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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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

A New Age of Green Localism

A greater focus on grass-roots action and ‘green localism’ could re-engage a public that is sometimes disinterested and suspicious of environmental issues.

As the world enters an age of natural resource scarcity and climate change, food and energy insecurity will affect the way of life of local communities.

A greater focus on grass-roots action and ‘green localism’ could re-engage a public that is sometimes disinterested and suspicious of environmental issues.

The notion of ‘decentralisation’ is not a new concept and has been at the heart of the environmental movement reflecting its commitment to localism balanced by global responsibility.

Empowering community groups and strengthening community bonds could deliver multiple social and environmental benefits. People could be encouraged to take action to tackle issues that are local priorities and within their immediate sphere of influence.

There are already many groups and projects that are ‘acting locally and thinking globally’ such as cooperatives, transition towns and neighbourhood schemes. One such initiative is the York Green Neighbourhood Challenge that was undertaken by the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York and the City of York Council (UK).

The York Green Neighbourhood Challenge developed a targeted social marketing approach to engage selected areas of the City of York in Yorkshire and work with residents to reduce their carbon emissions.

Using national data on household expenditure and green attitudes as well as data on local infrastructure (e.g. proximity to local services, potential of housing stock for energy conservation and access to transport links), the initiative targeted neighbourhoods which had the greatest potential for behavioural change.

These were York neighbourhoods where households considered themselves to be ‘green’ but had a high carbon footprint.

Six teams from the targeted areas were recruited: three neighbourhoods, two primary schools and one church. Over a six-month period each team was supported by a green mentor. Team members received expert advice on home energy, recycling, travel and other action they could take to meet their target of a 10 per cent reduction in carbon emissions.

The participants who successfully completed the challenge achieved an estimated average carbon footprint reduction of 2.0 tonnes of CO2e a year. This is a total reduction of 11 per cent – which equates to an estimated total emission reduction of 98 tonnes of CO2e a year.

The largest reduction was seen in the area of shopping and home energy use.

The initiative demonstrated the benefits of taking a targeted approach in reducing household carbon emission. With support and encouragement residents can saved money, met new people and reduced their environmental impact.

The York Green Neighbourhood Challenge was effective in achieving a statistically significant reduction in the carbon footprint of households. The initiative has provided a legacy of a tried and test model of engagement. It helped to foster community spirit by giving a reason for neighbours to work together. Two of the winning teams have merged to establish one large local community group which is continuing to promote local neighbourhood change.

The ‘York model’ has now been adopted sub-regionally. The North Yorkshire Green Neighbourhood Challenge will work with community teams in seven local authorities in 2011.

People are disillusioned with the broken promises of politicians and the inertia of government in implementing the measures that can guarantee a transition to a low carbon society. A age of green localism will empower individuals to take action to create change at the local level. For many years a handful of doorstep champions have campaigned locally and raised local awareness, there is now a need for more sections of the community to get involved and to help improve the local quality of life and increase feelings of wellbeing and happiness.

More projects such as the York Green Neighbourhood Challenge are needed to encourage and foster local activism. By working in partnership with local authorities and businesses local groups could contribute to building community resilience by becoming more self-sufficient. This would enable local communities to tackle climate change, improve health and well being, secure a healthy natural environment and make their neighbourhoods safer and more cohesive.

© Gary Haq 2011

Putting the SIZZLE into Going Green

GOING Green is a bit like making love – nearly everyone likes the idea of it. Some people do it on a daily basis, some every week, others less frequently, while some individuals just do not get around to doing it at all.

GOING Green is a bit like making love – nearly everyone likes the idea of it. Some people do it on a daily basis, some every week, others less frequently, while some individuals just do not get around to doing it at all.

Back in 2007, at the peak of our eco-awareness, climate change and the carbon footprint seemed new and interesting. There was unprecedented media coverage of green issues and the public, politicians and business leaders were all developing a passion for the planet.

Prince Charles’s recently undertook a green tour of Britain on a bio-fuelled royal train. Despite green living receiving royal approval, there are signs of “green fatigue” setting in as political, public and media interest in environmental issues begins to wane. The UK’s new coalition Government’s decision to get rid of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the independent watchdog, the Sustainable Development Commission, clearly signalled the downgrading of environmental issues.

