Radical planet-saving measures | Sunday Observer

Radical planet-saving measures

As we have stated in these columns before, even small steps can make a big difference when it comes to saving the planet. For example, you might already have switched over to LED blubs from normal bulbs because the former are energy saving. You might already be taking a rattan bag for your grocery round instead of using throw-away sili-sili bags. You might even be using cold water instead of heating water for washing purposes.

As the world is struggling to limit future global warming (by around 2100) to below 2°C, now is the time everyone must chip in to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. These steps certainly help in the long run, but new research shows there are four very effective ways to cut down on your carbon footprint. Two researchers from Lund University in Sweden and the University of British Columbia in Canada recently analysed a comprehensive suite of lifestyle choices to identify those with the greatest potential to reduce individual greenhouse gas emissions. They looked at 39 peer-reviewed studies, Government reports and online tools to pick lifestyle choices promoted to reduce our carbon footprints. They then ran estimates on how impactful these actions really are.

According to their analysis, there are four things that will make the highest impact on your personal emissions: ditch your car, avoid airplane travel, switch to a plant-based diet and, most radically, have fewer children. Measured in tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions (tCO2e), these lifestyle changes have a much greater potential to cut back on our personal carbon footprints than ‘little things’ like recycling and swapping out your incandescent light bulbs for long-life ones.

Some of these steps may be easy or difficult depending on where you live, what profession you engage in and what kind of lifestyle you lead. But the first one is not so difficult, given the availability of alternatives. If you opt to take the bus or a taxi (or a ride hailing service) at least for short trips, you will not only save a lot of money, but also help save the planet. You can even walk if the distance is around one or two kilometres. The best option is to use public transport for most of your journeys, but given the state of public transport in this country it may not be the most enviable option. If 500 motorists opted to take the bus each morning, that is 500 cars taken off the roads and a huge saving of fuel. In Sri Lanka, the authorities expect to see a bigger shift to public transport once the Light Rail Transit (LRT) system comes into operation by 2022-2025.

Avoiding air travel may be the most difficult choice and some people may not be able to do it at all. We live in an island which is only connected by air even to the nearest country, so this may not be a viable choice. But for those living in regions such as Europe, ditching plane travel is a common occurrence. With trains that are half as fast as planes but go right into the city centre (unlike planes which land at airports 30-40 km away), rail travel is a preferred method. In places where domestic and regional travel can be done by car and rail, it must be promoted over air travel.

While there is uncertainty over the true environmental value of everyone on the planet going vegetarian, vegetarians really are helping the planet a bit more. Research data show that if you stop eating all meat for a year, your individual carbon footprint can drop by 820 kilograms of CO2, which is on average four times more effective than recycling. It is unclear whether this includes fish, but overfishing has depleted many stocks in oceans the world over and left some species without enough young specimens of reproductive age. If you cannot give up meat right away, what you can do is reduce your meat intake to one or two portions a week.

The livestock industry puts a terrible strain on the planet’s resources in terms of animal feed, water, greenhouse emissions, environmental pollution and transport emissions - live animals and meat stocks are transported worldwide which adds to environmental woes. The livestock industry may not be sustainable in the long run in a warming world. However, scientists around the world are busy perfecting synthetic meat derived from plant-based materials to satisfy carnivorous individuals who may not be able to live without meat. One airline, Air New Zealand, already serves burgers made with artificial meat on some of its flights. Give 5-10 years, artificial alternatives representing every kind of meat variety will be very much a mainstream product and could even possibly be 3 D printed at home.

The last suggestion is the most controversial but also the one that makes most sense. The world population is already 7.6 billion and will be 11 billion by 2100 at current birth and death rates. The problem here is that the world’s resources are finite – arable land is not going to increase, freshwater reserves are already at a breaking point and energy needs are on the rise. Yes, there will be innovations in nearly all of these sectors, but feeding 11 billion will still be no easy task. Paradoxically, the birth rates in countries where couples can easily afford to raise another child are going down while birth rates are rising in some developing countries, where poor parents cannot possibly give a good quality of life to offspring. This is where family planning, sex education, sexual awareness and even Government policies come into play. Families should be encouraged to produce only the number of children they can truly afford to raise. Every new person on earth is a consumer of resources – if the population is stable, the Earth will be better off.

One wonders how many people can make the above-mentioned choices, but, if there is a will, there should be a way too. “Serious behavioural change is possible; there is evidence that younger generations are willing to depart from current lifestyles in environmentally relevant ways,” the team says in the study.

They admit that some of the high-impact actions are “politically unpopular” choices. But, the bottom line is whether we are actually cutting back on emissions in a meaningful way instead of just talking about it. The planet, our only home until we find Earth in another corner of the universe in the far, far future, is getting hotter and we have to take certain drastic steps from now on to stop that.