi use one of the growing number of electric taxi firms. If you need to have your own car the best choice would be a second hand electric one. Vehicles powered by fossil fuels will be phased out sooner or later and become worthless – so the sooner you go electric the better.

9. Holidays. In two words Stop Flying! Is it really worth the massive amount of carbon released into the atmosphere just to have a privileged short period of fun or relaxation? Many people enjoy holidaying in their own countries but if you really want to travel abroad, try going via ship and rail or bus – you’ll see far more of the countries you pass through.

10. Shopping. We’ve all got enough stuff! Apart from necessary consumables think carefully about whether you need something before you buy it. Anything new will have caused climate change during its manufacture, so if you want a new possession consider whether it is something you can borrow, repair, make or buy second hand. Gifts for other people that you have made yourself are far more meaningful. Entertainment like books, music and films can all be obtained digitally these days, which has far less environmental impact than physical products. Give away or sell your unwanted items (through charity shops, gumtree or eBay for example) so that other people don’t have to buy new.

11. Plant Trees. Deforestation is one of the major causes of climate change and is associated with many other problems such as biodiversity reduction, habitat loss, increased flood risk, soil erosion and so on. As well as being careful that any wood product we buy comes from a sustainable source (The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) runs a global forest certification system) we should all be planting more trees. Every leaf on every tree removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locks the carbon in its wood, so any tree, no matter how small, will make a difference. Even if you only have a small patio you can have a few dwarf trees in pots, and nearly all gardens could do with more trees. Fruit trees will have the added benefit of providing you with fresh, organic food: apples, pears, plums, almonds, apricots and cherries are all commonly available and suitable for small plots.

12. Save water. This is important not just to ensure our reservoirs and water sources don’t run dry, but also because the cleaning, transportation and heating of water all use energy, which in turn contributes to climate change. Installing a water meter helps focus the mind, and you may find yourself paying less than before. Gather rainwater for the garden, shower more than taking baths, don’t run the tap while brushing your teeth, only wash clothes when you have a full load are just a few of the many ways you can save water in the house.

13. Plastics. Thanks to documentaries such as BBC’s Blue Planet 2, we all know what a huge problem plastic pollution is causing worldwide. As well as problems with ecosystems (especially oceans) and wildlife, they can affect us directly as our bodies ingest plastics (including some associated toxins) via the food that we eat (especially seafood) and through breathing in microfibres in the air. As plastics are made from fossil fuels, their production in the first place increases global warming. There are so many ways you can reduce the amount of plastic you use and throw away, beyond the obvious reusing of shopping bags etc. The website My Plastic Free Life offers 100 steps to a plastic-free life.

14. Insulation. Nearly all houses can benefit from increased insulation, which will not only lower your heating costs but help to reduce global warming, especially if your heating is fossil fuel-based, such as oil, gas or coal. Simple measures such as insulating lofts properly and draft-proofing doors and windows can make a real difference, but it will be worth getting your house evaluated by a specialist who can advise on the possibilities for your property, an idea of costs versus benefits/savings, whether any grants are available, and what other techniques are available such as wall insulation. Even if you have an old (or listed) property with solid walls there are still options (https://mitchellanddickinson.co.uk specialise in period properties, for example).

15. Campaign. Whatever changes we make personally, we can multiply the positive effects many times by encouraging other people to do the same through campaigning. This can be done via social media, face-to-face, writing articles (like this one!), going on local radio/TV, giving talks and running stalls at events. We can also campaign to put pressure on politicians and decision-makers to make changes to big issues such as climate change. This can be done by going on marches, signing petitions, writing letters, talking with your MP, joining organisations and so on. Extinction Rebellion are a good example of a rapidly expanding organization demanding that policy-makers the world over make the environment more of a priority.

16. Grow Your Own. Food production is globally the biggest cause of many of the planet’s problems: deforestation, pollution, soil degradation, carbon emissions, chemical use, packaging, transport and so on. Growing some of your own food will reduce the impact of all of these issues, plus give you healthier, fresher food with the added benefits of the fun and exercise you get from growing it in your garden or allotment. Even if you only have a small garden, turn it over to fruit and veg growing rather than lawns/borders. If you only have a patio, grow in pots. Every food item you grow for yourself reduces your impact on the Earth.

