The Carbon Cost of Christmas

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Christmas time is accompanied by seasonal increases in our level of consumption. But what is the environmental impact of Christmas?

From eating and drinking to giving and receiving, it is the time of the year when we do things to excess. Unfortunately, it also means we are likely to have a greater impact on the environment.

A number of studies have attempted to calculate the carbon footprint of Christmas.

So, let’s start with the Christmas tree. When it comes to the use of an artificial versus a natural Christmas tree, one study found that when compared on an annual basis, the artificial tree (6 yrs life span) has three times more impact on climate change and resource depletion than the natural tree. The natural tree contributes significantly less carbon dioxide emission (39%) than the artificial tree.

As for Christmas dinner, it has been estimated that a British style Christmas dinner is equivalent to 20kg of carbon dioxide (CO2) emission – 60 per cent related to life cycle of turkey. Total equivalent emissions for UK Christmas dinners is 51,000 tonnes – or 148 million miles travelled in a car. Cranberry sauce is the worst offender for transport-related carbon emissions.

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Even Santa Claus is not excluded from scrutiny. With  another study suggesting that Santa’s 133 million mile trip around the world is responsible for emitting about 70 million tons of CO2!

However, if we look at the total consumption and spending on food, travel, lighting and gifts over three days of festivities (Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day). Then this could result in as much as 650 kg of CO2 emissions per person – equivalent to the weight of 1,000 Christmas puddings!

Such studies will vary in their assumptions, data sets and methodologies and may not necessarily be comparable. However, we don’t need any study to tell us what we already know –  that our consumption peaks at this time of the year.

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But we can still have a good Christmas and be kind to the planet?

With a bit of thought we can limit the impact we have on the environment this Christmas and still have a great time. There are a number of actions we can all take which can reduce our CO2 emissions.

Food
• Support your local economy and try buying from local organic suppliers.

• Compost your vegetable peelings after you’ve finished cooking to make sure that this extra organic waste doesn’t head straight to landfill.
• Plan your meal carefully to reduce the amount of uneaten food thrown away – check who likes Brussels sprouts!
Travel
• Plan your Christmas travel to reduce the distance travelled and try and use environmentally friendly modes of transport or car share.
Lighting
• Less is more when it come Christmas lighting! Opt for a small tasteful lighting display and turn the fairy lights off before bed and save both money and carbon.

Shopping

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• When it comes to Christmas presents buy quality not quantity. Well-made goods last longer and will not have to be replaced in the New Year.
• A good Christmas gift doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive.
Think about giving alternative gifts such as a charity or environmentally friendly gift, an experience or giving your time.
• Give your unwanted gifts to charity or to local hospitals or hospices.

In this time of seasonal goodwill, we should all spare a thought for the planet!

A Merry Christmas to you all, everyone!

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How Can We Protect An Ageing Population From The Effects of Environmental Change?

sri-lanka-flood-older-man-carried_246x211By 2050 there will be an unprecedented increase in the number of people aged 55-plus representing nearly a quarter of the global population.

The rise in the numbers of older people is happening more rapidly in developing countries where 60 per cent of the world’s older people currently live, particularly in Asia and Africa.

An ageing population has wide-ranging implications for environment, economy and society. Changes in age structure together with an expanding population, rapid urbanisation and levels of consumption are all placing pressure on the global environment.

This presents challenges in eradicating poverty, ensuring environmental justice and achieving an environmentally sustainable development, especially in the least developed countries of the world.

Acceleration of Global Ageing

The interaction between an ageing population and the environment poses significant challenges and opportunities for public policy.

However, policy makers at the international level have given little attention to the effects global environmental change will have on this demographic group.

Older people are a diverse group. Some are educated, fit, active and wealthy, have access to most of the goods and services they need and desire and play a key role in caring for themselves and other family members including grandchildren. In contrast, others are poor, frail and require care and financial support.

There are major regional differences, with poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia resulting in many older people in these areas lacking access to clean water, sanitation, nutrition and basic health care, making them highly vulnerable to environmental threats.

A study by the Stockholm Environment Institute reviews the key issues relevant to global ageing and environmental change. It examines older people not only in terms of their vulnerability to environmental threats but as potential contributors to environmental sustainability. The study recommend three areas for action if we are protect older people from future environmental change.

