carbon myth busting

January 8, 2008

footprint.jpgIt seems many people are at least thinking about their carbon footprint these days, if not reducing it actively. Every measure has its the pros and cons, from biofuels and carbon credits to recycling and organic food. I learn a lot from the Guardian’s Ethical Living column, and use what I read to try and inform my decisions and opinions. The article below was illuminating in critically weighing measures up against each other, something that I rarely see despite every individual step being a choice. And busts the plastic bag myth once and for all!

By Chris Goodall, from The Guardian, December 13th 2007

Carbon myths

The global warming consequences of our personal actions are usually invisible to us. We have no easy means of knowing how our way of life generates carbon dioxide and other climate-changing gases. It is far from obvious that it takes more energy to produce a paper bag than its plastic equivalent, or that extra loft insulation usually reduces gas consumption more than solar panels. Unsurprisingly, this means that most of us are ignorant about what really matters, which makes us vulnerable to comforting half-truths. These myths are a problem in themselves because they discourage us from addressing the important sources of emissions. But our ignorance also encourages businesses to promote goods and services that offer little or no carbon-saving.

So, for example, when British people are asked in surveys about the actions they can take to be more responsible about global warming, domestic recycling always comes top. Reducing air travel comes far down the list. But the global warming impact of our Mediterranean holidays is hundreds of times more than the toll from not recycling. We see the plastics going into the dustbin every week, but pollutants from jet engines are hidden. So people who carefully sort their recycling every week continue to fly. And businesses that are trying to be ethical devote more effort to reducing packaging than getting their employees to travel less.

We like our myths. Suggesting that British league football isn’t the best in the world or that Monty Python wasn’t always funny is a quick way to start an argument and lose friends. But some of our cherished carbon myths are dangerously counterproductive. Here is my list of the most common:

Myth 1 Eco lightbulbs are the best way to save electricity at home

I like low-energy lightbulbs. In fact, I sell them at the local farmers’ market to offset my personal carbon sins. But even if a householder replaces all their bulbs, the total impact on yearly electricity consumption is likely to be no more than about 400 units (kWh) of electricity. A new plasma TV bought at the same time will outweigh any energy savings. The government talks about banning old-style bulbs, but no one dares mention the explosive impact on energy consumption of the latest generation of large TVs and games consoles. The power used by these monsters embarrasses their manufacturers and the online brochures usually omit all details of electricity use. I couldn’t find a single retailer that dares to list the power consumption of plasma TVs. The best rule for cutting home electricity consumption? Keep your old TV. If you still feel the need to buy something, get a new super-efficient fridge.

Myth 2 Flying is responsible for only 2% of carbon dioxide emissions

Like all good myths, this one — much loved by the executives of budget airlines — has more than a grain of truth. Air travel is a tiny portion of global CO2 emissions. But in Britain 6% of CO2 comes from aircraft engines — far worse than the global average of 2% — and the figure is growing rapidly. More important, the global warming impact of jets is far greater than their CO2 alone. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the greenhouse impact of aviation is 2.7 times the carbon dioxide emissions alone. This means that air travel is already close to 20% of Britain’s total impact on the world climate. To put this into context, the government is now talking of setting a target to reduce UK emissions by 80% by 2050. Air travel already uses up almost that entire allowance.

Myth 3 All packaging is wicked

Nothing arouses fury like the disposable plastic supermarket bag. Gordon Brown singled them out in his first speech on climate change as prime minister. The widespread hatred now extends to almost all plastic food packaging. But although plastic bags are detestable, they are almost irrelevant to climate change. Each of us uses about 2kg a year of shopping bags, and they perform multiple useful functions in the home after they have carried our shopping from the supermarket. Food packaging of all types is no more than 5% of the weight of our groceries. Wasted food, which rots in landfill and generates methane, is a far more serious cause of global warming. Rather than getting our retailers to strip the 3g of protective polythene from our cucumbers, we need to concentrate on reducing the 30% of food that goes to waste every week.

Myth 4 Hybrid cars are the way forward

There is nothing wrong with hybrid petrol/electric cars. But they are an extraordinarily expensive way of avoiding emissions. The Toyota Prius may be lovely, but its emissions are no better than the latest generation of small diesels, which cost little more than half the price. Buy a small car instead and spend the savings on insulating your walls. It will have far more effect. Worried about the effect on your status of driving a small car? Buy an electric vehicle and people will simply think of you as eccentric.

Myth 5 Avoid food miles

It makes sense to avoid unnecessary transport of food. Local food is fresher and probably healthier, and your purchase contributes to the local economy. But food transport, unless it is by air, is usually a relatively small part of a meal’s carbon impact. Reducing the amount of meat you eat has far more effect than deciding to buy locally. A kilo of beef from the farm next door will have 50 times the global warming effect of a can of beans shipped from Canada. Taking a few steps towards a vegan diet will reduce carbon emissions far more than local purchasing. Avoiding meat and also buying locally is better still.

Myth 6 Microgeneration is a good way for Britain to cut emissions

Politicians extol the virtues of domestic generation of electricity. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have committed themselves to paying us 45p a unit for electricity from the solar panels on our roof, about 10 times the wholesale price paid to the large, coal-fired Drax power station, in North Yorkshire. Microgeneration may be fashionable, but it is an astonishingly expensive way of reducing emissions. Less glamorous, but more effective, would be a plan to put a £20 note in the centre of every roll of loft insulation. British houses are the worst insulated in northern Europe and subsidised insulation would cut emissions far more cheaply than encouraging wind turbines or solar photovoltaic panels

· Chris Goodall is the author of How to Live a Low Carbon Life (Earthscan) and founder of


2 Responses to “carbon myth busting”

  1. Tulipgirl Says:

    I’m not sure what to think of this article… to me it has an unpleasant ring of ‘why bother?’ to it.

    The plastic bag argument for one makes no sense to me as the only consideration put forward is the amount it contributes to global warming in the form of CO2 emissions. It completely ignores the fact that plastic is made from oil for instance and as such is a waste of natural resources. There is also the factor of pollution from non-degradable plastics. I agree with the need to reduce food waste but why does one need to be offset against the other?

    The same for energy-saving light bulbs. I doubt many people think it’s the BEST way of saving energy in the home. It is part of a package of energy saving measures, like not leaving on the lights unneccessarily, installing high yield heaters etc.. Of course they are not the holy grail but neither are they useless.

    I appreciate the argument that low efficiency measures (though not myths) take attention away from some of the more serious issues but the way this is written leaves me with a slightly bitter taste.

  2. sunburn Says:

    On the contrary, I read the article quite differently. I thought he gave real alternatives though we aren’t used yet to thinking about them, and aren’t prepared to make the sacrifices (of not flying for example). When the measures can be quantified, why not set them against each other?

    Also, I just heard – have you brought your bulbs in for the lightbulb amnesty yet?!

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