Friday, July 21, 2017

How Can I Help?

Here's the Sustainable Futures Report  for Friday, 21st July. Find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or at

First of all, let me welcome my newest Patron. It’s Terrill Flandro. Thanks, Terrill, for showing your support for the Sustainable Futures Report at and becoming a Foundation Supporter. More about Patreon at the end of this report.

Welcome Terrill Flandro.

As usual, links to my sources are on the blog at


What can I do about climate change? Does it make any difference if I recycle? How can I affect global challenges when there are multinational corporations which seem to be set in the opposite direction? Can we really do anything about population, pollution and climate change? How can I help?

These are all questions which come up time and again when people realise how large the challenges which face us are. I thought I'd use this report to try and answer some of those questions and I was inspired to do this partly by a quotation repeated by Paul Holbrook at the recent Community Energy England Conference. He said, “Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”

So let’s look at how we can be not one in a million, but one of a million like-minded people determined to get things done.

Four Key Actions
You may have seen headlines in the press recently about the things you should do to protect the environment and reduce climate change and the things that you can do but will not make much difference. They were based on an article published in Environmental Research Letters entitled:
The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions.

Some of the research that I do for these reports is quite tortuous. It may start out with a Sun headline, (Oh, OK, perhaps The Guardian then), but it can end up almost anywhere. In this case this Environmental Research Letter is based on work by Seth Wynes who is currently at the University of British Columbia. He produced this paper while he was an MSc student studying under Kim Nicholson, Associate Professor of Sustainability Science at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS) in Lund, Sweden. That’s why you can find all about this, including video and excellent infographics on her website at

So what does this report tell us we should do? The idea that caught many of the headlines was: “Have fewer children.” Bit late for some of us. And it’s certainly not as simple as that.

Let me quote the full abstract of the article, which I think I’m entitled to do under the Creative Commons licence.

Current anthropogenic climate change is the result of greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere, which records the aggregation of billions of individual decisions. Here we consider a broad range of individual lifestyle choices and calculate their potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries, based on 148 scenarios from 39 sources. We recommend four widely applicable high-impact (i.e. low emissions) actions with the potential to contribute to systemic change and substantially reduce annual personal emissions: having one fewer child (an average for developed countries of 58.6 tonnes CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) emission reductions per year), living car-free (2.4 tCO2e saved per year), avoiding airplane travel (1.6 tCO2e saved per roundtrip transatlantic flight) and eating a plant-based diet (0.8 tCO2e saved per year). These actions have much greater potential to reduce emissions than commonly promoted strategies like comprehensive recycling (four times less effective than a plant-based diet) or changing household lightbulbs (eight times less). Though adolescents poised to establish lifelong patterns are an important target group for promoting high-impact actions, we find that ten high school science textbooks from Canada largely fail to mention these actions (they account for 4% of their recommended actions), instead focusing on incremental changes with much smaller potential emissions reductions. Government resources on climate change from the EU, USA, Canada, and Australia also focus recommendations on lower-impact actions. We conclude that there are opportunities to improve existing educational and communication structures to promote the most effective emission-reduction strategies and close this mitigation gap.

So in summary there are four things you should do, in order of impact:

  1. Have fewer children
  2. Get rid of your car
  3. Avoid air travel
  4. Live on a plant-based diet

The report also demonstrates that most public information emphasises actions like changing your lightbulbs, recycling and washing laundry in cold water which are good in themselves but have a marginal effect on carbon reduction.

Smaller Families
According to the average annual carbon footprint (CO2 equivalents) for a UK resident is around 13 tonnes. I couldn’t immediately see how that could lead to a saving of 59 tonnes per year by not having a child. This is based on a 2009 paper by Murtaugh and Schlax published in Global Environmental Change. (I told you this was tortuous.) Their thesis is that you and your partner are each responsible for one half of your child’s lifetime GHG emissions. But wait, that child will on average also have children and you will be responsible for one quarter of each of those children’s lifetime emissions. And one eighth of your great-grandchildren’s emissions, and so on ad infinitum. That’s how they get to 59 tonnes per annum. They postulate that each child adds 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of the average female (and presumably the average male as well,) which is 5.7 times their lifetime emissions. 

