Ten (Politically Incorrect) Things you can do about your Carbon Footprint
The 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference that took place in November 2021 in Glasgow achieved very little, as expected, because too many powerful entities oppose any meaningful action. But only blaming the politicians and the corporations doesn't do justice to the causes of the climate crisis.
The causes often depend on implicit assumptions that most of the world shares, like that it's good to make children and it's good to have economic growth.
I don't think a meaningful solution to the climate crisis can come without
attacking those implicit assumptions.
- First and foremost, the root of the problem is (over)population.
See Will the human race succumb to overpopulation?. No country in the world is aiming for a reduction of its population.
In fact, many countries are encouraging their citizens to have more children.
It makes economic sense, they say: we need young people to support the aging
population. There isn't a single politician who came up with a plan on how
to prosper if the population declines.
The hidden assumption behind the encouragement to have children (from China to Germany) is that each child is an asset for the whole community: s/he will contribute to GDP and pay taxes that will cover various social costs including the pensions for the older population. Nobody dares say that each child is a cost for the whole planet: that child will buy a car, install A/C, use plastic, and so on, and therefore contribute to climate problems.
At the same time, we all want everybody to get wealthier.
We want that child to have more (not less) than the parents.
Ideally, we want every single family in the world to be as
wealthy as the families of Silicon Valley, Frankfurt and Tokyo. And the families
of the rich world want their children to be wealthier than they are.
The children themselves aim at having what their parents didn't have.
The luxuries of a generation become the necessities of the next generation.
We have more cars, not fewer, than our parents.
We have (many) more A/C units, not fewer. And so on.
Multiply the growing population by the increasing "luxuries" and what you get
is a recipe for disaster on a planetary scale.
I haven't heard any politician say when it will be ok to reduce the human
population on this planet. Will there be 10 billion humans? Most likely.
And then? 20 billion? 100 billion? 1 trillion? Clearly there must be a number that is "too many". My feeling is that we already passed that number and the current population, even if it remained stable, is already unsustainable because its "carbon footprint" is destined to increase, not decrease.
Couples who don't have children are heroes, not weirdos.
- Plastic is on the rise again. Before covid a few countries had started banning single-use plastic. There was hope to get rid of all those plastic utensils at
fast-food joints. Covid was an excuse for a massive reversal of this trend.
Restaurants learned that they can increase profits by getting rid of the
dishwasher (both the machine and the human employee) and replace silverware
with plastic. Basically, in many cases you still pay the prices for
eating at a fancy restaurant while getting the service of a fast-food joint.
On top of it, consider all the food that is being home-delivered by increasingly
popular services: it all comes in plastic. (I still have to understand how
anybody can eat an echilada or a daal soup in a plastic container - obviously
it tastes like shit).
We expect a sandwich to be wrapped in several layers of paper and plastic. Many goods (especially food) come in cardboard boxes that contain plastic bags that contain aluminum foils that (finally) contain the food.
You pay $10 for the sandwich, but the rest of the world pays another $10 for it... and you're the only one who eats it.
Previous generations stored food in wooden and metal containers. We store food in plastic tupperware (which, incidentally, when heated may even release toxic chemicals in our food).
In some cases the plastic is the side effect of an excuse to give you less for what you pay: e.g. the soda cans served on planes are refrigerated, so you don't really need ice, and you would get more drink if they didn't serve it in a cup with ice.
True: plastic doesn't break, is cheaper than wood/glass/metal, lasts forever, etc; but plastic also destroys the artisan culture of developing countries and make those countries (that don't have plastic factories) dependent on the rich countries that have plastic factories; and the poor countries don't even have facilities to recycle plastic.
In 2020 the world produced 500 billion plastic bottles.
That's enough to stretch around the Earth over 1,000 times.
Making plastic is polluting enough, but, on top of it,
plastic is the main gift that your generation will leave to future generations.
The ocean is full of plastic garbage, forests are full of plastic garbage,
and that plastic will stay for thousands of years.
