Hidden Footprints – Tackling the Indirect Emissions

So far in describing my Climate Journey I have referred to direct carbon emissions. It is likely that many of you have already started to tackle these and like me are feeling pretty pleased about the progress you have made. The next aspect I want to focus on is a little trickier as it is often obscured from view; that is the issue of indirect or “hidden” emissions. The size of these emissions is difficult to assess and the official figures that we tend to rely on as a benchmark commonly do not include them at all. Take for example a recent UK government report which suggests we have made enormous progress in reducing our emissions (43% reduction since 1990) but the data does not include flights, shipping or any emissions relating to imported goods and services. As we import a lot of things into the UK and most of this comes by air or ship there are clearly a lot of indirect emissions that have not been accounted for; climate change is a global issue so we can’t just sweep these under the carpet and look the other way.

The common saying “out of sight, out of mind” is quite apt here. Because we don’t see these contributions to our footprint we probably don’t even think about them. Donella Meadows in her book “Thinking in Systems” refers to a great example of this in which people who have electricity meters in their hall will automatically use less energy than those whose meter is hidden in a cupboard. The first step on our journey to reducing this part of our footprint is to be aware that these “indirect” emissions are there and find out how to see them more clearly, only then can we hope to make changes that will impact on them. Rebecca Solnit sums this up quite nicely in the closing chapter of her book “Hope in the Dark”.

Many people believe that personal virtue is what matters in this crisis. It’s a good thing, but it’s not the key thing. It’s great to bicycle rather than drive, eat plants instead of animals, put solar panels on your roof but it can give you a false sense you’re not part of the problem. You are not just what you personally do or do not consume but part of a greater problem if you are a citizen of a country that is a major carbon emitter, as is nearly everyone in the English-speaking nations and the global north. You are part of the system , and you need, we all need, to change that system. Nothing less than system change will save us.

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark

When I examine my progress on my Climate Journey through the grey lens of “Indirect emissions” I think the first key step I took was this realisation that my behaviours can help to shape the wider system of which I am part. It is this switch in mindset from “me and the system” to “us within the system” which is the key here (for more on system mindsets see the System and Self Concept). Once I had realised this I started to think about what changes I could make. As with my direct footprint I started small, in this case with a focus on plastic. I dramatically reduced the amount of single use plastic I used from refusing to use disposable plastic cups at work to trying my best not to buy anything which was unnecessarily made of or wrapped in plastic. I started to pay attention to brands which used sustainable packaging. Any plastic packaging which I could not avoid was recycled. The impact on my waste stream was huge; my recycling bin overflowed and I hardly had anything in my refuse bin. These were small things but collectively across the UK people doing the same have changed the way their local councils manage waste and influenced the larger supermarkets to think again about the way they package their food.

One of the other “hidden” ways in which our behaviour can influence the system is with money. A chunk of my monthly salary was going into my pension fund. I realised that where that money was being invested was having a big impact on global greenhouse gas emissions, and I wanted to be sure it was going to support companies and projects that were committed to reducing their emissions and becoming more sustainable. So I switched my pension into a green investment fund. I did the same with my personal savings putting them in an account with a green bank. I have also recently invested in a local community energy company that is building new renewable energy infrastructure.

It is difficult to measure the impact these changes have had on my carbon footprint; I estimate it as a reduction of 0.2 tonnes of CO2 per year. If I want to reduce my overall footprint further I will need to look at other aspects of my indirect footprint. This will involve tackling some of my more entrenched behaviours around consumption. Learning to focus less on price and more on quality. Only buying things I actually need and considering whether repairing broken items or buying second hand would be an option. Being more careful about where I buy from and making sure I support those businesses which are developing sustainable products which have a reduced carbon footprint. Trying to use the power of my money to move the system in a positive direction.

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