This summer the United Nations warned that the world is facing a “code red” climate emergency. Headline after headline called for “urgent action” to address the crisis. World leaders are due to gather in Glasgow this November to discuss their response at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26.
But in the meantime, what can we do to lighten our load on the planet? Individual action can’t solve the problem of climate change, but it will make a difference. Whether you are ditching the car or creating a bug-friendly garden, every change counts.
Action: Move your money into a greener pension and more ethical current account
For lots of people, personal finances are a sustainability blind spot. After all, there’s already so much to consider: interest rates, tax benefits, risk against returns, what your long-term financial plan looks like. It can feel like there’s no space for climate considerations.
But ignoring the issue means many people risk being “accidental investors” in industries they disagree with, warns David Hayman, a senior campaigner and policy specialist at Make My Money Matter, a campaign promoting the switch to sustainable pensions.
“You’ve got vegans invested in the meat industry, and you’ve got Extinction Rebellion protestors blocking Oxford Circus who are likely invested through their pensions in the very companies they are protesting against,” he tells i.
“Our campaign is about helping people understand that their money may be undermining their values”.
In fact, rethinking where your money lies is one of the most effective things an individual can do to help the planet, research from Make My Money Matter and Aviva suggests.
The total carbon savings of switching a £30,000 pension from the global equity index to an equity-focused sustainable fund amounts to 19 tonnes – that is 21 times the combined impact of switching to a green energy provider, forgoing all air travel and becoming vegetarian.
The first step towards a greener pension is to ask your current provider how your money is invested and the effect it is having, Hayman says. “The quality, the speed, the transparency of the answer you get will give you a really good indicator of how seriously the organisation you are talking to is taking these issues,” he says.
If you are not happy with the current investment strategy, ask your provider to shift your pension savings into a more ethical fund, or if that is not an option, put pressure on it to improve its environmental credentials. For bank accounts, the process is similar. Find out what your bank’s climate policies are, and if they are weak or vague, switch.
Action: Walk more, drive less
For the average Briton, transport emissions account for more than a quarter of their annual carbon footprint. Car use makes up the bulk of this emissions impact – and the good news is there is action that you can take today to address it.
The easiest way to cut car emissions is to stop using one. Ditching your car altogether could shave two tonnes a year off your carbon footprint, research suggests, making it one of the most impactful actions you can take.
Of course, for many people – particularly those in rural areas – going car-free will not be possible. Cutting your car use by walking or cycling short journeys is the next best step. To meet our carbon targets, we need to cut the amount we drive by 12 per cent by 2050, the Government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change warns.
Start with the school run, suggests Paul Tuohy, chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport. “Walk. Just walk, or cycle. Stop making silly excuses to get your children in the car.”
If you do need a car, and either you drive a lot or your old vehicle is about to conk out, then it’s time to consider buying an electric one.
Action: Switch to train trips
After the turmoil, stress, grief and isolation of the past 18 months, most of us are in need of a holiday. But if you are thinking about jetting off somewhere hot and exotic, think again. i spoke to almost a dozen climate experts, and nearly all said cutting back on flights was one of the biggest things an individual can do to reduce their climate impact.
For Stefan Gossling, a Swedish academic who has spent 25 years studying sustainable tourism, flying and taking a cruise are the two biggest climate “headaches” when it comes to holidays.
“If you fly to New Zealand and go on a cruise then you probably emit more than the average human being does in five years,” he points out.
A much greener holiday would be to take the train, car or ferry to somewhere in the UK or Europe, experts agree. Anna Hughes, director of Flight Free UK, is keen to stress that travelling this way does not have to be a chore.
“It’s not about sacrifice, it’s not about saying you can’t do stuff anymore, it’s about saying ‘these are available in a different way’,” she says.
“Think about the group of four girls who fly to Mallorca each year. Well, what an amazing, exciting experience it would be to sit on a train, with a bottle of Prosecco, watching the Alps go by?”
When you reach your destination, small tweaks to your behaviour can also help to save the planet. If you’re staying in a hotel, don’t request fresh towels and bed linen every day. If you prefer self-catering, cut back on food waste by taking all the leftover food home with you.
Food & Drink
Action: Eat less meat and dairy
What you eat and drink makes up around a quarter of the average Briton’s carbon footprint. For most of us, that includes too much high-carbon meat and dairy, which is driving climate change, deforestation and biodiversity loss around the world.
Shifting our diets is an essential part of tackling climate change. Even if the world transforms into a green utopia by the middle of the century, global climate targets will be blown out of the water if we do not change what we eat and how we produce that food, according to research by the University of Oxford.
That is not least because we need to free up much of the world’s farmland to create forested carbon sinks to get to net zero.
Red meat is probably the most problematic meat from a carbon perspective, but lower-carbon chickens are causing serious pollution problems of their own. Wild seafood tends to have a low carbon footprint, but overfishing risks destabilising ocean ecosystems.
Choosing more plant-based meals is the most effective way of slashing the environmental effect of your diet. Yes, there may be environmental issues around soya production, but most scientists agree even the highest carbon fruit and vegetables still have a lower carbon footprint than meat and dairy.
Action: Don’t buy a flashy exercise bike – join a gym instead
There’s growing evidence to suggest the pandemic has changed the way we shop. Yes, the popularity of online shopping has soared for obvious reasons, but studies also indicate that British shoppers are starting to factor in sustainability concerns when hitting the stores. A 2021 Deloitte study found that 80 per cent have reduced the amount of new products and goods they buy since the pandemic, while 76 per cent look for brands with sustainable values.
