How serious [are you / is your school / is your government] about the environment?

Last month an article came out that was widely reported across social media, entitled “The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions“. The authors from Sweden and Canada contrasted the effects of various activities on carbon dioxide emissions with government recommendations and discovered some interesting things…

They found there are four actions that clearly have the largest impact on CO2 emissions and three of them were perhaps predictable: eating a plant-based diet, living car-free and avoiding airplane travel. The fourth, and significantly largest, action was perhaps surprising: having one less child.

Having one less child equates to an average reduction equivalent to 58.6 tonnes of CO2 per year in developed countries. That’s 24x more savings than the next best, living car free (2.4 tCO2e). One long-haul flight (1.6 tCO2e) and a year’s plant-based diet (0.82 tCO2e) come in next. Note how these numbers compare to the widely-acknowledged limit of 2.1 tCO2e per person needed to keep global temperature rises below 2 degrees C…

On the other hand, they found that recommendations in government guides and school textbooks focus almost exclusively on minor actions, such as getting wall insulation, eating less meat and hang-drying clothes (0.2 tCO2e each). The big 4 actions only got 8 mentions out of 216 in textbooks; the authors Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas were quick to point out this huge discrepancy.

You can read the Open Access article here.

My recent visit to Tsukuba, Japan was extremely interesting – and conflicting – in this regard. Firstly, I had chosen to make the flight halfway around to world. That’s about 80 % of my CO2 limit used just like that. If I want to eat meat this year I’m already well over my 2.1 tCO2e. That’s thought-provoking, not least because as much as I would love not to have to endure long-haul flights ever again, it’s generally accepted that to be a successful researcher you must travel to international conferences.

Airplane window

Secondly, I was staying with a good friend, Martin Elborg, whose electricity is supplied solely by a homemade setup of two solar panels and a lead-acid battery. He’s not connected to the mains grid and that means he has to carefully manage his electricity consumption and lifestyle alongside it. He has no microwave, fridge, kettle or air-conditioning, relying on much more efficient heating by gas for his cooking. In 30+ degrees heat the lack of air-con meant drinking lots of water and hoping for a cool breeze during the night! It was a real eye-opener on how it’s possible to live with LESS energy, not just improve efficiency.

Martin's solar panels

Finally, the conference I was speaking at ended with a special session presented by Karina Vink, whose presentation entitled “Sustainably scaling up your basic research: environmental considerations for materials scientists” stimulated a great deal of debate. She’s found that, as much as materials scientists – myself included – would like to think they’re doing something good for the planet, very few of us have a firm understanding of the real effects of our materials and processes on the environment. Surely we should be doing better in this age when sustainability matters.

Thank you Thien, Martin and Karina.

Postscript 13/08/17: In an effort to see how easy it is to reduce my own CO2 footprint, after much debate, I’m going to go vegetarian for a month…


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