17. Clothes/Fashion. The clothes industry is also responsible for much damage, including carbon emissions, chemical use, packaging and transport, not to mention other ethical issues such as slave labour to produce cheap items. It is also hugely wasteful – many clothes are thrown out while still in good condition. Don’t be a slave to fast fashion: keep using clothes for longer, repair them if they get damaged, buy from charity shops, source new items carefully (organic cotton or hemp clothing, for example).

18. Pets. The number of domestic animals kept for company/fun/interest worldwide is huge. These are all a further drain on resources and produce their own share of pollution (think of the billions of dog poo bags used each year, for example). There are also many unwanted and feral animals. So consider carefully before taking on new pets, limit the number (do you really need four dogs?), have pets sterilised to reduce unwanted pregnancies, and get them from shelters rather than from breeders.

19. Multi-generation Living. It seems nonsensical that we are told we have a housing shortage at the same time that increasing numbers of people are living on their own, often experiencing loneliness and depression as a result. Consider, for example, the advantages of having grandparents living with you: their help, wisdom and baby-sitting always on hand, their improved mental welfare, a reduction in the number of houses needed, reduced bills and so on. Not so long ago this was the normal way of living, and still is in many parts of the world. This can be achieved not only on a family level but also with intentional communities and cohousing schemes.

20. Food Schemes. One way of reducing excess food packaging and transport and lowering the cost of the food, is to join or start a community scheme. Basics like flour and rice can be bought by the sack and then distributed to the members of the group in their own reusable containers. This can be done with just a few friends, neighbours and family, or on a larger scale. Suma (www.suma.coop) are a good example of providers – they are a co-operative wholesaler of thousands of vegetarian and natural products that are responsibly sourced.

21. Go Digital. All the media we use and enjoy on a daily basis is increasingly available digitally. Anything you can download – music, movies, books, magazines, newspapers etc – as opposed to buying in print or as CDs, DVDs and so on, will reduce not only manufacture costs and materials, but transport/postage too.

22. Keeping Cool. The chemicals used in fridges, freezers and air-conditioning units have thousands of times the capacity to warm the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Their release, mainly through leakage and incorrect disposal of appliances, is thought to be one of the highest carbon emitting factors that could easily be corrected practically now. So, for example, rather than considering air-conditioners to cool your home, consider other approaches such as improving ventilation and insulation, window blinds, planting trees for shade and using solar-operated fans.

23. Chemicals. The production of chemicals for the home and for personal use is massively polluting and usually also involves plastic bottles and further packaging. Many of these chemicals end up being tipped down domestic drains causing further pollution. Always look for more natural solutions: using a plunger for a blocked sink rather than a chemical option for example, try making your own natural toiletries, use natural soap nuts rather than washing detergents and so on.

24. Borrowing Schemes. There are so many items we own and yet use rarely – such as power tools, ladders, carpet cleaning machines, decorating equipment, vehicle servicing tools etc. Not only are they expensive to buy in the first place, but their manufacture often has a high carbon footprint for the amount of use we get out of them. As your neighbours are likely to have the same tools, try setting up informal borrowing schemes between a group of you. Alternatively join a larger local scheme or consider hiring from a tool-hire facility rather than buying outright.

25. Building Projects. If you’re involved with some new building project – say an extension or repairs to your house, or through work – then consider how green the build can be. Cement production contributes a whopping 5% to global carbon emissions but there are alternatives: wood, bamboo, rammed earth, straw bales, recycled plastic and hempcrete to name a few. Use reclaimed materials if possible and plan for the highest levels of insulation and energy efficiency.

