WHAT IS CARBON NEUTRAL?
When we talk of being carbon neutral, we are talking of our actions not contributing any carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere. CO2 is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, a growing problem on our planet. So being carbon neutral is about not contributing to the ongoing problem of global warming. It is about recognising the problem, then gradually drawing away from the cause.
We are simplifying matters by only looking at CO2 and being carbon neutral, as there are other greenhouse gases, and some of them are even more damaging than CO2. These include methane (CH4), typically from agriculture and landfill, and nitrous oxide (N2O), also mainly from agriculture. But broadly speaking, if we aim to take the measures outlined in this book, our efforts will help reduce the production of these gases as well.
The Sources of carbon
So where does all this carbon, or CO2, come from? The first thing that usually springs to mind when we talk about the problem of carbon emissions is pollution – like driving cars, or power stations belching dirty smoke into the atmosphere. But carbon emissions come from a variety of sources, and although opinion seems to be divided on the magnitude of these sources, what does seem to be a consensus is that ‘around half UK CO2 emissions come from industry and commerce, supporting our everyday lifestyle’ (National Energy Foundation: www.nef.org.uk). So although much of the carbon is produced by businesses over which we have little influence, around half of all the carbon produced is done so by us. This means that by taking personal responsibility for the carbon we produce we can each make a tremendous difference. According to Coinet (Climate Outreach & Information Network: coinet.org.uk), our personal carbon contributions come from the following sources:
Simply speaking, our carbon emissions are connected mainly to our energy use: how much of it we use and how ‘dirty’ that energy is.
There is a lot of talk at the moment about ‘off-setting’ your carbon emissions. Off- setting centres around the carbon cycle – that as carbon is emitted, it is also absorbed. Wood, for example, is burned, which produces carbon dioxide, which is then eventually absorbed back into new trees. Carbon is emitted from a ‘carbon source’, and absorbed back into a ‘carbon sink’.
The argument of the ‘off-setter’ runs like this: I can drive my big car because I’m dedicating these six trees as carbon sinks, which will absorb the equivalent carbon produced, and so ‘offset’ my big car. I don’t buy this. Within a generation or two there won’t be any affordable oil left, let alone any big cars! Burning fossil fuels is not a part of the carbon cycle.
As Rob Newman says in his article ‘Working for the Powerdown’ (The Guardian Green Guide ):
‘...there is not enough money in the world to offset emissions from flying. Combine all the treasuries and gold reserves and assets and gilt-edged security bonds of every country in the world into one big lump sum and you are still not even close. How much, for example, will it cost to put Bangladesh on stilts? What day-rate were you thinking of paying workers to carry ice and snow to the top of Kilimanjaro?’
Off-setting is just an example of ‘green-washing’, i.e. corporate propaganda. Companies do not want to move towards becoming carbon neutral, as it affects their profitability. Rather, they ‘repackage’ their goods and services to appear environmentally friendly.
This book is aimed at trying to help you reduce your emissions towards the goal of zero, within your current situation and means. It’s entirely up to you what lifestyle changes you are willing to make and how much time and money you are willing to put into it.
WHY SHOULD I BOTHER?
Save the planet
And not a moment too soon. Our industrial society is producing greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, which trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere, which causes global warming, or ‘climate change’ as it’s become known more recently. This in turn is causing glaciers to melt, and extremes of weather conditions such as heat waves, flooding, drought, hurricanes and tornadoes. Many folks still believe that global warming is not scientific fact, that it is still up for debate. If you are one of those who remains unconvinced, then I can recommend no better than to get hold of a copy of Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth. After watching this fascinating film, you will no longer be in any doubt about this issue.
We are now in the hottest period of the earth since global temperature records began. The ten hottest years have all been since 1990. The heatwave in Europe in August 2003 caused tens of thousands of deaths, along with a drought which caused a loss of harvests throughout Europe. The debate over whether global warming is real or not is over. Not only is the global temperature at record highs, it is still climbing. The flooding of the south of England in 2007 is just one example of increasingly severe weather conditions which have been linked to global warming.
This is a problem that will not simply go away. And there’s worse to come.
How would you like to have no bills? This is one of the most pleasant side-effects of leading a completely sustainable life. If you have a sustainable heating system, you will never get a gas bill. Wouldn’t that be nice? And with the way fuel prices are going, it’s got to be one of the best investments you’ll ever make. If you have a £300 annual fuel bill, and it costs £3,000 for a system to be installed, you are earning 10 per cent per year on your investment. As investments go, that’s not bad. And as fuel prices go up, so does the amount you are earning.
Most people can appreciate the difference between renting and buying a home. You can live your whole life renting and end up never owning a thing, but buying ensures that, after a number of years, you own your own home. In the same way, by converting one of your bills over to a carbon-neutral alternative, you are simply extending this principle from rent to another of your bills. So instead of ‘renting’ your heating, you now ‘own’ your heating. Like buying your own home, it now means that you own the means of production and you’ll never have to rent again.
From the humble low-energy bulb to a 50kW wind turbine, the principle remains the same – you are one step closer to being carbon neutral, and one step further away from your bills!
Whatever else you might argue about global warming, our current balance of energy use is completely unsustainable. Every winter in Britain sees fresh headlines about increase in heating bills, petrol prices reach new highs and energy bills go up by 10 to 20 per cent. We are burning fossil fuels for energy at an ever-increasing rate, when the fuels themselves are beginning to decrease in availability.
And yet the energy reaching our planet from the sun in just twenty-four hours is more than all the fossil fuel energy we have ever burned in the history of mankind! We allow this huge resource to go untapped day after day. As fossil fuel depletion sets in hard, there simply won’t be a choice – we will have to turn to renewable energy.
