I often get asked be people if climate change is real. Wow, that surprises me and it highlights how much poor information is being spread around. When I explain why climate change and global warming are real and it’s very clear that human activity is definitely the reason for the rapid change, then they ask me “What can we do?”. That’s a really good question because in general, our world’s political leaders are not doing what’s needed. That’s really sad (more on that later). Anyway, for each and every individual in the world, the solution is very simple and very clear. I’ll bet you’ll be surprised what the single, simple, most impactful thing you can do to arrest climate change is…
Spend less money!
Yes, the single, simple thing all us can do to have an immediate, positive impact can be summed up as “Spend less money!”. Now you probably think I’m crazy, but give me a minute to explain.
A quick apology…
It’s pretty much 100% true (not quite, but almost) that every time your spend money, you’re creating carbon emissions. Let’s think through a few examples.
- Fuel for your car
- This is an easy one. Everything you spend on fuel ends up directly creating more carbon emissions. Buy less fuel and you’d create less emissions.
- A holiday flight
- Another easy one. When you spend money on a holiday flight, you’re creating a lot of additional carbon emissions, even if it’s a cheap flight. Plus you have to spend money on clothes, luggage and getting to the airport, all things that create more emissions.
- Food from the supermarket
- For this one, let’s even ignore the carbon emissions that were created in the growing and production of the food. Every single thing in the supermarket had to be shipped there which creates carbon emissions. Then the supermarket needs electricity for lighting, and cooling. Then there’s driving to the supermarket to get the stuff. The list could go on and on.
- A coffee from a coffee shop
- Really? Even a coffee? Yes, of course. The coffee beans probably came from somewhere else in the world, needing to be shipped. The beans have to be roasted and even the coffee machine in the shop uses significant energy and creates emissions. The shop needs lighting and heating or cooling. The disposable cup needed to be manufactured, creating more emissions. And more.
- New clothing
- Most clothing is made in another country and needs to be shipped. The material used to make the clothes probably didn’t even come from that country. Sometimes the material is synthetic (made from hydrocarbons even) and had to be manufactured in a factory. Even the process to colour the material generated carbon emissions. Then it had to make its way to you through a shop or home delivery, even more emissions. When you hear people talk about a “supply chain”, think “carbon emissions” instead.
- A Netflix subscription
- Surely a Netflix (or equivalent) subscription doesn’t create emissions? Sorry, it does. All of those movies and TV shows have to be stored on large arrays of computers all over the world. These computers use up a large amount of energy to run, creating emissions, and they have to be running 24/7/365. You could then get into the emissions needed to build the computers, or the emissions created in making a movie or TV show, and things get even worse.
- A mobile phone
- To make a mobile phone requires a whole lot of minerals from mines in various parts of the world. Big earth moving machinery is required. Then minerals need to be processed and shipped to factories to make the phones. Then run a production line inside the factory, ship the products all over the world and sell them in shops to you. Carbon emissions all along the way. A simple mobile phone is the result of a huge carbon intensive industry (like almost all industries!). This article “iPhone 13 release date: How much energy will you save by not buying the new model?” says each iPhone 13 releases 64 kg of additional CO2 to the atmosphere and that the worst thing you can do is trade in your functioning old phone for the new model. Want to help the environment? Don’t buy that new phone.
- A mobile phone contract
- And yes, even the mobile phone contract creates carbon emissions. There’s a network of communication towers and computer systems covering the whole world. It’s a big deal, sucking up energy and emitting carbon and making our atmosphere warmer. It’s not a free ride.
- Your internet subscription
- Same thing goes for your internet subscription (the one you’re probably using to read this article). Just by using the internet you’re creating carbon emissions. The internet is really a vast array of computers connected to each other, covering the whole world. The big thing is that all of these computers have to be powered on all of the time. Carbon, carbon, carbon!
These examples show why it’s almost always true that, when you spend money, you’re almost certainly creating carbon emissions. But the amount of carbon is not linked to the amount of money that you spend. Sometimes, you can spend a little and create a lot of carbon (like a cheap holiday flight on a low-cost airline) and sometimes you can spend money and not emit much carbon at all (like buying a veggie box from a local farmer).