26. Repair. Many items are thrown away simply because we don’t know how to fix them. Yet YouTube.com has thousands of videos made by users showing you how to repair just about anything repairable. If you’d rather find an expert to help, see where your nearest Repair Café is (https://repaircafe.org) these are free community meeting places with tools, materials and specialists on hand. If you don’t want to repair something, rather than throw it away give it to someone who could make use of it through websites like Gumtree, Preloved or Freecycle.

27. Permaculture. Permaculture (as described by the magazine of the same name) is ‘an innovative framework for creating sustainable ways of living; a practical method for developing ecologically harmonious, efficient and productive systems that can be used by anyone, anywhere’. Permaculture provides ethics and tools for creating and designing ways of life that are not only sustainable but regenerative, to repair and revitalise our damaged planet. Studying permaculture can help you plan and live your life in ways that reduce your impact on the Earth. The courses are also great fun and will put you in touch with like-minded people. The Permaculture Association (www.permaculture.org.uk) lists courses and has a website packed with information.

28. Work From Home. Working from home (whether you are employed or running your own business) at least for part of the week has many benefits for you and the planet. As well as your own reduced travelling time, costs and pollution, there are many benefits for employers too, including improving their environmental reputation. Technology allows us to have face-to-face meetings anytime (through Zoom or Skype for example) so there should rarely be a need to travel just to talk to someone.

29. Off-Grid Living. Being self-sufficient for your own needs (principally energy, water and food) is increasingly popular and possible thanks to new technologies like photo voltaic solar panels and small wind turbines. Growing your own food will certainly reduce your carbon footprint and improve your health. There are many books, videos and festivals available to help you create an off-grid life, which will also make you more resilient if climate change disrupts grid supplies.

30. Avoid Seasonal Excesses. Up to 10% of people's annual carbon emissions come from celebrating Christmas in a big way. We're increasingly expected to spend more each year not only for Christmas but other special times like Valentine's Day, Easter, weddings, stag/hen events etc. But actually celebrating without spending so much can make things even more special. Giving homemade presents for example is much more personal and memorable. Travel less, spend less, but share and enjoy more.

31. Children and Parenting. Most agree that many of the planet's problems stem from the ever-increasing human population. Having a child is the most environmentally damaging thing you can do, so young people today need to think carefully about how many children they have. Those who have children need to be conscious about the amount spent on unnecessary paraphernalia. That goes for grandparents too; is it really necessary to have duplicate car seats, high chairs, cots, toys etc? Raise children to live lightly on the Earth. Prepare them for living in a climate changed world and help them to cope with their fears about the future.

32. Share Your Home. The personal footprint of your household (heating, lighting and cooking etc.) are significantly reduced when shared. So one of the easiest ways to cut emissions is to share your home. This also reduces the need to build new homes, saving land and carbon. Sharing your home can also make you richer and happier - so consider taking a lodger(s) or living with other family members.

33. Build Soil Health. Soil is the world's second largest carbon sink (after the oceans). The healthier the soil, the more carbon it can store. Support soil health by feeding organisms in the soil, protecting soil from erosion, avoiding pesticides, providing permanent leaf cover, and reducing tillage and soil disturbance. This can be done by growing with a no-dig method and organically - or ideally, veganically, more information from the Vegan Organic Network (https://veganorganic.net/)

34. Innovative Technology. Many innovations can make a difference on climate change at domestic level. These may be high tech, like smart glass, self-driving cars, biodigesters, bioplastic and smart thermostats, or low tech, like green roofs, hemp clothing and biochar. Look for them coming to market and use those you can.

Priorities

There are so many problems and solutions faced by Planet Earth that it can be difficult to work out what parameters to use to measure the effectiveness of any actions. But as the overriding and existential threat is climate change we shall focus on the footprint (carbon and all the other greenhouse gases) of things many of us regularly do.

For the purpose of this exploration we shall measure each action in grams (g) which represents the amount of greenhouse gases produced by a particular activity. This is explored in depth in the excellent and eye-opening book How Bad Are Bananas: The Carbon Footprint of Everything by Mike Berners-Lee, which we thoroughly recommend.

