Ethical Living and Climate Change

European Journal » Ethical Living and Climate Change

Ten or even five years ago, most of us probably knew nothing about climate change. We may not even have heard of it. Today, its looming presence is the single biggest reason for us to try and live ethical lives.

The burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – is emitting ‘greenhouse gases’, which are changing the climate of the entire planet faster and more severely than at any time in human history. Nobody quite knows what the end result will be, but the message from the highest levels of climate science is clear: the results of the damage we are doing to the planet’s climate could be severe. For all of us.

It’s a frightening message – on hearing it, it can be tempting to shrug your shoulders and give up. What, after all, can a mere individual do, in the face of this? When a problem is this big, can the way we live our lives really begin to make a difference to it?

The answer, thankfully, is yes. Individually, none of us can stop climate change: together, we have a real chance. And those of us who live in the rich countries of the world have an obligation to act. On average, each person in Britain is responsible for emitting 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide – the main greenhouse gas – every year.

That’s two and a half times the world average. If all of us make a conscious effort to reduce that total, we are well on the way to a solution to climate change.

The way to do this is to take a look at various aspects of your lifestyle, and ask how you can make it more climate friendly. Start by considering how you get around from day to day. The transport sector accounts for over a quarter of all the greenhouse gases we emit, and is the fastest growing source of them.

Much of this is due to our addiction to our cars. Between 1980 and 2002, road traffic in this country increased by a stunning 73%, and that increase is continuing. The first climate-friendly thing you can do, then, is simple: drive less.

This doesn’t have to be a chore. It can even be an opportunity to get fit and remove stress from your life. The average commuter drives 19 miles every day, and for many of us the daily commute is much further. Some have no choice, but many could substitute these stressful and unpleasant car journeys with those made by bus or train.

Even better, short local journeys can be made on foot or by bicycle. Cycling is a great way to get fit, get to know your local area and to help tackle climate change, all at once. I know people who drive to the gym, pay money to use a cycling machine when they get there, and then drive home again. I go out for a cycle ride instead – it costs nothing and the climate impact is nil. Which makes more sense to you?

Next, ask yourself a question: how many times have you travelled by plane this year? The rapid growth in the number of planes in the sky is a major cause of climate change. The government expects us to be taking at least twice as many flights by 2030 as we take now, and is building new airports and runways to meet this demand. This threatens to torpedo our chances of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. So what’s to be done?

This can be a hard question. Nobody likes the thought of having to sacrifice that foreign holiday. This is why the concept of ‘carbon offsetting’ has recently become so popular. Carbon offset companies are springing up almost daily, claiming to compensate for the carbon dioxide that you emit on your flight by planting trees, building wind farms or even paying people in poorer countries to emit less carbon dioxide themselves.

It’s an attractive idea, because it allows us all to continue our current lifestyles without feeling guilty. Unfortunately, there are some major holes in it. Some people claim, for example, that planting trees will mop up the carbon dioxide you create by flying. But trees grow so slowly that it takes decades to absorb the greenhouse gases you emit now – and that’s not enough time to tackle the problem.

Plus, when the trees die they release the greenhouse gases again: all you’ve done is delay your emissions for a few decades rather than removing them. Other forms of offsetting are beset with similar problems, and ultimately none of them provide adequate evidence that they are genuinely compensating for the greenhouse gases you emitted on that plane.

There’s nothing for it, then, but to try and limit the number of flights you take. Think about whether your flight is really necessary. Internal flights, for example, should rarely, if ever, be taken. Why do you need to fly to Cornwall, Cardiff or Edinburgh, when there are so many alternative and less polluting methods of getting there?

If you plan to fly to Europe, think about whether you could travel by train instead. And have you thought about taking some of your holidays closer to home? There are dozens of wonderful European countries to explore, which you can get to by car, train or ferry.

Then there’s Britain itself. For the last few years I have deliberately tried not to fly, simply because of the impact on the climate. The result of this has been that I’ve got to know my own country better than ever before. I’ve discovered some wonderful places and had some of the most memorable holidays of my life. If you think that flying less means sacrifice, you might find you’re pleasantly surprised.

This attitude, I think, is the key to living a climate-friendly life. Instead of worrying about all the things that you’re going to have to ‘give up’, think about the new things that you’re going to discover.

Think, for example, about food. 95% of the fruit and vegetables sold in the UK are imported. The amount of food flown into the country doubled in the 1990s and is still rising. You may think it’s ethical to buy organic food, and it very often is.

But if that organic food has been imported from the other side of the world, the impact you are having on the climate is a distinctly unethical one. It has been estimated that a typical basket of 26 types of imported organic produce will have travelled the equivalent of six times around the equator.

The solution to this is simple: buy local. In climate terms, this is almost always the best thing to do. In terms of your health and diet, it is often the best thing too. Fresh, seasonal fruit and veg is always better for you than air-freighted refrigerated or frozen stuff.

Think of those imported strawberries you bought from the supermarket recently: the ones that tasted like scented rubber. How did they compare with those from the pick-your-own farm around the corner? I would guess the answer is ‘badly’. Think about the ‘food miles’ of everything you buy.

Finally, think about the climate impact of your home. Most obviously, consider where you get your electricity from. These days, it’s quick and easy to change your electricity supplier, and competition grows every day. A happy result of this is that there are now companies that can promise that all the electricity they generate comes from renewable sources that do not pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Be careful when deciding who to go with – some companies make misleading claims about just how ‘green’ their tariffs really are. In reality, there are only two companies in Britain at the moment that genuinely guarantee that the electricity you buy comes from renewable sources: Ecotricity and Good Energy. Switch your electricity to one of these two suppliers and you have already made a big and completely painless difference.

It is not the only difference you can make at home, though. Another, which is almost as easy and has almost as impressive a result, is to change your light bulbs. It’s been estimated that if every household in Britain replaced every inefficient old-fashioned lightbulb with an energy-efficient climate-friendly one, we would be able to close down two medium sized power stations.

You might think that energy efficient light bulbs look more expensive – and they do on the shelves – but the amount of energy they will save you over their lifetimes will actually make them cheaper. And ethically, they’re the only solution.

There are many other ways that you can live a climate-friendly lifestyle on a personal level. If you have the commitment and the money, you can even hire your own personal ‘carbon coach’, who will come to your house and tutor you in every aspect of leading a low-carbon lifestyle.

Most of us wouldn’t want to go that far, but the heartening message is that all of us can make positive and painless changes to our lifestyles, which will genuinely help the planet to breathe a little more easily.

Why not start today? Saving the climate, like so much else, begins at home.