Answer these 10 questions to calculate your environmental footprint
Our transportation, food consumption and ambient temperature control decisions are just some of the ways individuals directly affect climate change.
On the second day of August, humanity spent the last of our "environmental budget" for 2017. "We emit more carbon [dioxide] than the seas and forests can absorb in 12 months, we fish more fish, cut down more trees, harvest more and use more water than the planet can replenish during the same period", reads a statement released by the international NGO Global Footprint Network on that same day.
This year we reached this milestone, called Earth Overshoot Day, one day earlier than in 2016 and 11 days earlier than in 2015. One would have to go back 48 years, to 1969, to observe sustainable consumption pattern.
One of the most commonly used indicators of the effects of humanity on the planet is the environmental footprint, which "calculates the surface area of land and water (croplands, pastures, forests and aquatic ecosystems) required to produce sufficient resources to sustain the population and absorb the impacts of human activity on the planet, and compares this the corresponding area which actually exist: the Earth´s biocapacity," explains the Senior Energy Efficiency Officer at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Georgios Tragopoulos. According to WWF´s last Living Planet report, from 2016, our quotient is 1.7, meaning we need the equivalent of 1.7 planets to sustain our current consumption rates.
But, contrary to the popular belief that one person alone cannot contribute directly to changing the world, an article published recently in Environmental Research Letters highlights that individuals have a more real and immediate and effective impact on climate change than large-scale environmental programs. A good starting place could be to reduce our emission of greenhouse gases (GHG), as measured in kilograms of CO2 –Kg eq. These emissions represent 60% of the global, environmental impact and are implicit in daily activities like powering our homes and the food, waste management and transportation sectors.
Want to bridge this gap? Answer the following 10 questions, designed to take their own environmental selfies in order to overcome this common misconception.
- How often do you consume animal products?
Producing two pounds of pork releases 4.8 kilos of CO2 into the atmosphere, while producing the same amount of potatoes only emits .13 Kg. "The foods with the largest environmental footprint are meat and dairy, but you can reduce your environmental impact by buying locally produced, in-season food products and by eating a varied diet, " the nutritionist and president of the Spanish Society for Community Nutrition´s Scientific Committee, Javier Arancera, pointed out during a conference in August. With a vegetarian diet, we can avoid 0.8 tons of CO2 per person annually, according to the study published in Environmental Research Letters. You can consult Greenpeace´s fishing calendar here, and the Spanish Consumers and Users Organization (OCU)´s fruit and vegetable calendar here.
- Is your home energy usage sustainable?
Powering Spain´s 25.2 million homes represents one third of the total energy consumption, according to data from Inarquia. Perhaps it´s no coincidence, then, that 21% of all residential buildings are more than 50 years old, also according to Inarquia. "Proper insulation alone can reduce energy demand by 50%," highlights Tragopoulos. Adjusting the thermostat can also make a big difference: we conserve 8% more energy for each °C we lower the thermostat during the winter. During the summer, the use of ceiling fans instead of air conditioning consumes between 80% and 90% less electricity, the WWF´s official adds. And then there are always renewable energy sources which can be adopted (for example, see Eroski Consumer´s list of renewable energy producers and distributors in Spain) to reduce our energy footprint.
- How much garbage do you generate? Do you recycle?
According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), worldwide we produce 1.6 billion tons of food, the equivalent of 3.3 billion tons of CO2. "We have to buy in a planned manner and make use of everything we buy," Tragopoulos recommends. Readers in Spain can join the "waste-free cooking" movement with this collection of recipes designed to make use of leftovers. Recycling reduces per capita emissions by 0.2%, according to the study published by Environmental Research Letters.
- Do you drink bottled water?
Spain ranks fifth worldwide in mineral water consumption, according to a report by the Earth Policy Institute. This industry not only captures three liters of water for each liter of water bottled for sale, but also requires 2.7 million tons of plastic each year. According to an article published in the Journal of Environmental Management, drinking 1.5 liters of tap water instead of bottled water can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by a coefficient of .34 kg CO2 eq, which translates into a reduction of greenhouse gases of 163.5 kg per year.
- Do you have a pet?
A recent study performed by University of California (US) researcher Gregory Okin calculated the impact of the meat-based products consumed by the 163 million domestic cats and dogs in the United States to be the equivalent of 64 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. If all of these American pets formed an independent country, it would rank fifth worldwide in terms of environmental footprint, behind Russia, Brazil, the US, and China.
- How do you get around on a daily basis?
Walking and biking instead of driving can reduce the daily production of CO2 by up to 500 grams per person and day. According to a study performed researcher Shreya Dave at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT; US), riding a bike generates just 30 grams of CO2/kilometer, whereas a car produces 160. If you have to drive, more efficient driving practices can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 15%, according to the Spanish Directorate General of Traffic (you can find more detailed tips on efficient driving here).
- Which mode of transportation do you use for long trips?
Travelling by plane is one of the most environmentally harmful options because commercial airplanes emit approximately 230 grams of CO2 eq per kilometer and passenger. Driving represents the second most harmful option, while mass transit alternatives offer a more sustainable option: if we take the train instead of driving, Tragopoulus points out, we reduce emissions by 76% as opposed to travelling in a private vehicle, and by 90% as compared to flying.
- How often do you change mobile phones?
20 million mobile phones are sold yearly in Spain, and 600,000 tons of CO2 are released into the atmosphere while manufacturing these ubiquitous devices. "To minimize this impact, it is vital that [we] exhaust the lifespan of these devices, which is normally between five to seven years," Tragopoulos recommends. We can also choose more sustainable options when acquiring new mobile devices, or any new electronic device we purchase for that matter (see the European project Eurotopten´s proposals, for example).
- What do you read: print media or digital content?
Producing, transporting and selling a traditional book emits 3.85 kg of CO2; an iPad generates approximately 0.0025 kg/hour of use, according to the organization Ecogeek´s estimates. However, while the impact of print-based formats is only felt once, the impact of digital alternatives will be generated continually throughout the device´s usage and lifespan. "Unfortunately, there is no 'one-size-fits-all solution´," Greenpeace laments.... or is there, like making greater use of our public libraries?
- Are you familiar with your footprint?
Profound change is born of self-awareness. If you are interested in understanding the detailed impact of your consumption habits and learning how it can change as you adopt lifestyle changes, you can use this environmental footprint calculator.
By Elvira del Pozo