Tackling climate change


For many of us, our transport emissions are dominated by car-use. Your average 1.3 litre run-around will, in the space of a year, clock up somewhere between 4 and 6 tonnes of greenhouse gas. Drive a gas-guzzling 4-wheel drive though and your emissions can be more than double this. For decades, any advances made in engine efficiency have been undermined by demand for bigger, more powerful cars. Add to this the growth in the number of cars on the road – there are now more cars in the US than people to drive them – and it’s little wonder that cars have come to play such a leading role in human-induced climate change.

Public transport can offer a realistic alternative to getting in the car, and the potential climate benefits of good, well-used public transport are massive. The trouble is we don’t tend to use it very much. It’s a real tragedy that our use of public transport has so plummeted in the last few decades, but not all that surprising given the relatively low costs of driving and the falling standards and provision of public transport that are common to most developed-world countries.

The relative emissions per kilometre travelled
for various modes of transport

Aside from public transport, the other non-car options of getting around town tend to be biking or walking. These represent the ultimate climate-saving modes of transport, causing zero greenhouse gas emissions, and helping to keep is fit into the bargain.

Assuming you’re not yet ready to give up the car altogether there are a whole host of ways in which to lessen its contribution to global warming. The most straightforward option is simply opting for a small-engined car, rather than an overpowered tank, next time you buy a car. Reducing engine size and increasing fuel efficiency holds the key to combining the billions of miles we collectively drive each year with a cut, or at least a stabilisation, in the greenhouse gas emissions from our cars.

As well as driving a smaller car there are big cuts to be made through opting for the new generation of alternative fuels. Hybrid cars, running on a mix of petrol and the electricity generated during braking, can cut greenhouse emissions by more than a third, while using fuels such as Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) or biofuels can also make big inroads into transport emissions.

Finally, no matter what car you drive, altering your driving habits to make the engine run more efficiently. Things like not speeding, avoiding racing the engine, and not travelling around with loads of unnecessary weight are pretty obvious. But you can also cut emissions by keeping your tyres well looked after, not overfilling your tank, and keeping the air conditioning to a minimum – they can use about 10% extra fuel.

To compare the CO2 emission of cars in the UK visit the Vehicle Certification Agency and for further information go to the Green Choices Transport section.

Business and Holiday Travel

Car travel may still dominate our transport-related emissions, but flying up fast in the rear-view mirror is jet travel. There’s no easy way around this. If you really want to minimise your air travel-related climate impact then fly less, or not at all. The burgeoning market in budget air travel has helped fuel a steep rise in greenhouse emissions from this source. For some people, international travel by air is hard to avoid, but many of these short-haul flights now operate between destinations also well-served by rail links. Getting the train, rather than the plane, on these journeys can more than halve the resulting greenhouse gas emissions.

For business travellers and conference delegates, there is now more and more opportunity not to travel to the meeting in the first place. This does not mean complete non-attendance, but rather involves ‘virtual participation’ via video or teleconferencing.

Greenhouse Emissions Saved by Conference Delegates
Using Virtual Participation (Dakota, USA, 2001)

Also see this link to the paper ‘Flying in the face of the climate change convention’.

Where train travel or virtual participation isn’t an option, and the delights of check-in beckon, the last resort to mitigate the big climate impact of air travel is to buy an off-set. There are now numerous off-set schemes that promise to calculate the emissions from your flight and, for a modest fee, fund a project to off-set these emissions. Some schemes rely on tree planting, while others fund renewable energy projects. These schemes are controversial as they can be seen as simply shifting the problem somewhere else, rather than actually cutting emissions. In addition, the off-setting they claim to achieve can be hard to verify. The schemes that have best addressed these issues and have been deemed as ‘Gold-standard’ off-set schemes include:

For further information about the Gold Standard got to CDM Gold Standard.

For more information on green holidays visit the Green Choices Holidays page.

At Home

Like transport, this slice of the total greenhouse gas pie is growing rapidly, but here we as individuals have an even greater potential to make a difference. Having left our down-sized, dual-fuelled car on the drive and stepped into our house, the biggest energy user at home is right there waiting to greet us: temperature control.

Just like flicking a switch and expecting light, we are used to warming up, or cooling down, our houses at the push of a button. The simple action of lowering the thermostat and pulling on some more clothes in winter can cut the emissions due to energy-use in the home by a third. Likewise, ensuring that your home is properly insulated will also allow you to keep the heating or the air-conditioning silent for longer periods and can cut the related greenhouse emissions by up to 40%.

For further information go to the Energy Savings Trust, and see the Green Choices pages on your home, insulation and heating.

After home temperature control, the biggest drains on energy in our homes are our appliances and lighting. Opting for A or A+ rated appliances and low-energy light bulbs can again save substantial amounts of energy and so curtail greenhouse emissions. For instance, every low energy light bulb that replaces a traditional one can save £6 every year on the household electricity bill and cut 60kg of greenhouse gas.