Going carbon neutral means becoming sustainable. This also has the added benefit of security of supply. I’m too young to remember the three-day week, when the country was shut down due to striking coal workers, but I’m not too young to remember Ukraine getting its gas supply cut off by Russia. Imagine how invaluable it would be to have a wood stove or geothermal heating in that situation?
Beat the crowds!
Going carbon neutral isn’t an ‘if’, it’s a ‘when’. Sooner or later every person and every country will be forced to go carbon neutral. When your heating bill is two or three times what it is now, and everyone’s switching to wood, or geothermal, or passive solar – do you want to ring up the supplier only to be told there’s a two-year waiting list due to demand? The number of people taking up green technologies is increasing every year, but the numbers are still tiny compared to the general population. Now is the perfect time to start.
CONSTRAINTS TO BEING CARBON NEUTRAL
Top of the list. Of all the constraints this has to be the biggest for most people I know. The things we could each do with a million pounds! But this obstacle is not insurmountable, and at the very least we can minimise our impact. Recently, low energy lightbulbs were to be had on offer at my local supermarket for 50p each. Who among us couldn’t afford that?
There are plenty of low budget changes we can all make and these should always be the first. The wind turbine can wait! In fact, the main funding body for renewable projects in Britain, the Low Carbon Buildings Programme, insists that provisions such as insulation and low energy light bulbs already be in place before considering an applicant for funding. After all, what’s the point of investing a thousand pounds in a property to generate green electric, if it’s being wasted by inefficiency?
As for the larger budget items, there are a couple of options here: borrow or save. Borrowing against your mortgage may be an option, especially in this age of easy finance – but please do your sums! It must be worthwhile and affordable, else you may end up having your carbon neutral house repossessed!
I tend towards the old-fashioned method of saving, since it is secure. In my mind, it adheres to the principle of sustainability. Unless there is any clear reason why buying now rather than later will be of measurable benefit, such as a price increase, I would always save up first, then buy.
What if you live in a flat? Tough call. If you’re lacking in space, you can minimise your projects. For example, you could have a small kitchen composter, rather than a full-sized compost bin. You could also go for community projects, rather than householder. For example, growing your own food in a flat wouldn’t get you very far, except perhaps a few herbs in the window box. But what about an allotment? It wouldn’t be practical to install a wind turbine on a flat, but you could buy in to a cooperative that owns and operates turbines locally, or set one up yourself.
I’d say that this is perhaps one of the most challenging of all situations, but not the end of the world. It means you’ll need to think just that little bit further.
Obviously if you are not a homeowner, then investing money in your property won’t offer returns to anyone but the landlord. The most obvious option is to buy your own if you can. Although house prices today are astronomical, there are schemes available which will allow you to buy, say, half of the property, and the other half is then paid for by a Housing Association. If you then later sell the property, you will only recoup half the value. You will still have to weigh up whether it is worth making changes to a property you own only half of, but it is certainly better than renting.
Also, if you rent a council house, the option to buy still exists in most areas once you have been living in the house for a minimum number of years. The price you will be paying may be considerably less than what the property is worth, so is well worth considering.
Changing lightbulbs for low energy will still benefit you the bill payer, and you can take them with you when you leave. You may also be able to convince the landlord to make changes to the property on the grounds that it will increase the value of the property, and make it more attractive as a rented property. This might include measures such as cavity wall insulation and loft insulation.
If you can’t make such significant changes, there are still things you can do. Even though you don’t own the property you should be able to get permission to start composting, or to dig a vegetable patch.
Before engaging on any project, consider your physical condition. If you are infirm, then it may not be practical to chop wood for a stove, for example. If any issues such as this do arise, then it may be as well to check what will be required to run any particular appliance or system, ahead of having it installed.
INPUTS AND OUTPUTS
‘Enough of the yabbering!’ I hear you cry. ‘Let’s get started!’ Ok then, let’s get down to the brass tacks of how to go carbon neutral.
The first thing you need to think about is your household, in terms of its inputs and outputs. What does this mean? Think, for example, about heating. Gas central heating might be your input, and losing heat would be your output. So to go carbon neutral you would need to replace your input with a carbon neutral alternative, such as geothermal heating, and insulate your house against heat loss.
Essentially, the input is what you consume, be it food, energy or travel. The output is your waste products, such as waste food, smoke, or sewage! Once you break down your household into these two categories, the task of handling your carbon emissions becomes much simpler straight away.
The book is broken down into the following sections:
In each case, the inputs and the outputs will be discussed – what they are, how you probably handle them at the moment, and how you can change them to become carbon neutral. Quite often it is far simpler to change the outputs than the inputs (with the notable exception of sewage!). So rather than try to solve both the inputs and outputs of one section completely, like food, it is far more rewarding to go through each section in turn and see what you can change straight away, in terms of outputs, without too much head-scratching and wallet-emptying. Far more progress can be made by beginning to compost, than by trying to get a wind turbine installed on your roof!
Take it easy
It is best to tackle these tasks just one at a time. Try not to have too many projects on the go at any one time (something I am guilty of). It can be very demotivating to have a big list of tasks that simply isn’t moving. It’s far better to have one small task which you can complete in a week or a month.
Start at the bottom. Go for the ones which you might easily accomplish over a weekend first. Take your time before, during and after. Make sure you get adequate quotes for any materials or work you need doing. Also, give yourself and your family time to acclimatise to any changes you make, before moving on to the next one. Just recycling can be a big change to your weekly routine, and if you follow it up with composting as well within a few days, you might end up struggling to keep up your new good habits. You’ll start to notice that carbon neutral alternatives often require more physical work and organisation to carry through!