Ethical Consumerism, Part 9 – How to reduce your carbon footprint

I had always intended to write a post on the top things you can do to reduce your footprint. But I procrastinated, partly because I never felt that I’d done enough research and partly because the topic has been covered pretty widely. However, many of the lists that you’ll find online don’t really hit on the top priorities. Going back decades, we’ve had mantras like: Use energy-efficient lightbulbs!  Recycle! Bring your own shopping bag! Carry your own water bottle!  These are all certainly good things to do, but we really should have adopted these habits years ago and be looking beyond them.

I saw this question on Quora the other day:

What are the best ways to decrease your carbon footprint, other than transportation?

And I decided to stop procrastinating and attempt to answer it. I decided to take the top 7 solutions from Project Drawdown, which is considered to be one of the best all-encompassing analyses on how to mitigate climate change, and look at how they can be applied on an individual level. The focus is on carbon footprint, but most of the topics below do have wide impacts, including water, habitat conservation, pollution, social equality, and animal welfare.

Top ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

The top 7 actions to mitigate climate change from Project Drawdown. #1 Refrigerant Management; #2 Wind Turbines; #3 Reduce Food Waste; #4 Plant-Rich Diet; #5 Tropical Forests; #6 Educating Girls; #7 Family Planning

#1: Refrigerant Management

This seemed like an unexpected item to top the Drawdown list, and on an individual level it applies to some more than others. If you have an air conditioner then the main actions are to make sure it doesn’t leak and is ultimately disposed of properly. If buying a new freezer or air conditioner for your home or workplace, then seek out models that use a refrigerant with a low global warming potential (GWP). I’ve covered the topic in this post: Daily Footprint, #29 – Refrigeration.

A leak of 1 kg of refrigerant causes about the same environmental damage as driving a van 10,000 miles.

#2: Wind Energy

As covered in my last post, one of the most effective actions you can take is to check with your electricity provider to find out if they have a 100% renewable option. You can also search for specialized renewable energy providers in your country (for example, on Green-e in the US). To reduce domestic electricity use, heating and cooling are usually the largest energy drains and therefore your thermostat and water heater are good places to start.

#3: Reduce Food Waste

#4: Plant-Rich Diet

These two items are widely acknowledged as key actions and require little explanation. There is some confusion and debate over the use of highly intensive agriculture, which is commonly pushed as a solution to the future issue of feeding the 9 billion. But intensive agriculture will only compound our problems; instead of increasing our use of pesticides, fertilizer, tilling, and monocultures, we really need to support sustainable agriculture. More info here: How to Sustain the Population in 2050.

Industrial agriculture is good at feeding populations but it is not sustainable. It’s like an extractive industry, said Louise Baker, external relations head of the UN body. She said the fact that a third of land is now degraded should prompt more urgent action to address the problem. – The Guardian.

Instead of trying to eek out a 10% increase in crop yield at the expense of waterways, soil quality, and both local and global ecosystems, we need to stop wasting 33% of our food. That small increase in yield is often short-lived (and when local ecosystems crash the yield can plummet to zero), while yields and soil quality actually increase over time when sustainable farming methods are used.

Instead of further intensifying agriculture, we need to stop funneling our food supply through animals who live in unhappy conditions, losing much of it in the process. A plant-rich diet requires significantly lower carbon, land, and water inputs.

Opportunity food losses of beef, pork, dairy, poultry, and eggs are 96%, 90%, 75%, 50%, and 40%, respectively. Shepon et al., PNAS, 2018.

#5: Deforestation

As with any of these topics, there’s a wide range of actions that you can take; for example, campaigning against the new president of Brazil who promises to exploit the Amazon, or the premier of Ontario, who announced the cancellation of pending renewable energy projects. (It’s really concerning that many examples come to mind without even having to mention the T-word.) But this is an ethical consumerism blog and I want to focus on the actions that we can take as consumers. And I strongly believe that, in these bizarre times of political takeovers by thugs who want to undo the protection of our environment, it’s more important than ever to make ethical choices as a consumer. A good example on the topic of deforestation and land use is palm oil: Why is Palm Oil Bad?

Deforestation is also closely linked to the previous point: eating a plant-based diet. A seminal paper in Nature Communications (2016) looked at 500 scenarios for meeting the global food supply in 2050 without deforestation. Looking at different combinations of farming practices (from intensive to organic) and human diets (from meat-rich to vegan), the researchers found that it’s much, much harder to avoid deforestation (or intensification) when our diets are meat-heavy:

18% of all scenarios are limited by cropland availability, 16% by limits to grazing intensity and 7% by a concomitance of both constraints. Whereas all VEGAN scenarios and 94% of the VEGETARIAN scenarios are feasible. 

#6 Educating Girls

#7 Family Planning

The human population growth rate is highest in regions with limited educational and community resources. What does this have to do with your shopping choices? Well, many of the items we buy (chocolate, coffee, tea, electronics, clothing, etc.) have supply chains that originate in developing countries. Large multinational corporations’ supply chains originate mostly in commodity markets that provide minimum benefits to farmers, miners, factory workers, etc. Supporting companies that have direct supply chains to growers and cooperatives in developing countries is an important action that you can take.

Many of the smaller, progressive companies actively support community needs such as education or infrastructure (e.g., Alaffia soap). Reducing your “own” carbon footprint is not only about how much electricity you use (although that is part of it) – it’s also about how you impact other people on the planet. More here: Ethical Consumerism, Part 6: Population Growth.

So, these are the top items for mitigating climate change, according to Project Drawdown, and I think they cover many of the key areas (besides transportation) to keep in mind as an ethical consumer. On the subject of family planning, there’s one other very high-impact action (actually, inaction) that you can take – you can probably guess what it is.

8 thoughts on “Ethical Consumerism, Part 9 – How to reduce your carbon footprint

  1. This is very informative, and yes you are quite right about the need to look beyond those well known go-to’s such as energy efficient light bulbs and avoiding single-use plastic. Avoiding food waste is pretty easy: go to Pinterest and find literally hundreds of recipes using leftovers and overripe bananas and the like. Ditto for plant -based eating. And buying local, preferably from the supplier is always the way to go. And keep those re-usable bags with you. Its one of the easiest ways to make a difference

    Liked by 1 person

    1. it’s really not easy to adopt them however, not nearly as easy as the people who always leave this comment when this subject is mentioned seem to think.


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