To find the most efficient appliances available in the UK visit the Energy Saving Trust’s dedicated page and take a look at the Green Choices pages on lighting, kitchens and energy.

Standby power

An important, but less obvious, waste of energy in most homes is standby power. Turning all those appliances off when they are not needed can mean big cuts in energy bills and emissions. By getting rid of standby power wastage we could take the UK’s biggest carbon dioxide-belching power station (called Drax) off-line for over three months of every year.

It has been estimated that standby-power in the UK leads to the emission of 3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year – the equivalent of flying the population of Edinburgh to Sydney, Australia…and back.

See the Green Choices page on home entertainment for more information.


A small but rapidly growing number of home owners are now taking advantage of government grants to install solar panels, wind turbines, ground source heat pumps and other so-called microgeneration technologies in their homes. Though the initial cost of these devices can be high, they can often pay for themselves within a matter of years through reduced energy bills, plus they can make big reductions in greenhouse emissions.

In the UK there grants available to help with the costs of installing these microgeneration technologies, with up to 30% of the total cost being available in some cases. For households in England and Wales visit the Low Carbon Buildings Programme for grant information. In Scotland, visit the Scottish Community Householder Renewables Initiative (SCHRI) website.

For further information about microgeneration, together with case studies go to the Energy Savings Trust and see the Green Choices page on solar water heating.

Green Energy Supply

When we’ve cut our energy wastage at home and splashed out on solar water heating, we can opt for a green energy supplier to ensure that the electricity we do have to use comes from renewable sources. Beware that some ‘green’ energy schemes do not source all of the energy from renewable sources.

For an overview of green energy suppliers visit the Energy Savings Trust and the Green Choices greener electricity page. To compare the different schemes and relative costs online visit Sust-it.

Climate-aware Consumption

As we saw earlier, though direct greenhouse emissions from home energy use are important, the indirect emissions – the emissions that arise from every product we buy, every apple we eat, and every pair of shoes we pull on – can be equally important.

That well-worn phrase ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ couldn’t be more apt here. By cutting down on how much ‘stuff’ we buy, we reduce the amount of indirect greenhouse emissions we are responsible for. To use the example of a standard desktop computer, each one uses more than 200kg of fossil fuels in its production. This means that it has already had a significant impact on our climate before it is even gets to your desk. By making things last longer and only replacing them when necessary these problems of embodied energy can be radically reduced.

For great links and information on cutting the indirect emissions due to household consumption see the Green Choices pages on clothes, DIY, cleaning and babies.

Food and Drink

Easily overlooked as a source of greenhouse gas emissions, food can quickly clock up a big climate impact through the emissions that occur both in its production and its transport. For a developed-world family the emissions from their food alone can total more than four tonnes a year.

Agriculture is a big player in global climate change, the very process of ploughing-up soils and changing them to agricultural use leading to big greenhouse gas emissions. Since our ancestors started cutting up trees to feed their fires, make into shelters or hit each other with, the process of land conversion by people has released around 200 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.

Changing land-use, and more specifically agriculture, is also a key player in global emissions of the powerful greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide. Agriculture is to blame for almost half of all human-made methane emissions – mainly through belching ruminants and water-logged rice paddies – and three-quarters of our nitrous oxide emissions – mainly due to fertiliser use on soils.

Every kilogram of beef raised under the commonly-used feedlot system, for instance, is carrying with it a climate tag of 15kg of greenhouse gas. To put this in context: the average consumption of meat in the US is 100 kg per year and nearly half of that is beef. This an awful lot of meat (a steak per person per day) and so an awful lot of grain, water and land to produce it.

As most food now has a ‘Country of Origin’ label it’s easy to see that much of our food is also pretty travel-worn. Climate-wise this long-distance transport of our food means the burning of a lot of fossil fuel and so the emission of a lot of greenhouse gas. Worst still, some luxury items are flown by jet to their destination, so ramping up their contribution to global warming even further. See the publication ‘Eating Oil: Food supply in a changing climate’ at the Sustain website.

The solutions to reducing our food-related greenhouse emissions involve both what we eat and where it comes from. Eating less meat and diary can cut these emissions by up to a third, but the biggest savings come in reducing food miles, through avoiding jet-setting foods, cutting down on the number of shopping trips, and the ultimate in food mile-free food: home grown.

For more information on the climate impacts of food see Sustain, the Food Climate Research Network and the Green Choices pages on food and drink.


Time was that all that went into household bins was ash from the fire and a few food scraps, but as packaging and consumption have grown so has the size of our bins. Replacing the thigh-high barrel shaped bins of yesteryear came giant plastic wheelie bins. Overnight whole neighbourhoods found they had been invaded by these tottering upright skips.

