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Climate Change Begins at Home by Dave Reay

Dr Dave Reay of the University of Edinburgh doesn’t want us to start chanting on hills or cooking up nettle soup – but each one of us can reduce our lifetime contribution to global warming by over 1,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas… and that can’t be bad.

You can hear the groans sometimes. When more news comes in of rising greenhouse emissions in Europe or more political backsliding over the Kyoto Protocol, our building full of climate change scientists can be a bitter place. The frustration within the scientific community has been growing for a long time now. 10 years ago this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made its landmark statement that:
“the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate”
Two years later the Kyoto protocol – setting legally binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions – was adopted by the UN. Kyoto my have been a small first step, but its existence was more proof that world leaders had got the message, that real action to tackle this monstrous threat was finally underway.
The thousands of scientists involved in climate change research continued to count the greenhouse beans. Each year the weight of evidence for human-induced global warming increased, the uncertainties narrowed and the skeptics became fewer and more isolated. Then, in 2001, a really big groan went echoing through my building: George W Bush had withdrawn the US, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, from the Kyoto protocol.
The protocol survived, just, though it is now much-weakened. Hopes were raised again when the 2005 G8 summit in Gleneagles made Africa and Climate Change its key issues for debate, but the summit failed to deliver any firm commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions: more groans.
We are faced with a truly global threat. The predicted impacts of climate change during this century range from sea level rise of up to a metre and 2 billion people at risk from flooding, to an extra 5,000 cases of skin cancer in the UK and a sharp rise in deaths due to heat stress.
So, what to do?
Should the scientists and everyone else simply wait until things get so bad that politicians are forced to act? Short of running for political office, what could we actually do to help change the direction of the roaring juggernaut that is climate change?
To begin with I thought “not much”. Surely it was industry, big business and ultimately the politicians who were doing the steering, we the public being just passengers, strapped into our seats and bracing ourselves for impact. I was wrong.
A glance at who is responsible for developed-world emissions showed just how much of the driving we were doing. The emissions pie is effectively divided into three big slices, a quarter from transport, a quarter from homes, and most of the rest from the places we work. As such we can each make a real difference to how severely climate change will affect us, our children and generations to come. How? Let’s look at just a few…
On the Move
It’s amazing how scary silence can be. Each year, my family and I go to an out-of-the-way holiday house on the West coast of Scotland and, just now again, there are times when there is no traffic noise at all. No distant car fan belts squealing, no low roar of a labouring passenger jet, just spine-tingling silence. At these times you get an idea of how insidious the spread of fossil-fuelled cars, trucks and jet planes has been: transport is now the fastest growing source of human-made greenhouse gas.
For a great many of us, our transport emissions are dominated by car-use and it is here where we can make some of the most far-reaching cuts in emissions. Drive a gas-guzzling 4-wheel drive and your emissions can reach 12 tonnes a year. Swapping this bull-barred behemoth for a smaller-engined model will more than halve these emissions.
Flying, like car driving, has become an everyday part of life in the developed world, but its rapidly growing emissions – the IPCC predict that by 2050 its contribution to global warming may have quadrupled – makes it a source of greenhouse gas that must be tackled. Taking the train can slash these emissions by two-thirds. If you ever happen to fly into Amsterdam’s Schipol airport think on this: as your plane touches down following its greenhouse gas-belching journey you are 6m below sea level.
Home Start
Having left our down-sized, dual-fuelled car on the drive and stepped into our house, the biggest energy user at home is right there waiting to greet us: temperature control.
Like flicking a switch and expecting light, we are used to warming up or cooling down our houses at the push of a button. As the snow piles up against the windows in winter and that Robin once again head bangs its way around the long-frozen bird bath in the garden, we are used to padding barefoot around the house in nothing more than a T-shirt. In summer we sit in the same T-shirt and shudder at the chill of the air-conditioning, as the sun beats down outside. The simple action of lowering the thermostat and pulling on some more clothes in winter can cut the emissions due to energy-use in the home by a third.
Food can clock up a big climate impact during its production and transport. For a developed-world family the emissions from their food alone can total more than four tonnes a year. The very process of ploughing-up soils and changing them to agricultural use leads to big greenhouse gas emissions. Since our ancestors started to cutting up trees to feed their fires, make into shelters, or hit each other with, land conversion by man has released around 200 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.
As most food now has a “Country of Origin” label it’s easy to see that much of our food is pretty travel-worn. Reducing food miles through avoiding jet-setting foods, cutting down on the number of shopping trips and the ultimate food mile free option: home grown, can make a real difference.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Time was that all that went into household bins was ash from the fire and a few food scraps, but as packaging and consumption have grown, so has the size of our bins. Replacing the thigh-high barrel shaped bins of yesteryear came giant plastic wheelie bins. Overnight whole neighbourhoods found they had been invaded by these tottering upright skips. On average each of us throws away 10 times our own body weight in rubbish each year, yet the bulk of this can be either composted or recycled. Once the bin loads of waste are collected, more than half is trucked to landfill sites where it ends up as manna from heaven for methane producing bacteria (methane is 23 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide).
By composting all the organic waste instead you will both cut greenhouse gas emissions and provide yourself with a source of free plant food. Recycling metals, glass and plastics also provides a great way to reduce the energy used in their production and so further reduce emissions.
At the heart of any truly effective push to cut greenhouse emissions from our waste is Reduce – less stuff produced in the first place. In the UK alone we use and then throw away 8 billion plastic bags a year and amongst the mass of rubbish that fills our wheelie bins each week a third will be packaging: Pick up the Sunday papers (or if you’ve a bad back get someone else to do it). From its massive bulk will fall not only a half dozen leaflets with a once-in-a-lifetime offer to buy a ‘Star Trek towel set with Klingon face flannels’ but also an extra wad of papers, itself wrapped in plastic.
The Power of One
Through making these and similarly small changes to our lifestyles – no chanting on hills or nettle soup required – we can cut our lifetime contribution to global warming by over a 1,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas. Multiply this up for your office, your street, or your town, and the potential savings are huge. Through increasing awareness and individual action in the developing world we can achieve not just one Kyoto Protocol-sized reduction in emissions, not two, but a cut equivalent to 6 Kyotos. All before the politicians have decided who will sit where at the next meeting.
As individuals we, our children and our children’s children, have a big stake in the global climate. Things could get very bad for a very large number of people. Sure, we need the politicians to take action too – there will be plenty more groans at work – but while we’re waiting for them to do their bit, let’s get on with doing ours.
Dave Reay is a Natural Environment Research Council Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. He studies greenhouse gas emissions in environments ranging from the Southern Ocean to evil-smelling drainage ditches. He has written numerous academic and popular articles about his work and is Editor of the leading climate change website He lives in a house well above sea level. His book Climate Change Begins at Home is published by Macmillan.


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