Saturday 24 December 2011

It's that ecological footprint time of year...

Today I was pointed towards a website which calculates ecological footprints (link removed because it's no longer what it was). Many people reflect on their life at this time of year, and I suppose that looking at your impact on the planet is a way of reflecting.

The website claims that my carbon footprint is 0.78 earths, which I suppose indicates a relatively sustainable level of consumption.

Being vegan, using motorized transport of all types as little as possible, keeping the thermostat in our home at a relatively low level in winter, not making long distance journeys around the world, making things last and fixing things which go wrong rather than always "updating" equipment all genuinely help to keep the footprint down, and it is likely that our footprint is lower than that of some of our neighbours

Of course, to give an exact figure of "0.78 earths" is actually nonsense. The vagueness of the questions asked means that results are not far from being completely meaningless. Accurately measuring an individual's consumption would take a lot more than a few questions on a website. Besides, like everyone else we consume some amount of fossil fuel both directly and indirectly. There is no truly sustainable level of consumption of a limited resource. What's "ecological" about using up a limited resource, even if we do so relatively frugally ?

I always approach these sorts of things with a bit of caution as you have to ask what the people behind them are trying to achieve. "Follow the money". Sometimes people who take part in such surveys report their calculated impact as something to be proud of, but I don't think they should. Websites are not always what they seem.

In this case, the website is sponsored by a range of different companies including Coca Cola and a construction company whose "Latest News" on their own website concerns a contract for exploitation of oil sands. Do they really have our best interests at heart ? Do they really want us to consume fewer processed foods and less oil or could this be "greenwashing" ?

This website, like others of its ilk, gives "carbon offsetting" as a partial solution. It's nothing of the sort. Carbon offsetting has become a business in its own right. Airlines sometimes give customers an option to "offset" their journeys by paying a little extra when they buy tickets. However, carbon offsetting is a con. It's merely a salve to the conscience. It allows consumers to continue to consume while feeling good about it. However, fundamentally, "offsetting" is a nonsense because it doesn't even attempt to solve the problem that is being created. Buying carbon offsets from an airline does not create more jet fuel. You can't put oil back under the ground by planting a tree.

If you want to do good, then by all means plant trees. Also do please support schemes to give people in the third world more efficient stoves, and make the choice of using renewable energy. These are all good things to do. However, don't imagine that any of these things gives you a right to burn fossil fuels or makes any difference to the impact that you make by doing so.

There is only one way to reduce your impact and that is to reduce how much you consume. Walk or cycle as much as you want, but use motorized transport as little as possible. It's not so much the mode of transport but the distance that you travel which is important. Buy reliable products, look after them and keep them working as long as possible. Don't replace things which still work, don't buy things you don't need. Don't let "fashion" convince you to replace your existing clothes, computer or telephone. Avoid buying products with non-replaceable batteries. Learn to repair things yourself. Insulate your home and keep your thermostat set low in the winter (we only increase ours to 18 C in the evening). Eat responsibly (a vegan diet reduces impact considerably).

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