How you can make an impact in the fight against climate change in 2022

Adapting our habits at home can make a real difference to the environment

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The threats facing our planet remain as serious as ever.

From climate change to biodiversity loss, from plastic pollution to poor air quality, the problems are so varied it can make it difficult to know where to start.

In a world of about eight billion people, the impact one person can make in addressing these issues is small, unless it is added to the efforts of numerous other people making the same changes.

For the consumer, trying to be kinder to the planet is not always easy. An array of stamps and certificates seem to indicate products are more environmentally sound, but there are concerns that products may present themselves as eco-friendly purely for marketing purposes, a form of “greenwashing”.

If you can eat lower down the food chain, that is more efficient in terms of land use
Dan Eatherley, environmental consultant

Practical considerations may also make it difficult to be green. Prof Stewart Barr of the University of Exeter in the UK looks at how the public engages with environmental issues. He says people living in areas poorly served by public transport, and where the roads are busy and unsuitable for cycling, may have little option but to drive to work, for example. Districts should not be designed with only car access in mind, he says.

“What we should be doing is privileging cycling and walking and public transport,” he says.

But, in other respects, he says it has become easier to be green with services such as recycling complexes more widely available than before.

So, how can we, the consumer, do our part?

Here we look at things each of us can do to reduce our environmental impact.

Eat what you buy

Agriculture is responsible for about a quarter of carbon emissions and has been blamed for more than half the world’s biodiversity loss, so changing how we eat can reduce our environmental footprint.

Dan Eatherley, an environmental consultant in the UK who has carried out projects for organisations including Google, the European Commission, Zero Waste Scotland and the UK’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, says organic food is typically a better choice environmentally.

However, as with some other areas, he says doing what is better for nature can cost more money as organic food typically has a higher price tag.

“If you are buying food, it definitely saves waste if you plan what you are going to cook,” he says.

“Bringing a shopping list is better than turning up at the supermarket and being influenced by walking up the aisles – you will probably buy more food then that you won’t eat before it goes past its use-by date.”

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , JULY 11 – 2018 :- Workers loading the UAE Food Bank in Al Quoz with food stuff collected from different supermarkets , hotels and bakeries in Dubai.  ( Pawan Singh / The National )  For News. Story by Patrick Ryan

The environmental impact of meat and dairy product consumption is increasingly discussed. Effects include deforestation because land is cleared not only for grazing, but also to grow crops such as soya for animal feed. Also, cattle produce methane, which is more than 25 times as potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

“If you can eat lower down the food chain, that is more efficient in terms of land use,” said Mr Eatherley.

“It takes many more acres to produce cattle or other livestock than it does to produce plant-based foods.”

Prof Barr says consumers can try to select foods that have been grown locally, rather than flown in. Also, choosing food, particularly fresh produce, that has less packaging, is more environmentally friendly.

“There are more and more shops enabling people to bring their own containers,” he says, with breakfast cereals sometimes sold loose so that no packaging is used.

Opt for a staycation

Transport accounts for about one fifth of carbon dioxide emissions and also has a harmful effect on air quality through the release noxious gases and particulate matter.

So, walking or cycling are considered to be the greenest ways to move around and, for longer trips, buses or trains (including metros) are preferable.

Where driving is necessary, using a hybrid or electric vehicle is environmentally preferable, especially if the electricity that charges up the battery comes from a renewable source.

However, the minerals needed to produce electric car batteries may require destructive mining, and even electric vehicles produce particulate matter through their brakes and tyres, as well through road wear.

Aviation accounts for 1.9 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to OurWorldinData. This may not sound a lot but technical factors mean that aviation is actually thought to be responsible for about 3.5 per cent of the effect humans have on the climate.

Also, only about a fifth of the world’s population flies, so its effects are caused by a minority of people.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says that a single short-haul flight can account for 10 per cent of a person’s annual carbon emissions.

“If you wanted to be really strict, you would avoid holidays that involve travelling on an plane,” said Mr Eatherley.

“You can try to offset the carbon but that is quite controversial. Airlines have various schemes where you can pay a bit extra.”

Prof Barr notes that travelling overland sometimes does not take much longer than going by air – and is often more enjoyable.

Harness the sunlight

Installing solar panels allows us to generate our own electricity instead of relying on a national grid that may distribute power generated using fossil fuels.

Also, we can reduce our energy consumption by not leaving devices and lights on unless necessary.

Switching televisions and computers off at the plug is preferable to leaving them on standby. LED bulbs use less power than standard ones.

Switching off the air conditioning and allowing a natural breeze to cool the home is another energy-saving tactic, as is using a heat pump instead of a gas boiler in chillier parts of the world.

Choosing more environmentally sensitive cleaning products such as detergents is also recommended, although this is another example of where going green may be more expensive.

Woman shampooing her hair, selective focus, canon 1Ds mark III

Some people also choose eco-friendly shampoos because some standard products include substances, especially foaming agents, that can be environmentally harmful.

A 2016 book, Taking Stock of Industrial Ecology, stated that “households are accountable for nearly three quarters of global carbon emissions”, so the changes people make at home can make a difference.

Be more minimalist

From holiday souvenirs to clothes, from smartphones to household appliances, “stuff” is both the joy and the blight of the modern age.

While a new purchase often gives an initial buzz, this may fade in time and our once-prized purchases can become clutter that fills up our home and, later on, rots in landfill sites.

“There is very little evidence that wanting lots of stuff makes people feel better,” said Prof Barr. “It usually satisfies some anxiety about their place in life and their relationship with other people.”

Organisations including WWF suggest people should consider adopting a less consumerist lifestyle in which they simply buy fewer things. This saves money as well as the planet.

As well as the carbon emissions generated from waste disposal, effects include the energy cost of transport and manufacturing and the potential impact, such as mining, when materials are sourced.

“If you can just keep using the same thing for as long as possible, you are reducing the environmental impact both after you throw it away and when its replacement is produced. It is a double whammy,” said Mr Eatherley.

"Fast fashion" is seen as a growing problem: clothes are worn only a few times and discarded. Artificial materials such as polyester can take as long as 200 years to decompose.

Prof Barr says the pandemic has shown for many people the benefits of reconnecting with their local area and the things that they can do there, rather than consuming.

“Focus more on experiences. It might be human interaction. It might be physical activity,” he said.

There are small choices we can make to reduce consumption, from not printing out paper at work to having reusable water bottles or coffee cups.

Updated: January 02, 2022, 7:56 AM