When spending money, make the best choices
In today’s world, we can’t just stop spending money, so we know that we’re going to causing more carbon emissions and hence climate change – what can we do? Not every dollar spent creates the same amount of carbon, so we can make smart choices. We can avoid spending the money altogether (the best plan where possible!) and we can deliberately choose the option that emits the least carbon when we need to spend.
Here are just a few examples of positive choices we can make.
- Buy less processed foods
- The more processing that is done to a food, the more carbon that is emitted from the factories that are doing the processing. Go for the least processed, least preserved, least packaged options and you will be reducing your carbon emissions. Unfortunately, the rise of convenient supermarkets has also heralded the rise in processed food where the cheapest ingredients are processed until they’re unrecognisable, preserved so they’ll last a long, long time and intricately packaged to attract you to buy them – adding more emissions every step of the way.
- Choose a renewable electricity supplier if you can
- Contrary to popular belief, renewable electricity doesn’t mean zero emissions. Just imagine all the energy and materials needed to build and deploy solar panels and wind turbines. Nothing is a free ride. Even nuclear electricity creates enormous amounts of emissions to build a nuclear power plant. However, over a long period of time, renewable electricity creates vastly less emissions than other forms like coal, gas and biomass. Best to spend your money on renewable electricity and then use a little of it as you can.
- Drive a little slower and less aggressively
- Simply driving a little slower and less aggressively uses significantly less fuel. This saves you money and reduces the carbon emissions into the atmosphere. It’s a winner all round and easy to do (just takes you a bit longer to get places). I wrote a full post on this some time ago – Use Less Fuel – easy and guaranteed
- Take longer holidays less frequently
- Let’s say you regularly take one-week holidays and use low-cost airlines. You could simply halve your airline emissions by taking two-week holidays at half the frequency. This is a simple way to cut emissions quickly and still do what you like doing.
- Eat less meat
- The meat industry ends up emitting lots of carbon pollution. Land has to be cleared for the animals to graze. More land has to be cleared to grow grain to feed to the animals (sounds crazy, but true). Farm machinery is needed to handle all of this. The animals emit methane (a powerful greenhouse gas). Meat processing centres are needed. Packaging, refrigerating, selling though stores – it all adds up. Buy less meat and you’ll be reducing the overall carbon emissions.
- Buy things designed to last a long time
- buying things that have to be replaced regularly creates a lot of carbon emissions. At the time, they may be cheap, but over time you’ll spend a lot on replacements. Imagine an item that costs £200 but you have to replace it every two years, compared to an item that costs £1000 but last ten years. Over the ten years, the same money has been spent, but the carbon emissions are much lower if you only needed one item. A while ago, I wrote a post about a mobile phone designed to last a long time – Fairphone – a better phone option?
Our economy is a carbon polluting economy!
If it’s pretty much 100% true that everytime we spend money we cause carbon emissions, then we have to conclude that the economy that we have constructed is a carbon polluting economy. Also, look at many of the ultra-rich people in the world and consider how much pollution their companies have created. It seems that the people who have polluted the world the most have become the richest. This is because abusing the natural resources of the Earth is maybe the most common way to make a large amount of money. Our economy rewards the abuse of the Earth’s natural resources and the people who have made a fortune doing so are now in the positions or the most power.
What can we do? The only answer to change the economy. The current economy is a big part of the problem. But the people in power will not want any change to a system that has rewarded them so handsomely.
This is our biggest problem.
A radical way forward
Here’s a radical way to change the economy to support the reduction in carbon pollution. How about we remove all income taxes, company taxes and VAT? Let’s remove all current taxes and introduce a single new tax which makes everyone pay purely for the greenhouse gas emissions caused by the money they spend. Such a new tax scheme would mean that everyone would be implicitly worried about how many emissions they were causing, because they’d be worried about the amount of tax they’d have to pay.
Doing this would completely align our economy with what’s needed to slow and halt global warming and climate change. I feel it’s the only way to make quick, rapid progress in a fair way. Of course, governments and the powerful, rich people (is there really a difference between these two?) will not want to do this, so it’s unlikely to happen. Very sad indeed.
To answer the question “what can we do?” regarding climate change and global warming, the simple answers are first, to spend less money (consume less) and second, to make smarter, less polluting choices when we do spend money and third, send the message to our politicians that the only real solution is to reform our economy by making a tax system that penalises carbon emissions. Politicians need to realise that this is the only way to a long-term future for life on Earth.