- Reuse, not recycle. Recycling is not the solution: it is itself a polluting
process (just think of those armies of trucks) and in any case it only encourages people to use more plastic (and more glass and more paper): people don't feel too bad using plastic, being served
plastic, buying plastic because then they throw it in the recycling bin.
The reality is that throwing it in the recycling bin does very little to
offset the damage caused to the planet and to future generations by your plastic.
The problem is consumption. Economies of scale need you to consume, and are indifferent to the consequences of over-consumption
(their business model does not include the cost of migrating to another planet).
- Do you really need to shop? Besides spending your hard-earned money, you also make the problem worse every time you buy something. Again, all governments
encourage their citizens to become consumers because it helps the economy
(even though consumerism occasionally causes massive economic crises because
consumers run out of money to pay their debts), but every object that you buy
has been made in a factory, using electricity, and then shipped using a truck
and then stored in a shop that uses more electricity.
We don't need (repeat: "need") many of the things that we buy.
Analyze how many times you used the things that you are throwing away this year:
in many cases you used them only a few times.
Buy only what you need and you'll save money (perhaps the money you need to buy a much more important item, like a home) and you'll reduce energy consumption on the planet.
Sorry for the factory workers of the world, but they should find jobs to make things that we really need.
- We are expected to change our electronic gadgets almost every year: they are already "old" a few months after we bought them. Fads, not function, make us change our gadgets so frequently. Electronic devices use all sorts of polluting material (and in some cases material like coltan that fuels civil wars in faraway countries). "Progress" is certainly progress for the corporations that make those gadgets but not necessarily for you (who in many cases were perfectly happy with the previous generation of laptops, TV sets, phones, etc) and almost certainly not for the health of the planet.
We enjoy state-of-the-art gadgets but dump dangerous chemicals in the ocean and fund brutal warlords in Congo.
Why is it "cool" to replace old things with new things if the old things still do their job? Because it helps the economy, and mostly the multinational corporations. Every politician is proud to point out how much the national economy earns from making and selling useless items.
- Plant trees, don't cut them. Millions of families are cutting trees for
silly reasons like getting a better view of the valley down below or getting
more space for their birthday parties. It should be punished with jail.
On the other hand, anyone planting a tree should receive a monetary reward.
A new tree is physically a contribution to the wealth of the planet.
When you consider how many trees are being lost in massive wildfires, it is
simply criminal to cut the trees that are not in danger of burning.
- Air conditioning is certainly useful to live and work in hot areas, but
every A/C unit increases the temperature which means that A/C becomes more
necessary and so on: it's an infinite loop. At some point everybody will
need to have super-powerful A/C units.
Our ancestors lived and worked without any A/C, and millions of people
on this planet survive without A/C in extremely hot areas.
Previous generations used clothes to adjust to temperature (long pants, short pants, sweater, shirt).
Somehow today we can survive only in a very narrow range of temperatures: we expect a heater in winter and an air-conditioner in summer.
Many people wear shirts in winter (rooms are too warm) and sweaters in summer (rooms are too cold).
Most A/C units are luxuries, not necessities.
They suck a lot of energy, and in many cases it's energy that is
generated with coal or oil.
You live in a comfortable temperature range but cause devastating climate variations in poor countries and increase your own country's
dependency on precisely
the kind of energy that we should decommission.
In many places for many families the A/C is a luxury and should be treated
as such: there should be a hefty tax on any A/C unit, and jail for wasting it
(i have personally witnessed homes and offices blasting A/C inside while
keeping doors wide open).
- Talking of energy, it's pointless to keep ranting against coal and oil
while ignoring the one very effective source of carbon-free energy: nuclear
The 500 commercial nuclear reactors of the world are a blessing, not a curse,
because they are helping to minimize the planet's biggest problem:
carbon emissions due to the use of fossil fuels.
Countries that don't have a nuclear power plant should not be proud:
they should be ashamed.
