Despite the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, 2020 is still on track to have been one of the three warmest years on record according to the World Meteorological Organisation. The continuing search for ways in which we can all help to improve the environmental situation means that there are almost endless amounts of information and recommendations.
Wherever we look, we are constantly hearing how important it is for us to be doing our part to protect the planet. Whether it’s choosing a “greener” way to get to work or taking our reusable cup with us when we go for our morning coffee, it feels as though the possibilities for leading an eco-friendly life are never-ending. But the question is, just how effective are changes that we make as individuals?
You might be thinking: “But there’s just one of me, how on earth can I make a significant difference? Surely it is up to the companies, authorities and the system to be making drastic changes”. Well in part, you are correct. However, you could also think about it like this: there are more people in the world as individuals than there are companies or governments. Therefore, if every individual person makes environmentally friendly changes, then we can and will make an impact.
Of course, that’s not to say that the bigger actors, such as international companies like Amazon or our UK government, shouldn’t be trying to make as big a difference a possible and be introducing increasing amounts of legislation.
The statistics show the power of lifestyle change – and we’ve taken a look at them, so you don’t have to (although it is always recommended!). All statistics are based on findings from 2017, 2018 and 2019 but published in 2020, as more current figures are not yet available. The definitions of terms used by the government departments in their reports regarding the different sectors can be found here on page 4.
One of the most controversial topics of the 21st century is energy and which sources we should or shouldn’t be using, promoting and funding. There is no doubt that this has caused many a headache for governments all over the world. In the third quarter of 2019 (July, August, September), renewables outpaced fossil fuels for the first time: 38% of UK electricity generation came from gas and less than 1% came from coal and oil combined. Furthermore, 40% of electricity generation came from renewables, including wind (20%), biomass (12%) and solar (6%).
The biggest consumer of primary fuels (coal, natural gas, geothermal, renewables, nuclear energy) in 1990 was electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning supply industries. By 2018, they had more than halved their consumption. The manufacturing sector has also seen a massive decrease, while consumer expenditure continues to be a major consumer of primary fuels.
The above graph shows that altogether there has been a decrease in the use of coal and an increase in the use of gas and renewable energy sources for generating electricity since 1990…in other words we are heading roughly in the right direction. The problem is that this is occurring far too slowly. You can see for yourself from the diagram just how long it has taken to reduce our use of coal for electricity.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the UK
When we talk about greenhouse gases (or ‘GHGs’) in this article, we are referring to the seven gases that are covered by the Kyoto Protocol; carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3).
The good news is that despite a slight increase in 2017 and 2018, GHG emissions have been steadily declining since 1990. This is mainly due to changes in energy supply and manufacturing sectors switching to more efficient fuels.
The top four highest emitting industries in the UK in recent years are:
Electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning supply
Transport & storage
The bad news is that household activities (from cooking and heating to using machinery and even growing vegetables) have been the largest emitters of GHGs since 2015, accounting for more than a quarter of the UK’s emissions in 2018.
Almost 46% of greenhouse gas emission by households in 2018 was related to travel.
Although there has been an increase in the number of alternative fuel cars (i.e., not run off petrol or diesel), these accounted for only 2.4% of all licensed cars in 2019. There was a dramatic reduction in car use during the lockdown instigated by the coronavirus pandemic: car use was down to just 22% in April 2020. The impact of this is yet to be analysed but will almost certainly affect the statistics for 2020.
Transport is a major contributor to GHG emissions, and not just in terms of individual households. In 2018, all road transport accounted for 20% of the UK’s GHG emissions, although it must be noted that due to more stringent emissions standards, there has been a sharp decrease in the quantity other pollutants emitted. The air transport industry accounted for 8% of the UK’s GHG emissions and UK registered airlines flew over 2.2 billion km in 2018, compared to the 1.7 billion km they flew in 2010, a drastic increase which reflects just how much travel (not all of which is necessary) we are doing every single year.