This is despite David Cameron’s promise to put the environment at the heart of government. Former chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, Jonathan Porritt, described the decision as “crass, unfounded, self-defeating and ideologically-motivated”.

The climategate and glaciergate fiasco has increased public scepticism over climate change science. A recent Ipsos Mori survey of UK public attitudes to climate change found that although the majority of respondents believe that climate change is happening, levels of concern have fallen since 2005, and less than one-third of the population currently consider it to be a purely man-made phenomenon. However, most people consider that it is their responsibility to take action and feel that they personally can make a difference.

The waxing and waning of public interest in environmental issues is nothing new. In 1967, Britain experienced its first major oil disaster when the oil tanker, Torrey Canyon, struck a rock, causing the oil pollution of 120 miles of the Cornish coastline.

Dramatic environmental disasters such as this, together with key publications on the ecological limits to economic growth, increased public concern.

By 1972, environmental issues were placed on the international political agenda when nations gathered together for the first UN Earth Summit in Stockholm. It resulted in governments establishing ministries of the environment and introducing environmental legislation.

Although the 1970s’ oil price rises dampened public interest in green issues, a decade later interest was renewed by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, a rise in green consumerism, ethical investment and increased activity of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. In 1992, the Rio Earth Summit ensured that world leaders embraced the idea of sustainable development and initiated action for a global convention on climate change.

When we are doing well, we are motivated to go green but during an economic downturn we tend to lose interest. It is therefore not surprising that in this new age of austerity we are starting to suffer from green fatigue.

In an economic recession consumers tighten their belts, sales figures fall and companies close down and stop producing polluting emissions. For example, in 2009, EU greenhouse gas emissions fell by seven per cent. A lower demand for energy has been linked to the economic recession as well as cheaper natural gas and increased renewable energy use.

Nowadays most people are familiar with the concept of the carbon footprint. Unfortunately, being aware of the environmental impact of our individual lifestyle choices does not necessarily mean we will change our behaviour. After all, we know that smoking can cause lung cancer, eating junk food can lead to heart disease and obesity and binge drinking is bad for the liver, but we still carry on regardless.

For too long, green campaigns have sold the threat of what would happen if we do not mend our ways. The danger of a “climate hell” has caused some people to switch off.

Back in the 1940s, US salesman, Elmer Wheeler, advised businesses on his “Don’t sell the sausage, sell the sizzle!” marketing approach. Wheeler’s big secret to successful selling was that you do not advertise the sausage itself as it is the desirable sounds and smells of the “sizzle” that make people hungry and want to buy it. There is increasing recognition that the “selling the sausage” approach to green issues is not delivering the fundamental changes required for us to stay within ecological limits.

A report by Futerra, a green communications consultancy, on “Selling the Sizzle: the new climate message” argues that in order to reinvigorate public and media interest, campaigns need to focus on a vision of a greener life that is positive and appealing to all.

Gary Haq discusses green issues with Ed Milliband
The recent election of Ed Milliband as the new leader of Labour Party, now the official opposition to the British government provides hope for many environmentalists.

Mr Milliband was the former Secretary of State for the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change and is a passionate advocate of action on climate change.

He recently reiterated his belief that “climate change is the greatest global threat facing our generation “, adding that “it should be at the very heart of our plan for a successful economy, at the centre of our foreign policy and integral to our mission to change Britain”.

Many environmentalists are hoping that Mr Milliband will now put climate change back on the political agenda after he has criticised the Coalition Government’s claim to be the ‘greenest ever’ as an empty gesture.

So far, environmentalists have failed to effectively communicate a compelling vision of a greener future. It is therefore time to stop selling the notion of a climate hell and start selling a “green heaven”. Let’s put the sizzle back in to going green and demonstrate that a transition to a low carbon society ultimately means a better quality of life for everyone.

