Living Green: Buying Local, Energy Efficient Lights & Vehicles, and More

With the ever-mounting evidence that human activity is contributing to potentially disastrous climate change (quite apart from the natural cycle of climate change) many of us seek ways to live cleaner, greener lives that won’t spoil our world for future generations.

Unfortunately, some of the common things people try and do in their efforts to live greener lives aren’t very effective at all – and some, even though they sound like great ideas – actually INCREASE environmental impact.

In this article, I’ll present a few apparent “good ideas” and suggest that they might not always be as good as they seem to be!

Buying Local

One thing a lot of people try to do, and a lot of environmental organisations try to encourage, is “buy local”.

This makes a lot of sense – transporting products long distances (in trucks, cargo ships, trains etc) costs energy, and generating energy produces carbon and pollution. Not only that, but the vehicles use precious resources in their construction and maintenance.

So surely buying local is a no-brainer if you want to do your bit to help the environment? Actually no, not necessarily. Often buying local is better, but not always.

A recent study suggested that New Zealand lamb, consumed in the UK, actually has a smaller environmental footprint per kilogram than some UK-produced lamb consumed in the UK, despite being shipped half away around the world!

This is, for me at least, extremely counter intuitive. The reasons behind this relate to New Zealand’s cleaner energy, more suitable climate and naturally rich pastures. In this example, it means UK consumers wanting to minimize their environmental impact might actually be best advised to choose New Zealand lamb!

Another example is cut flowers purchased in the UK – some flowers produced in Holland (which is not too far away from the UK) have a higher carbon footprint than flowers bought in from Kenya (which is much much further away from the UK than Holland).

Again, this seems counter intuitive. At least it does until you consider the production methods – in Kenya, with its sunny climate, the flowers are grown outdoors. The flowers from Holland, with its considerably less sunny climate, are grown in heated greenhouses.

I’m not saying buying local is a bad idea, usually it IS the more environmentally friendly option – but don’t automatically assume that it is.

Think about more than just the distance before making your choice…. consider the natural climate in the various countries offering the product you want, and think about how much man-made energy might be required to produce it in those climates.

Types of Energy

Also consider the types of power generation used in those countries – do they use renewable energy, nuclear energy or older, less environmentally friendly methods?

Another thing many people do in an attempt to “do their best” for the environment is to buy a shiny new energy-efficient hybrid car, with headline-grabbing low carbon emissions per mile. That may seem like a good idea. For some people it might be the most environmentally sound option – but for many others it might not.

While a new, super-efficient car might produce less emissions for every mile driven, building a new car takes huge amounts of energy and materials. It has been estimated that producing a modern car generates about 8 tons of CO2. This is about the same as would be produced driving over 20,000 miles in your current, not-so-efficient car.

When you take into account the difference in CO2 emissions per mile for your current car and the brand new hybrid you’re considering, don’t forget to include the 8 tonnes of extra CO2 it takes just to get that hybrid on the road in the first place!

Think about how many miles you’d have to drive in your new hybrid, or how many years of usage you’d need to get out of it, before you break even in terms of your carbon footprint.

If you regularly drive long distances, and currently have an extremely fuel-inefficient car, maybe a new hybrid is the most environmentally sound option for you. If you don’t, chances are it isn’t and your best option for keeping your carbon footprint low is sticking with your current vehicle!

Obviously new cars are going to be needed, and eco-activists and governments need to do all they can to ensure that new cars are fuel efficient and low emission. According to Pitpass, Diesel engines use additives to improve fuel efficiency and eliminate deposits. But the best thing most of us as individuals can do, if we want to help the environment, is to try and avoid purchasing a new car.

Finally, if you want to help reduce humanity’s carbon output, you can do your bit by cutting down your energy use, right?

Sort of, yes. But it isn’t quite that simple.

If everyone in the UK made an effort and reduced the amount of power they used, UK power plants would produce less energy, and therefore less CO2. Sounds great.

But, unfortunately, the European Emissions Trading Scheme has fixed the amount of CO2 that can be released between now and 2012.

This means that if the UK population reduces its power use and so reduces its carbon footprint, the carbon permits we didn’t use up will get sold on to other parts of Europe.

The total amount of CO2 Europe produces will still be the same, a bit less from the UK but a bit more from wherever the carbon permits ended up being sold to.

So what can we do?

Actually, we can still do our bit by cutting our power usage. There are charities, like Sandbag in the UK, which effectively “buy up” carbon permits, but without producing the carbon those permits allow them to.

So if you cut down your power usage, your energy bills will come down. Give some of the money you save to a charity like Sandbag and you’ll be saving money and the environment…. win-win!