The release of the United Nations IPCC report on climate change this week has caused widespread anxiety, with headlines describing the report as “code red for humanity”. But while it is a much-needed wake-up call, the IPCC itself says: “The report also shows that human actions still have the potential to determine the future course of climate.” We are in a climate emergency, but we have not lost. What we’re facing now is not inevitable doom, but an unprecedented opportunity to change our world for the better.
When people talk about saving the planet, there’s a tendency for the discussion to head in a couple of unhelpful directions. The first is the Too Hard path: the assumption that an eco-friendly lifestyle is expensive, difficult and one of joyless self-restraint. The other is the I Can’t Make a Difference mindset: a belief that the actions ordinary people take have such minimal impact that they’re not worth doing, and that governments and corporations are the only drivers of significant change.
I spent most of 2015-19 researching personal environmental footprints – reading major studies, including as previous IPCC reports – and what I found debunked both of those myths. You can massively reduce your impact on the planet even if you don’t eat fancy organic meals while living in an architect-designed eco-home next to a public transport hub. In fact, a kid with a shopping list has the potential to reduce their family’s environmental footprint further than if their parents were to switch to an electric car. And while lobbying governments and large companies for change is important, conscious consumerism can be incredibly powerful and encourage far more rapid change.
So how do we – as individuals, families, schools, workplaces – produce this significant change? The first step is learning what the impact of our everyday choices is. Taking Greenhouse Gas (GhG) emissions as an example, many of the things we associate with reducing our impact, such as turning off the lights when we leave a room or drying our clothes on the washing line, aren’t actually major factors in our GhG footprints. While positive actions in themselves, they are a drop in the ocean compared to our indirect emissions – that is, the CO2 and other GhGs that are emitted in creating the foods, textiles and other products we consume. These household items are heavily responsible for some of the most powerful GhGs, such as methane (which has 25 times the warming potential per kg that CO2 has) and nitrous oxide (288 times as powerful as CO2). IPCC Working Group I Co-Chair Panmao Zhai reported this week that “limiting other greenhouse gases and air pollutants, especially methane, could have benefits both for health and the climate.” My hands-on sustainability series, Make the Future!, focusses on the simple – and enjoyable! – actions we can take to cut these emissions, along with water and land use, pollution and other impacts.
I designed the Make the Future! books around this quote from the Australian Government’s Sustainability Curriculum Framework:
Sustainability is about reducing our ecological footprint while simultaneously improving the quality of life that we value – the ‘liveability’ of our society.
This concept, which seems counterintuitive at first, is in fact eminently achievable. When we choose products that use less resources, they save us money at the same time as reducing our impact on the planet.
With the right recipes, we can create healthier and far more eco-friendly versions of our favourite foods. By learning to upcycle, mend and buy second-hand, we not only cut down our damage to the environment, but gain the chance to express ourselves with customised gear that we’ll value more than the bland throwaway alternatives in shops.
The difference those everyday choices make is substantial. For example, by swapping out one high-impact meal twice a week for a year, you could easily save the equivalent emissions of driving from Melbourne to Townsville and back in a large 4WD. Add to this the collateral benefits of living more sustainably – from increased personal happiness to improved social justice outcomes – and it truly is an amazing opportunity that confronts us.
I’ll be posting tips and extracts from my series regularly on my website and social media, so please check back soon to find out how you can make the future better … for our world, and for yourself.