REDUCING THE ENVIRONMENTAL FOOTPRINT OF AN AGEING POPULATION

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Promoting greener attitudes and behaviours and influencing individual lifestyle choices across the life course are measures that can and should be used to reduce the future and current environmental footprint of older people.

This is particularly important at a time when many rapidly developing countries are seeing an increase in a high-consuming middle-class group who will eventually grow older.

There is an equally important need to engage older people using appropriate approaches such as peer-to-peer approaches which could provide more credibility.

Targeted engagement of older people not only fosters greener behaviours but also responds to their perceived lack of opportunities for social involvement and inter¬action.

Recent studies undertaken on direct interaction with the older age sector on climate change have demonstrated that, used in the appropriate way, it is a headline topic that stimulates lively discussion and debate on many issues related to environment and sustainability

Appropriate infrastructure and incentives that encourages greener behaviours in later life will also be needed. Since there will be a high number of urban seniors, achieving age-friendly cities will be important. In particular, older people require supportive and enabling living environments to compensate for physical and social changes associated with ageing.

These include walkable outdoor space and accessible public buildings, accessible and affordable public transport, appropriately designed, affordable and energy efficient housing with access to local services, opportunities for social participation and social inclusion, civic participation and employment.

PROTECTING OLDER PEOPLE FROM ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGE

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We need policies that reduce the environmental vulnerability of older people and that focus on each part of the dynamic process that creates vulnerability.

These include policies that ensure people reach later life with sufficient reserves (e.g. coping skills, strong family and social ties and savings and assets), reducing the challenges they face in later life, and providing adequate health and social protection.

These factors will be different for older people in the developed and developing world. In developing countries, lack of basic infrastructure such as clean water and sanitation and health and social care combined with poverty and malnutrition make them vulnerable to environmental threats.

HelpAge International has discussed the need for climate and development strategies to be responsive to the realities of the ageing population and climate change. They suggest without age appropriate action, the effectiveness and success of climate adaption and national development and resilience strategies could be significantly compromised.

HelpAge International outlines ten strategies to coping with an ageing population in a changing climate .

In addition, Help the Aged identified ten basic requirements to make developed world communities better for older people.

These requirements included: adapting new and existing accommodation to suit people of all ages; transport options that meet the needs of all older people; keeping pavements in good repair; provision of public toilets; public seating; good street lighting and clean streets with a police presence; access to shops and services; places to socialise; information and advice; and ensuring older people’s voices are heard on issues from social care to volunteering opportunities.

If we are going to better protect individual countries need to be adopted. Policies that provide social protection, encouraging healthy life¬styles, acquisition of coping skills, strong family and social ties, active interests and, of course, savings and assets, will be important. All will assist in ensuring that people’s reserves are, and remain, strong in later life.

MOBILISING OLDER PEOPLE IN ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION

volunteerSeniors’ knowledge of the local environment, its vulnerabilities and how the community responds allows them to play a key role in reducing the environmental impact of disasters. In particular, their knowledge of socio-ecological system and coping mechanisms can in some contexts be critical when developing local disaster risk reduction and adaptation plans .

Growing old in the twenty-first century will bring with it the unique challenge of a changing global environment with variable climate and weather patterns which will impact on all aspects of life. Policies therefore need to be ‘age proofed’ so that they can support older people through their life course.

If we are to prevent and minimise the negative impact of environmental change on older people, there is an urgent need to better understand the interaction between global ageing and the environment. We need to harness the contribution older people can make to addressing environmental threats, while reducing their vulnerability.

Are Green Taxes Pointless?

OVER the last two decades UK carbon emissions rather than falling have increased by 20 per cent, according to figures recently published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

Carbon emissions associated with our spending on goods and services contribute to the national carbon footprint wherever these emissions arise in the world. Imports such as products made in China now account for almost half of the country’s carbon emissions.

The lack of progress on carbon reduction has led many to question the use of green taxes at a time when there is an urgent need to kick-start the economy. Critics believe green taxes have imposed unnecessary costs on UK industry – shifting emissions and jobs overseas.