Organic waste from the kitchen, from tea bags to banana skins, has the potential to give rise to more of that powerful greenhouse gas methane. Once the bin loads of waste are collected, much (about 60% on average) is trucked to landfill sites where it ends up as a feast for methane producing bacteria (methanogens).

The average household throws out around 3 and a half kilograms of food waste every day, so diverting the compostable stuff from its fate as landfill-fodder can slash its climate impact. On top of all the kitchen scraps, often literally, comes the garden waste. Almost all of this can be composted. Grass clippings and dead flower heads are lapped up by methane-producing bugs just as much as old TV dinners, but by composting at home you will both cut greenhouse emissions and provide yourself with a source of free compost. For more details on home composting visit Recycle Now and the Green Choices compost page.

Wormeries are particularly good at chomping their way through the organic waste from the kitchen, and so avoiding more methane emissions from landfill sites. A great place for starter kits and more information is WigglyWigglers.

For those without room for a compost bin many now have a compostables collection. In the US, UK and the rest of Europe such schemes are now commonplace. Huge heaps of collected organic waste – turned regularly to keep up the supply of oxygen and keep a check on the stinkier, methane-producing sections of microbial society – have sprung up. Each one prevents many tonnes of methane from being produced, and provides the local parklands and gardens with top grade compost.

In avoiding their organic waste going into landfill the average family can reduce their greenhouse emissions by around a tonne in this way. For waste though, the climate savings don’t have to stop there. Recycling paper, metals, glass and plastics all provide a means to reduce the energy used in their production and so further reduce emissions. See Recycle NowWRAP and the Green Choices waste and recycling section for lots of useful information on waste and the benefits of waste recycling in the UK.

Here are the approximate savings achieved simply by recycling common types of household waste:

Plastic: about 1.4 tonnes of greenhouse gas for every tonne recycled.

Glass: Each tonne that is recycled will avoid the use of over a tonne of raw materials and save another 300kg of greenhouse gas

Paper and cardboard: Every recycled tonne saves over 2 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions

Metals: Recycling just one tonne of aluminium will save 14 tonnes of greenhouse gas!

For some items, jam jars for instance, there is the opportunity to reuse them and so avoid any extra manufacturing energy altogether. At the heart of any truly effective push to cut greenhouse emissions from our waste though is Reduce – less stuff produced in the first place.


The sheer amount of packaging we are now confronted with each time we want anything from a toy car to a ham sandwich is stunning. Pick up the Sunday papers – or if you’ve a bad back get someone else to do it. From its massive bulk will fall out not only a half dozen leaflets offering you a once in a lifetime offer to buy a ‘Star Trek towel set with Klingon face flannels’ but also an extra wad of papers, itself wrapped in plastic. Invariably this wad contains the ‘lifestyle’ sections with fascinating articles on ‘10 Things to do with Bran’ or ‘Why Mauve is this year’s Tangerine’. Now these articles are at best banal, but are they contagious? Will sentences about ‘The best colours for a Thursday’ start cropping up in the news section of the paper? No. This section is wrapped in plastic because plastic is cheap and it will ensure that not one of the leaflets or internet start-up discs escapes.

In Australia, the greenhouse emissions arising from paper total more than 12 million tonnes, including cutting down the trees, making the wood into paper for memos on cutting waste in the office, and the methane produced when said memos become another high-fibre layer of landfill. The amounts of plastic waste are similarly vast – over 20 million tonnes per year in the US alone.

Again, applying the ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ adage at home will cut the amount of waste produced in the first place and limit the impact on the climate of the waste we do produce.

In the Garden

Gardens represent ideal spaces to combat climate change. Firstly there’s the big benefits of home grown food. Any food you grow at home means you avoid all the transport – the food miles – you get with shop-bought produce. During and after the war our parents and grandparents were asked to “Dig for Britain”. Now we and our children literally need to “Dig for the World”.

Summers will get drier and drier in the UK, and so our gardens will need more and more watering. All the water we get out of our taps has used up energy through being purified. By installing water butts and making use of grey water (old bath and shower water) for garden watering you can make big cuts in your use of valuable tap water.

For further information take a look at the Green Choices page on water in the home.

In our gardens, the equivalent of a gas-guzzling 4-wheel drive in the garden is a patio heater. These wasteful beasts emit around 10 kg of greenhouse gas every time they’re used. We can avoid this by leaving the patio heaters in the DIY stores and pulling on an extra jumper. Or, and this is my own favourite way to keep warm at barbecues, have an extra nip of whisky!

For further information on gardens and climate change go to Jane Perrone’s website and take a look at the Green Choices gardening page.