© Gary Haq 2010

Photo credits: Shutterstock

The Power of Carbon Abstinence

THE 10:10 campaign is asking us to reduce our CO2 emissions by 10 per cent in 2010. Can voluntary carbon abstinence make a difference?

airline-carbon-footprintTHE 10:10 campaign is asking us to reduce our CO2 emissions by 10 per cent in 2010. Can voluntary carbon abstinence make a difference?

For the last couple of years it has become fashionable to do one’s bit to tackle climate change. Individuals have voluntarily decided to abstain from certain activities such as flying, using the car or eating meat in order to reduce their carbon footprint.

In September 2009 the 10:10 campaign was launched as an ambitious project to unite every sector of British society behind the simple idea: that by working together as a nation we can achieve a 10% cut in the UK’s carbon emissions in 2010.

The motivation for the campaign was that politicians have so far failed to do what needs to be done. The campaign believes it is time for ordinary people to show that they are ready to defend our children’s futures.

The 10:10 campaign follows similar campaigns to reduce personal carbon emissions such as Earth Hour, Act on CO2 and Stop Climate Chaos. It builds upon a recent history of collective action and awareness raising such has the 1985 Live Aid concert, 2005 Make Poverty History campaign and more recently the 2007 Live Earth event.

These events create a critical mass of public support and awareness. People join in herds to be part of something that is big and trendy and often backed by key celebrities.

There is no doubt that such big events create a tsunami of awareness that galvanises the public to take action. However, once the razzmatazz is over and the publicity has faded away does such events leave any lasting impression? More importantly will the change in behaviour or pledged action such as carbon abstinence continue?Logo-for-1010-campaign-001

There is a public willingness to be greener, individuals are often waiting for an enabling and supportive structural framework to collectively facilitate desired behaviour. They often look to others such as the government and business to take the lead, i.e. the notion of “I will if you will”.

While regulation and enforcement are key elements in reducing carbon emissions, they have yet to deliver the fundamental shift required in our level of consumption. Structural and psychological issues can limit and influence our lifestyle choices and behaviour.

Voluntary carbon abstinence can be effective approach to achieving sustained greener beahviour. However, the messsage has to be communicatd in the right way and a supportive institutional/ social, infrastructural and fiscal framework needs to be available.

A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) suggests that an approach based on saving public money, and giving the public greater control over energy bills and independence from suppliers would be more effective to engage people in adopting a low carbon lifestyle.

The report suggests that a reduction in carbons emission requires convincing consumers that in adopting lower-carbon lifestyles they can save money and have control in a chaotic world, and they can do the right thing and look good without being an environmentalist.

carbon-footprint-leavesIndividuals who participate in voluntary initiatives are acting as environmental citizens and voluntarily internalise externalities of their current lifestyle for the sake of the common good, i.e. averting the global climate crisis.

Reducing our carbon footprint requires moving from environmental awareness and concerns to collective action. Voluntary carbon abstinence is one way of empowering, educating and achieving attitudinal change in individuals.

Campaigns such as 10:10 provide the vehicle to do this. However, maintaining the mometum once the campaign is over is essential. This requires campaigning groups to keep the issue alive in the public consciousness.

Morely importantly, it will require government and business to provide the incentives and infrastructure to make a low carbon lifestyle the easy, affordable and enjoyable and natural option for everyone.

© Gary Haq 2009

It Doesn’t Have To Cost the Earth To Be Green

IN a global economic recession we may feel inclined to abandon our green intentions. However, that would be folly. On Friday 5 June it is World Environment Day – an ideal opportunity to begin to save pounds and help protect the planet.

WEDIN a global economic recession we may feel inclined to abandon our green intentions. However, that would be folly. On Friday 5 June it is World Environment Day – an ideal opportunity to begin to save pounds and help protect the planet.

The theme of this year’s World Environment Day is ‘Your Planet Needs You-UNite to Combat Climate Change‘. It reflects the urgency for nations to agree on a new deal at the crucial climate convention meeting in Copenhagen some 180 days later in the year, and the links with overcoming poverty and improved management of forests.