A closer look at CO2 in particular shows that overall CO2 emissions as well as the consumption of fossil fuels decreased in the period from 1990 to 2019. The greatest contributor to CO2 levels in 2019 was the transport sector, while the amount of CO2 emitted by the energy supply sector decreased by 8.4% from 2018 to 2019. Another positive sign was a small reduction in CO2 emissions from the residential sector, by 1.8%.
So, what does it all mean?
Hopefully by now you have gathered that what we are trying to say is that, while there may be all number of multinational organisations and enterprises carrying out their business and polluting the planet, we as individuals are actually having some of the most damaging effects. It’s amazing what it all adds up to when you think about the impact of every individual on our planet – in other words the actions of 7.8 billion people.
"We as individuals are actually having some of the most damaging effects on the planet."
What should we be doing?
It is very easy to be bombarded with information about this topic, with advice coming from a wide variety of sources. Here are just some of the principal actions which can have the greatest impact on protecting our planet.
Consumption of goods and services
It is no secret that today’s world is a consumer society; or better said, a throwaway society.
Given that households are currently the greatest contributor to GHG emissions, stopping to consider the amount and the type of goods and services we consume is probably not a bad idea. The next time something breaks or doesn’t work anymore, try fixing it before you just order a new one online (even if it does come with next day delivery!).
As consumers, our behaviour directs the actions of the markets, what is produced and in what quantities. We can, therefore, have a bigger impact than you think. If you do need to buy something new, have a look at what it is made of and where it is made. Try buying local or at least from the UK and go for products made from recycled materials or made in a sustainable way.
According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, from 2017 to 2018 there was actually a decrease in the recycling rate in the UK for waste from households. But other than the obvious benefit of recycling that it reduces the amount of rubbish in landfills, there are many other positive side effects.
The most significant advantage is that it conserves energy and leads to a reduction in air and water pollution as well as GHG emissions which are generated when a raw material is used to make a brand-new product. Finally, recycling allows us to conserve natural resources as you don’t need to make something new. By recycling just one tonne of paper, we can save 17 trees and 4000 KW of energy - that’s enough to power a house for a year.
Food is a highly debated topic and while we are not suggesting that everyone becomes vegan, it seems that some of the latest studies have suggested that a reduction in meat and dairy in your diet could be a good start for an environmentally friendly life. According to an article in The Independent, a study from the University of Oxford suggested that such a simple change “could reduce an individual's carbon footprint from food by up to 73%”. This comes from the fact that farming is one of the most harmful actions against the environment today. Theoretically if everyone were to switch to a plant-based diet, farmland worldwide could be reduced by 75%; that’s equal to the US, China, Australia and the EU combined.
If you are interested in adopting a more plant-based diet, it is worth doing your research to ensure that you are getting all of the calories, protein, nutrients and minerals required for a healthy lifestyle. You could also start by making very small changes rather than just switching cold turkey (excuse the pun!).
The average person throws away 74% of food waste every year which is the weight of over 1000 banana skins. That means that we are using 25% of the world’s fresh water supply to grow food that will actually be sent to landfill.
So, there are several things that can be done to avoid this and reduce the overall household contribution to harming the planet.
Composting is key – just like you separate your plastic, paper and glass, have a different bin for your food waste too.
Waste nothing - don’t buy more than you need so that nothing in your fridge and cupboards is wasted. Create meals with whatever you can, with leftovers saved from the night before in Tupperware tubs, and only go shopping again once this is all gone.
Be a hero and save the day - when you are shopping, take a look at the slightly neglected foods or those that go out of date soon which if not sold, will be thrown away by the supermarket.
Buy local and seasonal produce – at farmers markets and local grocers to try and reduce the carbon footprint on your food. You could see what foods are grown in your region or at least in the UK and trying to cook with those.
While these are just some of the ways of becoming a more environmentally friendly person, there are of course many others that we haven’t mentioned in this article. But it is fair to say that we can all do our part to reduce our impact on the environment and what we are doing is not a waste of time.
For more resources on sustainability, head to our dedicated Climate Crisis section.