At Work

Most of us (hopefully) know that we can reduce our own contribution to global warming through wasting less energy at home, driving a smaller car and recycling more, but how many of us take such climate-awareness to work?

It may be something we fret over every time we look at our children, but too often our concerns about climate change are something we keep quiet about around the office water cooler – an embarrassing hobby kept for evenings and weekends. But not many embarrassing hobbies could help stop famine, the spread of disease, and loss of life on a biblical scale. Knowing that individual action can help to slash emissions from transport and homes, it is worth considering how similar changes could infiltrate our places of work.

Starting with the type of workplace itself, the news for many of us is pretty bad. At the bottom of the emissions league table come places like warehouses, emitting just 4kg per square foot (albeit with a tendency towards a rather large floor space). After warehouses, schools come in at around 5kg per square foot. Then things start to get much worse. Work in a standard office and every square foot will be emitting about 10kg of greenhouse gas each year. Not to be outdone, our universities emit around 11kg.

The precise breakdown of emissions varies from workplace to workplace but there are some common culprits in each. Firstly there’s temperature control: heating and cooling account for about a third of the average office’s electricity use. Walk into many buildings during the heat of the summer and you’ll soon find you’re shivering as the air-conditioning serves to drop the temperature around your flimsily clad body to something approaching the inside of a refrigerator. Step out of the biting winds of winter into the same building, and you’ll be shedding jackets, scarves and gloves apace as the furnace-like heating makes the winter-time work dress of choice T-shirt and shorts. By requesting that the temperature of the building is more appropriately maintained in line with the seasons, and at least going for the open window option (summer) or more clothes option (winter) in our own offices, we can slash the energy wastage and so emissions from this source.

Alongside temperature control, it is the saturation-lighting and myriad office appliances – the printers, photocopiers and faxes (and water coolers) – that account for most of the rest of our energy use at work. Opt for low energy light bulbs and occupancy detectors and the lighting-based emissions in most offices can be halved at a stroke. For office appliances, choosing efficient models and ensuring their energy-savings settings are activated can cut emissions by 75 %.

For further information visit the Carbon Trust and the Green Choices page on saving energy in the workplace.

Finally, in work there is waste. The standard savings apply for recycled glass, cans and the rest but the really big one for most workplaces is paper. The average office worker gets through 100 sheets of paper a day. The three watchwords: reduce – through double-sided printing, reuse – envelopes and scrap paper, and recycle – keep the waste bins paper-free, can together make a real impact on the number of finely sliced trees your work place gets through each year. Every kilogram that gets recycled rather than binned, for instance, can save 2kg of greenhouse gas.

For more information on the benefits of recycling in the office the Green Choices pages on office recycling at work, paper and resources.

For the great and the good at work there are the decisions about the transport they encourage: are there cycle racks and showers? The fleet vehicles they provide: big petrol engines or small hybrid engines? What environmental ethos do they promote: are energy and recycling in the workplace encouraged? And, ultimately, is the building itself designed with energy saving and sustainability in mind?

For further information go to the Carbon Trust and see the Green Choices page on transport in the workplace .

In tackling greenhouse emissions from businesses, the umbrella organisations we work for also have a key role to play. The Natural Environment Research Council is already making progress on this, through its annual environmental costs accounts, which put a price on things like the environmental impacts of our NERC-related travel, energy use and waste. The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology is gradually replacing its vehicles with lower-emission dual-fuel models. NERC offices are recycling more, and new buildings, such as the Welsh Environment Centre, have been designed with energy saving and sustainability in mind.

For further information and case studies visit the Carbon Trust and the Green Choices pages on work and on jobs.

The Final Checkout

The final choice we or our families have to make which can make a real difference in the global contribution our time on the earth makes is death. It may come to us all but the current trend of defying the process of decay through air tight bronze caskets and earthquake proof vaults means that each year a massive amount of energy-intensive concrete and steel, copper and bronze, is buried in our increasingly overcrowded cemeteries. These full-on testaments to our conspicuous consumption come in at around an extra tonne of emissions. Reject this world of silk linings and embalming fluid and instead choose for a simple burial and this final climate-warming legacy can be avoided.

For more information on environmentally-aware funerals in the UK visit the Natural Death Centre. As an individual, each of us can cut our lifetime contribution to global warming by more than that crucial 60% level by being climate aware. Multiply this up for your whole office, your street, or your town, and the potential savings are huge. Through increasing awareness and individual action in the developing world we can achieve not just one Kyoto Protocol-sized reduction in emissions, not two, but a cut equivalent to 6 Kyotos. All before the politicians have decided who will sit where at the next climate meeting.

As individuals we, our children and our children’s children, have a big stake in the global climate. Things could get very bad for a very large number of people. Sure, we need the politicians to take action too, but while we’re waiting for them to do their bit, let’s get on with doing ours.