Speaking at last year’s Conservative Party conference Chancellor George Osborne said: “We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business”. So are environmental taxes pointless and are we wasting our time trying to cut the UK’s carbon footprint?

Taxation and death are two certainties in an increasingly uncertain world. Tax is a way we all contribute to our society yet the link between tax and enjoying the benefits of a good society seem to have been lost some time ago. Mark Twain once wrote: “The only difference between a tax man and a taxidermist is that the taxidermist leaves the skin.”

Public resistance to taxation seems particularly strong when it comes to the use of green taxes whether this is a tax on carbon, fuel, bins or plastic bags. Green taxes have been used both to raise revenue and reduce environmental impacts.

In 2010 environmental taxes accounted for 8 per cent of total taxes and social contributions – equivalent to 3 per cent of the UK Gross Domestic Product. In total the Government received £42 billion from environmental taxes – £3 billion more than in 2009. The increase in tax revenue came mainly from fuel duty and the associated VAT on petrol and diesel.

Fuel duty was never intended as a green tax but has successfully discouraged car use. In last year’s budget the Chancellor cancelled the fuel duty escalator which each year added an extra penny on top of inflation. However, a planned rise in August will increase the price of petrol by 3p per litre. This has already resulted in pensioners, cabbies, van drivers and hauliers taking to the streets in protest.

Rising oil prices mean pump prices will reach a record high and has sparked fears that there could be a repeat of national fuel protests similar to those seen in September 2000. In an age of austerity fuel increases is seen as an additional pressure on hard-pressed motorists and businesses that rely on fuel.

Another green tax is the air passenger duty which has been used to discourage air travel. The duty will rise by 8 per cent this year, eventually rising to 50 per cent by 2016. Britain’s four largest airlines EasyJet, British Airways, Ryanair and Virgin Atlantic claim the increase would mean fewer visitors to the UK and will result in job losses in tourism, aviation and hospitality industries. The rise will price out families from flying with an average family of four facing a £500 levy to fly to Australia in four years’ time.

If the UK is to meet its target of an 80 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, major reforms of the electricity sector are needed. From April 2013 the conservative-led coalition government will introduce a ‘carbon floor’ price to increase the financial incentive to adopt low-carbon technologies. This tax aims to make the polluter pay a minimum amount for the right to pollute.

The floor price will start at around £16 per tonne of carbon dioxide and reach a target of £30 in 2020. The policy has been criticised as being ineffective and unfair as other EU companies will not face a minimum price for carbon.

The government admits around 40 per cent of the total costs of the floor price is likely to be borne by households – increasing the average household electricity bill by as much as 6 per cent.

Much of the opposition to green taxes is based on the impression that individuals and businesses are already being taxed too much. Unfortunately, there will always be opposition to green taxes until there is widespread recognition of the environmental and societal costs caused by our high consuming lifestyles.

Whether this is the health and environmental impacts of vehicle-related air and noise pollution or the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from air travel and the domestic energy sector. We have become so disconnected from the natural world that we do not see it has been fundamental to our way of life. Nor does our current economic system place enough value on the services the environment provides to society.

A 2009 report by the Green Fiscal Commission claims there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that environmental taxes are effective. Numerous examples of successful green taxes in other countries exist. These include the Danish energy taxes, the Swedish tax on nitrogen oxide emissions from energy plants, the German energy and transport taxes, the UK climate change levy and fuel duty escalator, the Finnish, Swedish and UK waste taxes, the London congestion charge and the Dutch waste water effluent charge.

The failure to cut national carbon emissions over the last two decades is being used to argue for green taxes to be diluted or scrapped altogether. Such an argument misses the point. What we need to address is our insatiable appetite for cheap throwaway products we find in pound shops up and down the country.

The surge in imported goods from developing countries that rely on dirty coal-fired power stations means we have successfully exported our pollution. It also means that we should accept responsibility for the emissions caused by the production of the goods that we buy.

If green taxes are to be made more publicly acceptable and effective they need to be straightforward so that taxpayers understand the behavioural change signal being sent. In order to build trust and acceptance of green taxes there needs to be greater use of ‘hypothecation’ of revenues.

This means earmarking tax revenues derived from a green tax for a specific environmentally friendly purpose. For example, the licence fund is used to finance the BBC. Therefore transport taxes could be used directly to improve public transport and infrastructure. Taxpayers will then clearly see the benefits of the green tax.

