People Change: Wondering how to save the planet? Avoid these 7 deadly emissions

[About the author: Darren Wimhurst is an operations manager and writer. He was a student on the City, University of London Writing for Business short course in January-March 2019. Darren wrote this blog as part of a homework/in-class exercise on that course.]

Lord knows; I’m a sinner. But I can’t say I’ve been involved in anything deadly before.

Is it that bad? The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in October 2018 that human activities have caused 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels. If this figure rises above 1.5C we face a number of apocalyptic scenarios.

How do we avoid said apocalypse? “We need to cut CO2 emissions almost in half (45%) by the end of the next decade,” says Kimberly Nicholas, associate professor at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS) in Sweden. Emissions need to be net zero by 2050.

Are world leaders directing the response? The UN sponsored the IPCC report but their remit extends to strongly worded recommendations. Responsibility lies with individual countries and after decades of negotiation on climate change there has been no slowing of the rising global carbon curve. To confirm: no change whatsoever.

So it’s down to us. Below, are the seven emissions we need to eliminate or significantly reduce.


1. Gluttony

The overindulgence and overconsumption of anything to the point of waste

o If cattle were their own country they’d be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China and the US.
o Meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein but they use 83% of farmland and contribute 60% of farming’s greenhouse gases.
o 86% of all land mammals are now livestock and humans.

Joseph Poore, Oxford University research lead on agriculture, said, “a vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.”

A confession: I’m not vegan. I know. I’m a flexitarian. This is a term for people who are trying to do better but have some flaws, like fried chicken for example. Flexitarianism is about halving your consumption of animal protein to reduce your carbon footprint by more than 40%. It’s about sustainability.

What does a sustainable diet look like? A group of 37 scientists were brought together as part of the EAT-Lancet commission to develop a diet to feed the expected global population of 10 billion in 2050. If you take one thing from it, it should be the recommended red meat intake: one burger a week or a steak a month.

2. Sloth

Absence of interest or habitual disinclination to exertion

A third (two million) of all car journeys taken by Londoners every day are under 2km.

Getting rid of your car can reduce 2.5 tonnes of CO2 per annum. To put this in context, developing countries such as Pakistan and the Philippines contribute around 1 tonne per capita per year in total.

Air pollution is a particular issue in London.

o Last year, we reached the legal limit for air pollution for the whole year by the end of January.
o The mayor’s London Assembly website suggests 9,000 Londoners are dying early every year as a result of toxic air. Other estimates put this number closer to 40,000.
o 50% of air pollution in London comes from road transport.

You may need your car. But 2 million journeys under 2km suggests we can do better. I know I can. I was left a car by my grandad. Based on the insurance fees, road tax, MOT and petrol costs of owning my car I would need to be driving more than two hours a week to make it more economical than joining a car share club. I’m not. Conclusion: sell the car.

3. Inertia

A tendency to remain unchanged

Mr Frischmann, vice-president of Project Drawdown, believes we’re not making the most of the food and energy alternatives at our disposal. “What we need is to accelerate implementation.”

Project Drawdown is a group of scientists who’ve calculated how to cool the planet by 2050 while simultaneously tackling global hunger and education. They’ve compiled 80 solutions in order of their impact on reducing CO2 emissions. Numbers 2 and 8 on the list are wind turbines and solar farms respectively.

Aren’t renewable tariffs more expensive? Not in the UK, not any more. As of 2018, half of the top 10 cheapest tariffs offered are green ones. If you switch you’re not only ensuring your energy comes from non-polluting sources but you’re increasing demand. This will lead to investment in renewables from the traditional Big 6 energy companies.

4. Greed

A very strong wish to continuously fly somewhere

Sadly, I have to admit tourism is often a sin. Each transatlantic flight costs 1.6 tonnes of CO2, which, is the same as the average yearly emissions of one person in India. There’s no way round this one – unless you enjoy long ship voyages of course. The advice in order of effectiveness: don’t fly, fly with the most efficient airline (always in economy), offset.

How do you offset? An example would be a payment you make to a project that negates your flight emissions by planting the required number of trees. However, offsetting divides environmentalists.

The best choice remains not to fly. If you’re able to influence your company’s policy on business flights, remind them:
o Video/chat/teleconferencing options exist.
o Flying first or business class is more expensive for them and the environment.
o Green values are positive for their reputation (and the future of living things).

5. Envy

A feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions

o While researching her film ‘The Story of Stuff’ Annie Leonard discovered that only 1% of the things we buy remain in use six months after sale.
o So how much crap are we buying? I count roughly 25 items in our living room that are over six months old. Therefore, 2,500 items have been bought and 2,475 have been moved on. They are ex-items. Except they aren’t; they’re in landfill, being dumped in developing countries or replacing fish in the ocean.
o Fashion alone accounts for 3% of the world’s global production emissions of CO2.

There are so many new, shiny things. Some of them seem much better than the things I already have. Other people have them; I want them too. But do I? Somebody gave me a good tip: wait. If you still want it after a week, a month, ideally three months, then it’s the one. If not, well, you know.

6. Developed indifference

A problem that money can’t solve

Kimberley Nicholas’ (LUCSUS) estimated each child raised in a developed country costs the environment 58.6 tonnes of CO2 per annum. In the UK, the average person contributes 8 tonnes of CO2. She concluded, therefore, the biggest impact we could have on climate change was to have one fewer child.

There are a few problems with this, illustrated by people more qualified than me.

Nonetheless, the number is too big to ignore. You may choose to have one fewer child or we can all change our consumption habits. If a child is raised in a world of sustainable farming, zero waste and renewable energy then we don’t need to have this discussion.

Education, education, contraception. “Taken together, educating girls and family planning is the number one solution to reversing global warming,” said Mr Frischmann of Project Drawdown. If more girls continue their education, receive wanted contraception and spread out childbirth, as they would like, Project Drawdown estimates this would cut 120 billion tons of greenhouse gases by 2050.

7. Apathy

Lack of interest, enthusiasm or concern

o Vote. Jim Skea, co-chair of the IPCC working group said, “we have pointed out the enormous benefits of keeping to 1.5C … we show it can be done within laws of physics and chemistry. Then the final tick box is political will. We cannot answer that. Only our audience can – and that is the governments that receive it.”
o Congregate. Bill McKibben, a leading climate campaigner and founder of 350.org, argues the most important thing people can do is form movements or join existing groups to “push for changes big enough to matter.”
o Spread the word. Social scientists found when one person makes a sustainability-oriented decision others do too. They believe this is because we’re constantly evaluating our peers and ourselves and adjusting our thoughts and actions accordingly.

School children have been striking globally every Friday. They’re doing everything they can to raise awareness. Given our government have spent the last three years committing hara-kiri, I’d rather look to the future.

Purging these seven emissions is a start. We can affect changes as individuals that force much larger ones. As consumers and voters we are demand – we need to make it count.