Cutting back on how much stuff we buy is a good step towards sustainability. Fashion is a case in point: the UK buys more clothes per person than any other country in Europe. The UK is also the fourth largest producer of textile waste in Europe. Put simply, we are buying too many clothes and throwing them away too soon.
Buying better quality goods in the first place would help to short-circuit this bad habit, says Libby Peake, head of resource policy at the think tank Green Alliance.
“It’s not necessarily about not enjoying shopping, it’s about getting more out of your shopping,” she tells i.
Shopping for second-hand items is a great way to pick up good quality products at a more affordable price, she points out. Plus, keeping existing goods in use for longer helps reduce demand for resources.
That might mean shopping at charity shops or on resale sites such as eBay, Depop, or Vinted, or buying a refurbished mobile phone.
“Refurbished phones quite often come with warranties – so you are getting a quality item that hasn’t been freshly made,” Peake adds.
Share tools, clothes and equipment with others as much as possible. We might have spent last year jumping around our living rooms in a desperate bid to stay healthy, but don’t be tempted to invest in your own gym equipment, warns Dr Milena Buchs, a sustainability specialist at the University of Leeds.
“Gyms can be good because at least you share the facilities,” she tells i.
“The more we consume, the more emissions there are somewhere along the production chain.”
Action: Switch to a green tariff and get a smart meter
Decarbonising home energy use is probably the toughest challenge the UK faces in getting to net zero.
On the electricity side, things are relatively straightforward. Most of the coal that used to form the backbone of our power grid has been retired, replaced by gas and renewables.
Eventually, the UK will rely solely on renewables, nuclear and interconnector cables piping power from other nations.
Households can speed up the transition by switching to a green-energy supplier and installing a smart meter, explains Dr Richard Carmichael, an expert in sustainable behaviour at Imperial College London.
In particular, smart meters can be used to shift electricity use to when green power is most abundant, he says.
Heating is where things get tricky. Most UK households run on gas central heating, but within the next 30 years they will need to start using electric heat pumps or hydrogen instead.
While for most people a heat pump is not an affordable option just yet, you can start getting your home heat-pump-ready. Heat pumps run constantly at a lower temperature, so work best when homes are energy efficient – so get plugging the gaps. Check you have enough loft, wall and floor insulation, and make sure your house is double glazed.
In the garden
Action: No peat-based compost
Insect life is in crisis in the UK. Species of bees and hoverflies, butterflies and moths, beetles and freshwater insects are all suffering a decline in their population or range in the UK.
The first thing to do is stop making the problem worse. Throw out those old tubs of slug pellets and canisters of weed killer and embrace organic gardening.
“For a nature friendly garden, go organic,” says the Soil Association’s Rob Percival.
“Avoid chemical sprays. Instead, make your garden a haven for animals, birds and insects, and they’ll do the work for you – you’ll be buzzing in no time.”
You can give wildlife a helping hand by leaving patches of lawn to grow long, and allowing leaves and twigs to collect in the corners to give insects a place to shelter. “
Building a pond is one of the best things you can do to attract wildlife to your garden,” says James Byrne of The Wildlife Trusts.
If you are heading to the garden centre, opt for peat-free compost.
Waste & recycling
Action: Cut back on food waste and compost scraps
The UK’s waste sector is something of a sustainability success story. Back in 1990 methane emissions from landfill amounted to one million tonnes a year.
Thanks to a tax on landfilled waste, the growth of recycling and energy-from-waste plants, and the rollout of industrial composting facilities, emissions have dropped significantly since.
But there is still much more to do. Recycling rates have plateaued in the UK with about 45 per cent of household waste heading for the recycling bin – well short of Germany’s impressive 66 per cent rate. More waste is burned in the UK than recycled.
Tackling the effect of your waste footprint means not only recycling properly, it also means stopping waste at the source. Every year about 9.5 million tonnes of food ends up in the bin – 85 per cent of which comes from households.
“We have a huge amount of food produced every year which never gets eaten,” says Professor Dave Reay, a professor of carbon management at the University of Edinburgh.
“It’s the old yoghurt at the back of the fridge, it’s the potatoes in the porch that have all gone green and leggy – they all add up,” he says.
“If you put it into the landfill bin that means your old yoghurt is going into a hole in the ground and that will rot down and produce methane,” he explains.
“If you multiply that by 24 million households in the UK, that’s a lot of old yoghurt and a lot of emissions that have unnecessarily gone into the atmosphere.”
Cut your food waste by letting people serve themselves, freezing leftovers and planning meals in advance. During the first lockdown household food waste dropped by 43 per cent, according to the waste charity Wrap, as people spent more time planning meals. Any food that is going to waste should go in your council compost bin, where it gets sent off to produce green gas or compost.
Protest and survive
Action: Tell your MP you want an electric car or heat pump
There are many areas of life where making the green choice is still too difficult or too expensive. That needs to change, says Professor Rebecca Willis, a climate expert at Lancaster University.
“As an individual, it’s not just what you can do in your own life,” she says.
“It’s about what you can do to change the system so that it is more normal and natural [to do the green thing]. That means talking to politicians, your local councillor, it means protesting, it means talking about climate change to friends and family and businesses.
“I would allot as much importance to those actions as where you go on holiday.”