In an age of austerity it is easy to claim green taxes inhibit growth. However, such an argument does not recognise the economic, cultural and social benefits we gain from the multitude of resources and processes that are supplied by nature. Collectively, these benefits are known as ‘ecosystem services’ and include products such as clean drinking water and processes that result in the decomposition of wastes.

Green taxes are therefore important to ensure we protect our ‘life support system’. Rather than being seen as stealth taxes they should be seen as transparent incentives to change behaviour and to help us to make the transition to a low carbon and sustainable society on which our future prosperity depends.

© Gary Haq 2012

Our Green History

oday environmentalism influences the language and decisions of government, corporations and individuals to an extent that was not possible a century ago.

The belief that the environment should be protected has become widely held throughout society as the global speed and scale of resource use and environmental destruction has been recognised and understood.

As western standards of living have increased, basic material needs have been met, and people have demanded higher standards of environmental quality. But beyond the basic belief that the environment should be protected, there is no agreement on why this is important or how this should be done. There is no unifying set of environmental ideas that society subscribes to nor a single environmental movement united behind a shared cause.

Environmentalism has evolved in complex and sometimes contradictory ways to span conservative, reformist and radical ideas about what the world should look like, as well as how change should be brought about. Each strand of modern environmental thinking brings its own set of ideas about how humanity should organise itself and interact with its environment.

Today environmentalism influences the language and decisions of government, corporations and individuals to an extent that was not possible a century ago.

The belief that the environment should be protected has become widely held throughout society as the global speed and scale of resource use and environmental destruction has been recognised and understood.

As western standards of living have increased, basic material needs have been met, and people have demanded higher standards of environmental quality. But beyond the basic belief that the environment should be protected, there is no agreement on why this is important or how this should be done. There is no unifying set of environmental ideas that society subscribes to nor a single environmental movement united behind a shared cause.

Environmentalism has evolved in complex and sometimes contradictory ways to span conservative, reformist and radical ideas about what the world should look like, as well as how change should be brought about. Each strand of modern environmental thinking brings its own set of ideas about how humanity should organise itself and interact with its environment.

Over the last 60 years these have evolved with each new environmental cause from nuclear power and pesticide use in the 1960s, to acid rain and the depletion of the ozone layer in the 1970s and 1980s and biodiversity loss and climate change in the 1990s and 2000s. Often these causes have taken hold in different countries at different times, each prompted by particular historical circumstances. For this reason environmentalism has been taken up in many forms across generations and the continents of the world.

The explosion of environmental activity in the 1960s did not represent the creation of an entirely new set of ideas. In 1885 German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) wrote: “It would never occur to me to regard the enjoyment of nature as the invention of the modern age.” The same can be said for modern day interest in the environment.

The fact that modern environmental concern spread following atomic bomb tests and to the backdrop of the Vietnam War is a point much referred to by historians and environmentalists. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (1962) was amongst the first to link the dangers of the atomic bomb to the misuse of pesticides, emphasising humanity’s capacity to destroy nature and itself.

Over the next ten years a number of publications followed suit, Tragedy of the Commons (1968), and Limits to Growth (1972), raised wider anxieties about the future of the planet, whilst Blueprint for Survival (1972), and Small is Beautiful (1973) sketched out green alternatives. Almost half a century later the anxieties expressed in each of these books are still at the centre of many environmental concerns today.

Media coverage of dramatic pollution events has been instrumental in raising environmental concerns over the last half century.The first major oil spill in Britain occurred when the super tanker Torrey Canyon struck a reef between the UK mainland and the Isles of Scilly in March 1967.

The resulting oil slick covered 120 miles of Cornish coast, killing tens of thousands of birds. Two years later an explosion on the Union Oil Company oil platform, six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara in California, resulted in the release of hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil.

These highly visible examples of humanity’s impact on the environment occurred as the age of colour television began and broadcasters discovered that major pollution events made visually dramatic news stories. Each decade since has witnessed at least one massive oil spill from a super tanker or oil platform, these serve as timely reminders that environmental issues have not gone away.

