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The Bad Environmentalist

If I want to change the world I ought to be setting an example. Hmmm...

New Statesman, October 2005

I'm an environmentalist, and I'm alright. For over a decade I have been working for what we all now call 'sustainability' on both a personal and political level. It stands to reason, then, that my everyday life must be energy-efficient; that I must be leaving a small and barely noticeable footprint on the planet's resources. I am, after all, supposed to be setting an example.

Of course, I recycle all my cans, bottles and bits of paper. I don't drive a car. I get my milk delivered in returnable glass bottles. I use energy-efficient light bulbs. I grow my own vegetables and try to buy organic food, when I can afford it. I try not to fly too much, and feel suitably guilty when I do. I use recycled paper. Etcetera.

But what does it all amount to? What difference am I actually making? I've told myself for years that I must be using less energy, and making less of an environmental impact, than most people in Britain. But is that actually true? If so, is it enough? And if not, what am I going to do about it?

There's one way to find out; I decide to submit myself to an energy audit. There are many ways of doing this, some more time-consuming and effective than others. If you want to do it really seriously there are companies and individuals out there who you can employ to audit every aspect of your life, and calculate your 'ecological footprint' down to the last toenail.

But there are easier and quicker ways of doing it too. For the purposes of this experiment, I decide to use one of the many energy-audit tools found on the internet. The Carbon Calculator, created by the environmental magazine Resurgence (http://www.resurgence.org/carboncalculator/index.htm) allows you, in a few minutes, to calculate roughly how much energy you use every year, and how it compares with sustainable targets. It's worryingly easy to use; so much so that I can't help procrastinating for several hours before I actually start. The consequences of getting the wrong answer make me nervous.
But it has to be done: I take a deep breath, and plunge in.

First we come to home energy bills: in my case, electricity and gas. This requires some digging around. Ferreting out my last electricity bill and searching through the bits I never read when I pay it, I discover that our household, which consists of me and my partner, uses about 286 kilowatt hours of electricity per month. Whatever that means. Then there's the gas bill. How many therms do I use a month? What the hell is a therm anyway? This takes some working out, but I think it's probably about 40 a month. In it goes. Passing over oil, coal and wood, and feeling pretty good about it, I move on to the next and potentially more frightening category: personal transport.

First, car use. As a non-car owner who cycles pretty much everywhere on a daily basis I'm feeling pretty smug about this one. Until I remember the camper van. Last year, on a curious whim, I bought myself an ex-ambulance, converted for use as a camper van. It runs on both petrol and liquid petroleum gas (LPG), which is a less-polluting (and less expensive) fuel. Or it did, until the LPG conked out. Now it just runs on petrol, and a lot of it: a twenty-year-old three ton van drinks a lot of fuel. In my defence, I didn't know quite how much when I bought it. I didn't think I drove it much either until I counted up the mileage for this experiment: 1859 miles in the last year. Oh dear. Buses and trains follow: mostly journeys from my homes in Oxford to London. In it all goes.

Then comes the big one: the one that could blow it all out of the water: plane flights, the fastest-growing contributor to climate change. Any environmentalist worth their salt would keep away from planes altogether. How many miles do I fly a year? I've deliberately never thought about it, partly because I'm vaguely aware that, in the past few years in particular, it has been far too many. I set to work calculating the miles flown over the last twelve months. The results are unpleasant.

September 2004: return flight to Australia, my girlfriend's home country. Gulp. It's about 10,000 miles. Each way. December 2004: Return flight to Cyprus, where my parents now thoughtlessly live. Another 4500 miles. Great. This year's total, then: 24,500 miles, using up between them a breathtaking 21,315 kg of carbon. Oh boy. There go my ecological credentials.

Next we have 'industry and commerce.' This is one of those categories that we might not even think of unless we had our attention drawn to them, and yet around half of the UK's total carbon emissions come from industry and commerce supporting our everyday lifestyles - the energy used to grow and transport food, make clothes and electrical goods, power the welfare state and all the rest of it. Following the detailed instructions I come out with a figure of about 2.5 tonnes of carbon a year. And suddenly, that's it: a figure appears. My personal carbon usage over the last year is …. I can't look … 25.5 tonnes.

Now, hang on: this can't be right. Average carbon usage in the UK is about 9 tonnes per person; 11 if flights are taken into account. Mine is more than twice as high. And I'm an environmentalist! There must be some mistake. I trawl back over the figures, desperately looking for loopholes. It makes no real difference; the total remains resolutely high. This is a disaster. I'm going to have to pull out of writing this article. I can't possibly publish this. No-one will ever take me seriously again. Help.

So what's the problem? In a word: flights. Those two trips, to Australia and Cyprus, produced just over 21 tonnes of carbon between them. Take them out of the equation and my annual budget comes in at … 4.23 tonnes. Less than half of the national average, and the sort of target that a greenie could be reasonably proud of. Assuming that I ever wanted to see my parents again, and left one annual flight to Cyprus in the mix, I would total about 9 tonnes: not nearly so good, but just about average.

So that's it, then: no more flights to Australia, or at least not for the next decade, and I'll be doing OK. Except that this is not the whole picture. According to George Marshall, of the Climate Outreach Information Network, even an average of 9 tonnes per capita is likely to be way above any long-term sustainable emissions budget. While stressing that no firm figure can be arrived upon until we know exactly what effects climate change will have, Marshall suggests that a personal annual carbon dioxide budget of around 2.5 tonnes each for every one on Earth is likely to be closer to a truly sustainable target.

So what do I do? For a start, I never fly again: 21.3 tonnes of carbon less every year. I sell my camper van: another third of a tonne gone. I'm down to 3.9 tonnes a year. Still not enough. I sell my computer, buy only second-hand clothes and only food produced within a ten mile radius. I stop using trains…

It's getting silly; but it's also getting scary. This kind of exercise drives home tome just how over-dependent we are on carbon-based energy, and how we are going to have to change this dependency, fast. Ultimately, we in the industrialised world are going to have to make major changes to our lifestyles.

If there is a heartening side to this tale, though, it is that people who are aware of what changes are needed are beginning to experiment with them already. In the past few years I've seen or even taken part in a number of them myself.

There are initiatives to promote the local food economy, from local farmers markets to calculations of 'food miles': all aimed at reducing the vast amounts of energy used transporting food all over the globe to your table. There are community experiments, like Nottinghamshire's Sherwood Energy Village; a project in which the site of a former coal mine is being transformed into an emissions-free community. There are the thousands of small renewable energy companies springing up all over the country.

There are more radical experiments, too, like that of Tinker's Bubble, a small-scale low-impact farming community which has made a home for itself on a hillside in Somerset, and is attempting to create a small farming economy which uses no carbon fuel inputs at all, produces fresh local produce and creates its housing and most of its everyday needs from the products of the landscape. None of these initiatives even comes close to tackling the energy problems we will face in the future: they are too small, to scattered, too underfunded and under-supported. But they are a start.

Some of these ideas might seem terrifying, or absurd, to many of us. But we are all going to have to face some hard facts: the way we use energy is going to have to change, radically and fast, and we're all going to have to be part of it. And one thing is certain: if every 'environmentalist' is as profligate as me, we've got an even bigger problem than we thought we had.