Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. Lent is a period of fasting for Christians, as they prepare for Easter. I feel it’s appropriate that (part of) my way of observing Lent this year is to go further with my efforts to reduce my carbon footprint.
Many people give something up for Lent – often food or drink related. This may be a primarily a spiritual thing – denying oneself something to help one focus on Jesus. It may also have other benefits – a healthier diet and/or saving money (that could then be given to charity). A carbon fast has these benefits, but it also links with the idea of repentance (turning away from sin – in this case the selfish consumerism that damages creation and leaves the poorest to suffer the effects of climate change). There’s also something appropriate in reducing my carbon footprint during the season that starts with ashes.
There are loads of things we can do to reduce our carbon footprints, and it can seem overwhelmingly complicated at times. If you want the quick version, the three most important things we can do, as individuals, to reduce our carbon footprint are:
Switch to 100% renewable electricity (and reduce how much electricity we use)
Eat less meat (and dairy, sadly)
Lowering the carbon footprint of my diet was one of my new year’s resolutions, and I’ve been trying hard to stick to it, with moderate success. But I’ve found it surprisingly difficult – food manufacturers don’t display carbon emissions next to calorie counts. I work in central London, and, on my less organised days, buy my lunch from one of the myriad of sandwich shops near my office. But they provide very little information on where their food comes from, and I’ve been shocked by how few non-dairy vegetarian (or vegan) options there are. Still, this Lent, I’m going to try even harder.
January is the traditional month for dieting. While I don’t usually go in for that sort of thing, this year I’m giving it a go. But this is a diet with a difference – not Atkins, or 5:2. No calorie constraints or low GI. This is the low carb(on) diet.
I’ve been thinking about climate change quite a bit lately. It’s getting hard to ignore. While negotiators were in Paris, thrashing out how nations could cut emissions, I’ve been looking at my own life, to see where I could make carbon cuts. The house is pretty carbon efficient by now, so no obvious gains to be made. I use a green energy supplier. Most of my journeys are done by public transport or walking, and we chose our car partly on its low carbon emissions. The next area I need to tackle is what I eat.
Food production, storage, packaging and transport are responsible for up to a third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. I was staggered when I learnt that. I’d always assumed it was all down to flights, electricity generation, 4 wheel drive cars and those gas burners you see outside pubs (hence not my fault). But food…?!
We all need to eat. But some foods have a higher carbon footprint than others, so changing what I eat can help to reduce my carbon footprint. I’ve been looking into how to do this. It’s not straightforward – carbon emissions aren’t printed on the packaging like calories are, so it needs a bit more work. Here are some tips I’ve picked up:
Don’t waste food – an obvious one really. Food waste means resources are wasted producing, transporting and packaging it. Rotting food in landfills also release methane. I’ve been getting better at reducing my food waste recent years, planning out what I’ll eat each night at the start of the week, and buying only what I need (not random things I like the look of but don’t make a sensible meal).
Buy seasonal and local food (or grow my own) – again, I do reasonably well at buying local, seasonal food, partly because I get most of my fruit and veg from my town’s wonderful Food Float, a stall in the High Street that sells food from local producers. Farm shops and fruit and veg box schemes are another way of eating more seasonally (although I struggled with food waste when I used to have weekly veg boxes – I wasn’t organised enough). I’ve had mixed success at growing my own fruit and veg (mainly because the wildlife in my garden tends to out compete me for it – hence the image above), but it can certainly reduce your food miles. Yes, it does mean some sacrifices (winter in Britain means lots of root veg, and no exciting soft fruit). But no-one said we can carry on as normal while getting serious about climate change.
Cut down on meat and dairy, especially beef, lamb and cheese: ruminants like cows and sheep are responsible for a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. And their feed also has a high carbon footprint. If I am serious about doing my bit to combat climate change, I can’t ignore this. I’m not the world’s biggest carnivore – I only eat meat once or twice a week. But I am a true Devonian, and love dairy products – milk, cream, and especially cheese. I’ve occasionally had to go dairy-free, and I am not good company then. Sadly cheese is a big offender – it takes lots of milk to produce a bit of cheese. I am not going to cut meat or cheese out of my diet completely. But I am reducing how much I eat. I am eating more fish and less red meat. And I am trying to come up with lower carbon alternatives to my usual cheese sandwich for lunch.
Don’t buy air freighted food: transporting food by plane rather than ship releases 30 times more carbon. Sadly food labels don’t usually say how something has been transported. So, the first tactic relates to tip 2 – buy locally produced food. When buying food from far away, be careful about fresh food that doesn’t last long (eg. soft fruits or fresh fish) – they’re most likely to have been flown in. Shipped frozen fish from far away has a smaller carbon footprint than fresh fish that has been flown. Missing out on strawberries, grapes and cherries over winter is no fun, but at least England always has a good supply of apples through the winter months. (If I were only allowed one sort of fruit from now on, I’d pick apples anyway).
Avoid processed and over-packaged food: Packaging food and drink uses resources. Obviously some packaging is necessary, and can help reduce food waste by making sure the food lasts longer and doesn’t get spoilt. But I’m sure you can think of examples of unnecessary packaging. Buying fruit and veg from the market / farmers market / Food Float / farm shop usually means the packaging is kept to a minimum. It’s harder at the supermarket. Processing food uses energy, whether the processing happens at home or industrially, but some processed foods contain carbon-hungry sweeteners or preservatives that you wouldn’t use at home. Heavily processed food is often the worst offender with packaging as well. So, to tackle this issue, I’m going to have to think about packaging when I’m shopping. I guess I’ll also have to try to make more of my meals from scratch rather than buying processed alternatives. My lunch is the biggest area in this category that needs improvement, as I often end up popping to a sandwich shop. I need to get better organised with buying ingredients for lower carbon lunches.
It’s not going to be easy, and will require sacrifices. But climate change could make a massive impact on our food security, so I need to do my bit. Do you have any tips for lower carbon eating?
This is my diary of the wildlife where I live in Oxfordshire, and sometimes the places I visit. I am a 18 year old young naturalist with a passion for British wildlife, especially Badgers and Hares. I have been blogging since May 2013 and you can read my old blog posts at www.appletonwildlifediary.blogspot.co.uk