With the threat of global climate change and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions we are all being asked to reconsider the impact of our lifestyles. This includes many of the actions we do each day without thinking such as filling up the kettle, leaving on the light, jumping in the car to go to the local shop to throwing away things we no longer want. The government, local authorities and the environmental groups are campaigning hard to demonstrate that small changes collectively can make a difference.
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images-2Being Green in the last couple of years has become fashionable where sustainable became the new black. When once Eco-friendly conjured up something dull and worthy it became officially fashionable when bag designer Anya Hindmarch designed a bag for Sainburys supermarket with “I am not a plastic bag” written on it. The unbleached cotton bag costing £5 was sold out within an hour.

There will always be some people who will be receptive to the notion of being Green. Unfortunately, for many a green lifestyle is much lower on their personal agenda. If you are suffering from a debilitating illness, having trouble paying the bills or are a single parent struggling to bring up children being green may just seem too much effort.

Groovy_Green_Angel_TwoThe reality is that only a few people are squeaky Green the rest of us are striving to be Saints rather than Sinners. With limited time and money and family commitments we are struggling with the pressures of day-to-day life and at times the green option may not always be the convenient and appropriate option for our particular circumstances.

Energy used in homes is responsible for over a quarter of all UK emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas causing climate change. There are simple things we can all do at home to reduce our carbon footprint, save money and help tackle climate change (see below for top tips to save money and the planet).

We should not feel guilty as it is better to have many people striving to do their little bit rather than nothing at all. Government and business have a role to play in making low carbon and green options the cheaper, easier, convenient and best option for all.

On World Environment Day we can at least start to break old habits and try to make a difference for both our pocket and the planet.

TOP GREEN TIPS

Turn Appliances Off Standby
The average household could save up to £30 a year simply by switching of appliances rather than leaving them on standby. You can’t switch most electronic goods off just with the remote control therefore to turn off an appliance completely, use the power switch on the appliance itself or turn it off at the plug. Finally, if a charger or power pack is warm or has a light on, it’s probably using power.

Turn Down The Thermostat
Although it might be cold outside think about putting on a sweater and turning down the heating by 1ºC and save on your heating bills by up to 10 per cent. It can save 135kg carbon per year and reduce your footprint by up to 19%.

Use Cooler Water
If you turn your water down to 60 degrees you can save up to £20 per year on your gas bill as well as saving 161kg carbon per year and reducing your footprint by up to 1.4%.

Put Clothes Out to Dry
Rather then use a tumble drier to dry your clothes why not put them out to dry and reduce your electricity bill and save 268kg carbon per year. As well as reducing your footprint by 2.4%.

Turn Off the Lights
If you are not using a room for a while then switch off the lights. Switching off lights for a year can save £37 in electricity bills, 239kg carbon and reduce your footprint by 2.1%.

Use Energy Saving Light Bulbs
The price of energy efficient light bulbs has fallen. Bulbs cost about £2 or cheaper if bought from a budget shop. According to the Energy Saving Trust fitting just one energy saving light bulb could save you on average around £3 a year, depending on how long your lights are in use every day. For brighter bulbs or those used for more hours a day it can save up to £6 a year. Fit all the lights in your house with energy saving bulbs and you could save around £50 a year and £675 over the lifetime of all of the bulbs.

Eat Away, Not Throw Away
When it comes to food we tend to throw away about a third of the food we buy. For an average UK household this amounts to £424. If this ends up in landfill it produces methane, a greenhouse gas judged to be more than 20 times as powerful as carbon dioxide in causing climate change. Throwing less food away produces less methane and reduces other harmful environmental impacts from producing, packaging and transporting food. Better meal planning can prevent food waste, save money and save 89kg of carbon per year. As well as reducing your footprint by up to 0.8%.

Finally, you can achieve further savings by reusing rather than buying new:

Become a Freecycler
If you need furniture, clothes, tools or books but can’t afford them then join your local Freecycle Group. Freecycle groups match people who have things they want to get rid of with people who can use them rather than sending them off to landfill. By using what we already have, we reduce consumerism, manufacture fewer goods, and lessen the impact on the planet.

Hold a Swishing Party
Get your friends together and hold a Swishing Party, which a fun way to swap clothes you no longer want and party at the same time. Every person must bring at least one good quality, clean item of clothing or an accessory they feel proud to hand on. This is Eco recycling at its best.

© Gary Haq 2009