But is this right?
There is some controversy over whether Wynes and Nicholson have interpreted Murtaugh and Schlax correctly. There is a link on my blog to an article headed “No, Having One Child Does Not Add 60 Tons Per Year to Your Carbon Footprint”. I’m going to do some more digging on this and see if I can set up an interview. 

Lose the Car
The next most important way of reducing your carbon footprint that they recommend is by giving up your car. That saves far less than the suggested 60 tonnes from having fewer children, only 2.4 tonnes per annum, but far more than anything else. Driving a hybrid car is better than driving a petrol or diesel car and driving an electric car is even better. But driving no car at all is best, because living car-free reduces the need to build more roads and parking spaces, and supports higher-density urban design, which more efficient cars do not.

Don’t fly
Air travel - a transatlantic round trip costs 1.6 tonnes of CO2e - is a pretty easy saving for many people, especially if they don’t have grandchildren in Australia.

Go Veggie
And then there’s the plant-based diet, which saves 0.8 of a tonne each year. I have to admit I’m not a vegetarian and certainly not a vegan. My problem is that I like meat and I’m not much good at preparing vegetarian food that I find appetising. Something perhaps I should look at again. 

Do have a look at Kim Nicholas’s website for the full report and the other carbon-saving strategies that they examined.

Spread the Word
One of the clearest messages that comes out of all this is that spreading the word and making people aware of the issues is an important action. Lobbying politicians and joining campaign groups helps too. Talk to your employer. A while ago the Sustainable Futures Report covered the Green Supply Chain. Is that relevant to your work? We can live the talk and do all the low and medium impact activities like changing lightbulbs, recycling, washing in cold water, changing to a hybrid and so on. Our lifestyle can be a talking point and conversation starter so we can pass on the wider message.

Action this Day!
Here are some other things you can consider:

Join a local community energy group. 
These non-profit organisations exist all over the world and set up solar farms, wind turbines or small hydro schemes to provide energy for local users. The electricity is typically sold for less than the major energy companies would charge and the revenue is sufficient to repay the cost to the shareholders with interest; usually more than you would get from a high-street savings account.  coordinates share issues for community organisations and you can find investment opportunities on their website. If you are considering investing you should take appropriate professional advice and be aware that past performance is no guide to the future as the sun can go in, the wind may drop and rivers dry up.

Support charities such as 

They say:
“598 million people in Africa alone have no access to electricity. Without electricity families have no clean source of light, leaving millions to rely on expensive and dangerous alternatives such as homemade kerosene lamps. These lamps are a poor source of light; they emit toxic black smoke, eat up to 15% of a family’s income and are extremely hazardous.”

Solar-Aid is distributing solar-powered lanterns throughout Africa.

They say:
“With a solar light, everything changes. These little lamps are safe, clean and affordable. They give off hours of light in the evening so families can earn, learn and feel safe after dark. Just one lamp can transform the fortunes of an entire family and is the first step on an energy ladder to full electrification.”

You can find out how to support Solar-Aid on their website. You can also learn more about their progress from the new book of their founder at

Join a car club. 
Car clubs are not specifically mentioned in the Wynes/Nicholson report, but they will surely help you to make savings, especially as most of them offer hybrids and electric cars. But of course it’s still a car and still needs all the infrastructure from roads to parking spaces. Get a bike? Fine in fine weather. Go by train? How long will it take for HS2 to recoup the carbon emissions created in its construction? In my view it will never do it, and in any case I don’t expect to live long enough to see it open, but that’s another story.

Why Climate Change Matters
Let’s just take a moment to review why climate change is such an important issue. 

