I’m the most environmentally conscious person I know. I’m rapidly heading for a three tonne carbon footprint. This is half the global average of greenhouse gas, and a quarter of the UK average. However, it looks like I must be doing it all wrong. I drive a car. I eat meat. I go on foreign holidays. I don’t recycle all that much. I have a pretty good life with all modern luxuries and convenience. Yet our household spends around half the U.K. national average on energy bills. And if everyone across the globe was producing this level of greenhouse gas, we would have decades to prevent dangerous levels of warming, instead of just a few short years. Strangest of all, the low carbon life I live now has made my life (and my family’s) much, much better now than before I started all this.
How is that so?
A fundamental part of the Three by 30 philosophy is to cut out waste, reduce debt, and move away from fossil fuels. Money and carbon are often closely linked. The more you spend, the higher your impact on climate change. Reducing these things saves a tonne of cash, that can help you off any ‘working to pay the bills’ treadmill you may have inadvertently fallen onto. It can take you closer towards your life goals, whatever they may be. Apart from making us better off (and possibly happier), a two tonne lifestyle also buys us all a little more time to urgently reduce our greenhouse gases over the next few years. But if we are going to do this, there have to be some changes. And we have to make some of these as individuals.
The gristly problem of meat and climate
With this in mind, some of the messages that have come out about climate change aren’t helpful, although it’s mostly a matter of degree. One such claim is that eating meat is not compatible with avoiding climate change. Whilst there is undoubtedly some truth in this, the absolute nature of the message also smacks a little of using climate change to promote a meat-free agenda. The big downside of saying this is that the majority of caring, responsible meat-eaters feel that they are faced with a dilemma: eat meat, or take positive action on climate change. But this is not the whole story.
Fact is, the UK is in the middle of an obesity epidemic. We are now one of the fattest nations on the planet, and many of us eat far more meat (amongst other things) than is recommended for our health. In order to eat a lot of meat, it has to be cheap. Meat can only be cheap if animals are mass produced in factory farms, and fed on growth hormones, antibiotics, and imported soya. Soya is grown mostly in Argentina or Brazil where genetically modified crops are now prevalent. These crops displace local food crops, and even rainforest.
This is the rather sad back story to much of the cheap meat that can be found on the supermarket shelf. Unsurprisingly the environmental cost of cheap meat is as high as the health impacts, even as the price per kilo plummets. I stopped buying cheap supermarket meat years ago, in favour of much smaller amounts of top quality meat that is either organically produced in the UK, or from local farms that I know. It means that I sometimes pay more for my meat per kilo, but I buy less, so overall spend is about the same. The meat is so much better quality that I haven’t been tempted to revert. I also hate the idea of animals being treated badly, and organic standards of welfare are much higher and more regulated than free-range or other certifications such as the ‘Red Tractor’ or ‘Freedom Foods’ – which is in itself a misleading title for a scheme that allows intensively reared factory farming practices(1).
Measure your impact, measure your spend, choose your own path
I don’t personally have a problem with killing animals for food (although I can see why you might). I do have a problem with farm animals having a very miserable existence so I can save a few quid. So I eat less meat, I eat better quality, and I feel happier about all of that. I spend the same amount, and I’m not as fat as I would otherwise be. My Energy Cost Tracker account tells me that our diet is probably now the largest single source of greenhouse gas for our household – but that is also partly because the other areas such as home energy and transport are low. This is certainly higher than if I went vegan(2), but its still very low compared to the UK or global average.
All of this is just my own personal view, and I don’t expect you to share it for a moment – especially if you are a vegetarian or vegan! My point is simply this: if you are measuring your impact, you can fight climate change in the way that suits you best. There is no standard path or rigid plan. But if you are measuring how much you spend and the greenhouse gas you are buying with that money, you are in a position to make choices that suit you, that work with your own personal values, and fit in with the way you live, as well as making a significant positive contribution to the fight against climate change.
Or, in the lyrics of the Arctic Monkeys in Fake Tales of San Francisco:
Get off the bandwagon. Put down the hand book.
Take the Three tonne Challenge now to work out how close you are to a climate friendly 3 tonne footprint – and what more you can do
(1) “Freedom Food” guidelines, for example, allow a density of 19 chickens per m2 in flocks of up to 30,000 birds. That’s pretty squished, in my view and although I’m not a chicken, it’s not my idea of freedom.
(2) The carbon footprint of food is very difficult to measure accurately, but even with a diet that contains sausages, meat-based sauces, a big block of cheese, twelve pints of milk, and a Sunday roast each week, plus plenty of vegetable-based meals, my best estimate is that this is still only about 6 tonnes of green house gas a year for a family of five (no I don’t eat all of that food on my own!).