Why you should be carbon offsetting even if you have an eco-friendly lifestyle
As individuals, we all want to do our bit to stop climate change. And it’s not enough to wait for governments and organizations to take action. However, despite what many people claim, it’s impossible to eliminate your carbon footprint through an environmentally conscious lifestyle alone.
What is a carbon footprint?
Your carbon footprint is the sum total of all your emissions from daily life. You can reduce this footprint by making choices that are less polluting, such as eating a plant-based diet, avoiding flying, and driving an electric car. But is this enough to save our planet from climate catastrophe?
In this article we’ll be taking a closer look at some popular green lifestyle solutions and why they’re not a fix-all solution.
“I’m a vegan so I’m already having a good impact on the planet”
Thanks to the increasing availability of meat alternatives, and sobering documentaries such as Cowspiracy, more and more people are turning to veganism. In the last decade, the number of people in the UK following a plant-based diet rose by 340%.
According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, the meat and dairy industry accounts for 14.5% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Eating beef 1-2 times per week produces 604kg of annual greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the same as a return flight from London to Malaga.
Switching to a plant-based diet has a huge positive impact given the CO2 produced per kilo for animal products. You can see this in the graph above. Beef is by far the worst polluter, followed by other meat and fish. If the entire world’s population went vegan, the world’s food related emissions would drop by 70% by 2050.
However, a plant-based diet alone is not enough to eliminate your carbon footprint. Food only makes up 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This leaves 74% accounted for by other activities in your life.
Plant-based diets still produce CO2
What’s more, eating a vegan diet still comes with some CO2 emissions, albeit greatly reduced. When considering the carbon footprint of the foods you consume, we have to remember the supply chain. The supply chain makes up around 18% of the total gas emissions associated with food. This includes farming, packaging, and transportation, regardless of whether it’s vegan food or not. Many fruits and vegetables that are staples of the standard vegan diet in the UK (such as avocado and asparagus) are imported from the other side of the globe.
Indeed, research found that asparagus eaten in the UK has the highest carbon footprint compared to any other vegetable eaten in the country. Today every kilogram of asparagus consumed comes with a whopping 5.3kg of carbon dioxide produced in emissions. This is mainly because we import most of it by air from Peru.
Think about Sustainable Production
Much has been made of the negative impact of soy farming. According to the WWF soy is the second largest agricultural driver of deforestation worldwide after beef. It is also worth noting that almonds, cashews, and rice, all used as a base for alternative milks, are all water-intensive crops and require artificial fertilizers. These also have an environmental impact. Sustainable farming methods, such as growing on ex-crop land, can mitigate this, but it is always important to check.
When thinking about the environmental impact of your diet, sustainable production is a key factor. Look out for Fairtrade certification and evidence of sustainable practice all along the supply chain. Also buy from local producers as much as possible.
There is no doubt that for the environment a plant-based diet is highly preferable. However unless you’re growing your food in your garden, it is unlikely that your carbon emissions are zero.
“I don’t fly so I don’t contribute to global warming”
2.4% of global CO2 emissions come from aviation, and the industry is responsible for 5% of total climate change. This is all the more shocking given that just 3% of the world’s population have ever been on a plane.
For sure, mile for mile flying is by far the most environmentally damaging way to travel. However, eliminating flying alone cannot account for all your carbon emissions. In reality very few of us can stop flying completely given the demands and pressures of modern day life.
Even for those of us that can completely stop flying, many other activities in daily life produce carbon emissions that are much harder to avoid. For example, even if we don’t fly ourselves, many of the goods that we import as a nation are transported by plane. This includes clothes, electronics, and household supplies.
Even with a vegan diet and no flying, the average carbon footprint for a UK citizen would still be around 4 tonnes per year. (Read more about how we calculate your carbon footprint). Over a lifetime this will have a significant negative impact on the environment.
“I drive an electric car which doesn’t produce any polluting gases”
One of the key points of Boris Johnson’s 10 Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution was the end to all sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2030. This will accelerate the transition to hybrid and electric cars.
Electric and hybrid cars are an important part of meeting the global goal of limiting temperature increases to below 2 degrees centigrade. This is in line with the UN Paris Agreement in 2015. Electric cars run either in part or in full on electricity. So they are responsible for considerably lower emissions over their lifetime than conventional petrol or diesel vehicles.
For example, the Nissan Leaf EV has a lifetime emissions per kilometre 3 times lower than an average conventional car. In the steps towards a greener future, driving an electric car is undoubtedly positive.
What electricity does your country use?
The true environmental impact of electric vehicles is dependent on the electricity used to charge up the cars. In most countries this will be a mix of fossil fuels and renewables. This means that greenhouse gases are still being released, just at a different stage in the process. What’s more, the production of the cars themselves often still relies on burning fossil fuels to power the factories that build and assemble them. This means that the total impact of the cars themselves is unlikely to be completely green.
All this is to say that as with plant-based diets and flying bans, electric cars are certainly part of the efforts to slow climate change. But alone they cannot provide a solution, and they do still contribute CO2 emissions.
What’s more, even if you have switched to veganism, bought an electric car, stopped flying, or all of the above, it’s important to consider your lifetime carbon footprint. What about those flights you’ve taken in the past, or the milk you used to drink.
Even a UK citizen with a plant-based diet, 100% renewable electricity in the home, no car, and no flying can still expect a carbon footprint of roughly 4.5 tonnes annually. Whilst you can make changes to reduce your future emissions, carbon offsetting is the only practical way to account for your past carbon emissions.
Don’t just aim for carbon neutrality
A lot of the conversation around reducing your carbon footprint has the goal of net ‘carbon neutral’. This means that your emissions are cancelled out by an equal amount of carbon reduction through offsetting. However in order to truly have a positive impact, you should aim to be net carbon negative, meaning that your overall emissions are less than the amount of carbon offset. You can achieve this by contributing more to carbon offsetting projects which reduce the amount of greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere.
Overall, the impact of a plant-based diet, avoiding flying, and driving electric vehicles is significant and if everyone in the world lived like this our global carbon footprint would be massively reduced. However to truly eliminate our carbon emissions, lifestyle changes need to come in conjunction with measures that actively reduce CO2 in the atmosphere.
Don’t just reduce your carbon footprint, start carbon offsetting and contribute positively to a more sustainable future.