The simple fact is that if we had enough nuclear energy, we would already have achieved "net-zero emissions".
There is some kind of world censorship that makes it
impossible for people to utter this simple truth:
"if we had enough nuclear energy, we would already have achieved net-zero carbon emissions".
Whether it is possible to replace all the world's electricity generated by fossil fuels
with nuclear reactors is another discussion (today nuclear accounts for about 10% of the world's electricity), but, if we don't even try, we certainly won't do it.
Uranium is often demonized, but seawater contains large quantities of uranium,
enough to power thousands of reactors for decades.
The total number of people who died of nuclear accidents is a tiny percentage
of all the miners killed in coal mines and of all the people killed by
coal pollution and of all the people killed in oil-related wars.
Yes, we still have to solve the problem of nuclear waste.
But in my view the (real) options are simple: either we drastically reduce
human population (i.e. its consumption of energy) or we dramatically increase
nuclear energy production.
- Red meat may or may not be bad for your health (i think it is) but it is certainly bad for the planet: livestock creates 14% of all greenhouse gases, with cattle being by far the largest contributor. Beef has the highest carbon footprint of any food.
You need to drive 100 kms to produce the same carbon emissions as eating one kg of beef.
There should be a "carbon tax" on eating red meat just like there is for factories.
- Drive less. Use public transportation. Transport is responsible for almost a quarter of carbon dioxide global emissions. Unfortunately, younger generations talk the right talk but don't walk the right walk: they drive a lot more than their grandparents. In most parts of the USA it is normal for a family to have multiple cars, even for low-income families. A family that only has one car looks weird. In suburban America a family often has more cars than people. And this bad habit is spreading to China and to every country where family income rises. Meanwhile, public transportation languishes and it is eventually decommissioned. There should be tolls to use any road: someone has to pay for maintaining that road and we all pay when you drive your carbon-emitting car on it. There should be much bigger taxes for owning cars. As it is often the case, governments do the exact opposite because of the impact on the economy: the car industry tends to be one of the economic drivers and making/selling more cars is vital to the economy. Good luck if we keep using this line of thinking ("the economy first").
- And let me add an 11th one... Do you really need a pet? Is it really so important to walk your stupid dog every morning down the street so it can pee on someone else's lawn? Is it really so important to make a cute video of your stupid house cat and post it on social media?
Pets leave a massive carbon footprint on the planet (see for example
this study or
this one or
an average-size cat generates 310 kgs of carbon emissions per year, an average-size dog 770 kgs, etc.
Cats and dogs are responsible for 25-30% of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the USA. If all the cats and dogs of the USA declared independence,
their country would rank fifth in global meat consumption,
House pets like dogs and cats are responsible for a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions caused by animal agriculture.
If you compare the carbon emissions caused by a house dog over its lifetime with the carbon emissions due to your car over its lifetime, the dog often wins: it causes more pollution (it depends on which car you have, or course, and how long you keep it).
(And i won't get into the ethics of keeping animals as indoor pets, one of the most disgusting habits of modern humans).
Most of our carbon-emitting habits are even hazardous:
living in a narrow range of temperatures makes you more likely to get sick;
relying on so many gadgets makes you less capable of surviving in an emergency;
and driving cars comes to the expense of walking and biking, i.e. of exercising,
and cars kill more people than most diseases (1.3 million people every year).
All of these points are politically incorrect because it is not polite to
criminalize parents for having children, to criminalize workers who make consumer goods, to criminalize economies of scale, and so on. But a serious discussion about the climate crisis cannot happen without including the fundamental
drivers of the crisis.
In 2011 i prepared a presentation titled
"How To Kill Yourself, Your Country And Your Planet In A Few Easy Steps and Feel Good About It"
I am sorry to say that every single deleterious habit that i mentioned in that presentation has simply become worse and more widespread.
A beach in a Pacific island far away from any major city.
TM, ®, Copyright © 2021 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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