To give you an example to start with, the footprint of a banana is 80g, compared to a small packet of asparagus (from Peru) of 3,500g. So a pack of asparagus causes 44 times more climate change than a banana despite the fact that both will have travelled many hundreds of miles to reach you. This massive difference is largely down to the fact that bananas are ship-freighted whereas asparagus is air-freighted from Peru all year round. Anything transported by air causes about 100 times more climate change than if the same thing came by ship. Bananas also have the advantages that they are grown in sunlight (no heated greenhouses needed), have their own natural packaging, and store well so can be transported more slowly.

Hopefully having this simple knowledge will encourage you to feel better about eating bananas, but think twice about buying asparagus from Peru. Better to enjoy it only in May and June when it is in season (in the UK). But read the packet label - ridiculously, asparagus in May and June is still sold from Peru alongside UK-grown packets. Better still would be to grow your own, and then you could also freeze some for use at other times of the year.

Eating seasonally is often less damaging than eating locally; anything grown in a heated greenhouse (common examples include baby corn mange-tout, green beans, lettuces, raspberries, strawberries and so on) will have a far higher footprint than the same thing grown in season, even if it has been ship-freighted from another country. Long-term cold-storage can also add a heavy footprint cost. This is why an apple from New Zealand in the UK summer can actually have a much lower footprint than a UK-grown apple that has been cold-stored since the previous autumn harvest. On average each apple has a footprint of 80g, but it is only 10g for a local, seasonal one. Every garden should have it's own apple tree(s) of course, and then the footprint would be zero!

These examples show both the complexities and the huge differences in footprints of similar items. Neither this article nor the book mentioned above can hope to list everything, but many products and activities can be researched online in terms of their footprint should you wish to investigate anything in particular. Just try searching "what is the carbon footprint of .............".

When many less-enlightened people are asked what they are doing to reduce their contribution to climate change they will often say they recycle their rubbish, thinking that they have then done their bit. But if they knew that doing so only reduces their total footprint by 1 or 2%, perhaps that would encourage them to look at other things they could cut back on. One long-haul flight to go on holiday, for example, would make up around 30% of the average annual footprint. So you can see that someone who takes lots of overseas holidays or business trips (many of which could be handled online these days) will have a footprint many times the average (which for the UK is currently around 15 tonnes (i.e. 15 million grams) per person per year).

To give a few further examples, which hopefully will be food for thought about how to reduce your own footprint, the list below represents an eclectic mix of activities/products in increasing order of grams footprint:

A plastic carrier bag 10g
A paper carrier bag 40g average. (The paper industry is energy intensive, surprisingly more so than plastic - more incentive to re-use bags)
A banana 80g
An hour's TV 90g
A mile by bus 150g
A 500ml bottle of water 160g (compared to 0.14g for the same amount of tap water)
1kg of carrots 300g
Taking a shower 500g
Driving 1 mile 700g (can be over 2,000g for a large four-wheel drive)
A pint of milk 700g
Taking a bath 1 kg (= 1,000g)
A box of eggs 1.8 kg (and that's before they are cooked)
A raw beef steak 2 kg
1 kg of cheese 12 kg (which is partly why becoming vegetarian is not nearly as effective as becoming vegan)
A congested commute by car 22 kg
Christmas excess 280kg per adult on average
Flying London to Glasgow and back 500 kg (compared to 66kg for the same journey by coach, but a whopping 1,100 kg in a large four-wheel drive)
1 tonne of fertiliser between 3 and 12 tonnes
A new car 20 tonnes on average
Having a child 400 tonnes on average

Consider these figures whilst bearing in mind that the UK target is currently of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Even when it was set at an 80% reduction (agreed in 2008) that would mean each of us aiming for less than 3 tonnes per year, meaning big changes for all of us. Just doing a bit of recycling falls far short of what will be required. But we're talking about the future of life on the planet here, so rather than wait for restrictions to be imposed on us, why not be an inspiration and work hard to lower your own footprint whilst helping others do the same.

Please spread these ideas far and wide, using social media, chatting with friends and family, and any other means.
Feel free to cut and paste the text from this page.

More suggestions coming soon!