Back to Environmental Research Letters. An article published this month and co-authored by scientists from the UK Met Office, shows how climate change could impact maize production. Maize is a staple food crop across many regions of the world and reduced maize yields could threaten global food security. Nearly 60% of maize is produced in the USA and China, so the scientists looked at the effect and the probability of extreme water stress on the crop in those areas. Using computer simulation they demonstrated that the present day climate is capable of producing unprecedented severe water stress conditions. They warned that adaptation plans and policies, which are typically based solely on observed events from the recent past, may considerably under-estimate the true risk of climate-related maize shocks. 

Financial Pressures
Schroders is a global investment manager with $520bn under management. This week they issued their take on climate change. You can find the video on YouTube. Climate change, they said, will be one of the defining themes of the global economy in the years and decades ahead, through regulation and physical risks. It will determine how fossil fuel reserves are valued, how growth develops in markets and it will affect every organisation and every part of the economy. It will not be easy to achieve the planned 80% emissions cut by 2050. World leaders signed up to a 2℃ global warming limit at the Paris conference, but their commitments won’t achieve that and their policies are weaker still. Changes must be far more radical than seen so far. Schroders will demand greater transparency from companies on how they deal with climate change and will vote against those that in their view are not taking the necessary actions.

Clearly, while there are organisations that are still dilatory, denying and greenwashing there are also major players out there that will call them to account.

Trump Backs Out
You’ll remember that Donald Trump stood firm at the G20 on his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement. George Monbiot, author and columnist, tweeted, “If Trump puts tariffs on steel imports #G20 will impose "immediate sanctions". When he tore up US climate commitments, they merely sighed.”

After talks, President Macron of France indicated that he thought he had changed Trump’s mind. Others are sceptical. What Trump actually said was:

“Yeah, I mean something could happen with respect to the Paris Accord, we’ll see what happens. But we will talk about that over the coming period of time. And if it happens that’ll be wonderful. And If it doesn’t, that’ll be OK too. But we’ll see what happens. But we did discuss many things today including the cease fire in Syria, we discussed the Ukraine, we discussed a lot of different topics. We briefly hit on the Paris Accords and we’ll see what happens.”

So let’s see what happens.

And now for some good news.

North Sea Cod is no longer endangered so we can now enjoy our fish and chips with a clear conscience. Look out for The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) "blue tick" label.
This indicates that North Sea cod caught by Scottish and English boats is "sustainable and fully traceable".Go easy on haddock, though. That’s still threatened in many areas. 

Much to the surprise of many, inflation has fallen in the UK. An important factor was a fall in the price of oil. Not good news if it makes people by more oil.

Inequality in the UK has declined. The division between rich and poor is not as wide as it was. There are regional variations, however. For example the average wage in the southeast is 25% higher than in the Midlands. Is that sustainable?

And finally…..

Two stories to close. Last week I reported that the new Tesla battery factory had a significant carbon footprint caused by its employees commuting to work. Forbes magazine considers a bigger picture. They report that The Union of Concerned Scientists found that the manufacturing of a full-sized Tesla Model S rear-wheel drive car with an 85 KWH battery was equivalent to a full-sized internal combustion car except for the battery, which added 15% or one metric ton of CO2 emissions to the total manufacturing.

However, they found that this was trivial compared to the emissions avoided due to not burning fossil fuels to move the car. Before anyone says "But electricity is generated from coal!", they took that into account too, and it's included in the 53% overall reduction.

Did I mention Patreon?

I follow Climate State on Patreon and they’ve just revealed an article from 1912 in Popular Mechanics which predicted that CO2 emissions from coal burning would warm the planet. There are articles from 100 years ago about extreme weather as well. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as we say in Yorkshire.

And while you’re on Patreon have a look at my page at Join my patrons - hi there, patrons, thanks for your continued support - and you’ll usually get early access to the Sustainable Futures Report each week. Other benefits are listed on the site.

Thank you for listening. This has been the Sustainable Futures Report and I have been Anthony Day. Well I still am.

Next week will be the last report before my August break. I have no idea what it will be about, so if you have ideas please send them to I will tell you about the books I intend to read over the holiday. Again, if you have suggestions please pass them on.

And that’s it. I’m Anthony Day. That was the Sustainable Futures Report. And there’ll be another next week.

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