The history of contemporary environmentalism has been marked by the establishment of new institutions. Campaigns on issues such as pesticide use and nuclear testing led to the development of a new breed of professional campaign groups which have become the public face of environmentalism.

At the same time governments have responded to public concerns about the environment by establishing environmental institutions of their own. Agencies, scientific programmes, international agreements, laws and regulations have been established to support environmental goals.

All this has helped give environmentalism a permanence that has transcended the decades.

This article is based on the book Environmentalism Since 1945 by Gary Haq and Alistair Paul, published by Routledge in September 2011.

© Gary Haq 2011

Valuing The Precious Commodity of Water

FOR a long time we have enjoyed the luxury of a plentiful supply of water. So much so we have taken its availability for granted.

FOR a long time we have enjoyed the luxury of a plentiful supply of water. So much so we have taken its availability for granted.

How many of us are guilty of leaving the tap on while brushing our teeth, over filling the kettle or spending too much time in the shower?

Each person in the UK uses an estimated 150 litres of water a day which is equivalent to 264 pints of milk.

By the time water reaches our tap it has already been cleaned, treated and pumped from reservoirs, rivers and aquifers with much of it being leaked from pipes.

It is only in times of drought such as that experienced in parts of the UK are we forced to rethink how we value and use water.

Water is a crucial element for human existence as clearly demonstrated by the devastating effects of the severe drought in East Africa.

Safe water is necessary to avoid death from dehydration, reduce the risk of water-related disease and provide for domestic use.

It is estimated that each person needs about 20 litres of water each day to drink, cook and wash.

Everyone has a right to sufficient, safe, acceptable and affordable water. Unfortunately, these days fresh clean water is becoming a precious commodity.

A European Environment Agency report on water resources across Europe shows that southern Europe continues to experience the greatest water scarcity problems. However, water stress is growing in parts of northern Europe.

Drought is a feature of the UK’s variable climate, with dry spells possible at any time of the year. According to the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), this year England suffered its driest spring in a century, leaving fields parched and many rivers at a record low.

This is in contrast to Scotland that had one of the wettest springs on record and areas of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, parts of Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, and western Norfolk which are in drought.

The dry weather affected navigation on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal with restrictions on boat movements. While recent rain and unsettled weather has helped the environment, farmers and water companies and eased canal navigation, this does not mean the drought or risk of drought is over. Damage to crops caused by the dry spring is now likely to be irreversible.

More dry weather will place further pressure on water resources. The Environment Agency believes this could result in drought conditions spreading into central England and further east.

This would impact livestock farmers, affecting the cost and availability of animal feed and bedding for next winter. while at the same time restricting arable farmers from spray irrigating their crops.

Public water supply can cope easily with a few months of dry weather, but prolonged droughts require careful management. The Yorkshire region experienced it worst drought in March 1995. Reservoirs in the upland Pennines hills were at capacity following a very wet period.

However, by the August, reservoirs in some areas were below 20 per cent capacity. This resulted in a severe water problem in the region and required emergency drinking water being tankered in from Kielder reservoir in Northumberland to West Yorkshire to help resolve the situation.

By 2020, the national demand for water in the UK could rise by as much as five per cent due to an increase in population and housing. This would mean finding an extra 800 million litres of water each day.

In particular, hot water used in the home is responsible for approximately 35 million tonnes of greenhouse gases a year due to reheating and water treatment processes.

Our abuse of water is due to the fact that majority of us do not have to pay for the amount we use. We do not provide electric sockets allowing people to use as much electricity as they want then why should we do it with water?

If we are to meet the UK national target to reduce our water use by 20 litres a day by 2020 then we will all have to become more “water wise”. Water metering is considered the fairest way to pay for water.

It also provides an incentive to use less water which is beneficial for the environment. A water meter is estimated to reduce household water consumption by about 10 per cent. However, this could result in the poorest households facing higher bills

We currently face the prospect of further water stress due to the combined effects of climate change, water intensive lifestyles and pressures of land use changes.

If we are to continue and enjoy high standards of water, we need to reduce demand, minimise the amount of water that we are extracting and increase the efficiency of its use.

This requires everyone doing their bit including water companies, farmers and consumers in addressing how we use and value water.

© Gary Haq 2011