News & Updates

Happy Earth Day

Today is Earth Day. I invite us all to take a moment to pause and reflect. To remind ourselves that we belong to this planet and not the other way around. It is an important distinction.

The verb to belong has two simple definitions:

  • To belong – be the property of…
  • To belong – be included in…

In belonging to this planet we recognise that we are part of it, and all the intertwined, mind bogglingly complex living systems that make up the whole.

Google Earth recently released a set of time-lapse images which provide a stark reminder of the pace with which our planet (our home) is changing.

I am grateful to all those around the world who are committed to finding ways to live better within the limits of our planet. For all your actions thank you; you bring me hope.

The one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.

Greta Thunberg

Catalyse Change Masterclass on Climate Action

Yesterday I had the pleasure of hosting a Catalyse Change Masterclass with a group of young women who are interested in pursuing careers in sustainability and are committed to taking meaningful Climate Action. We used the En-ROADS simulator to explore which climate solutions would have the most impact on global greenhouse gas emissions and limit warming as much as possible.

Together we created a scenario that could limit warming to +1.7degC above pre-industrial levels. The discussion was wide ranging, considering not just the impacts on warming but also the equity issues and potential co-benefits associated with some of the solutions.

The group shared reflections on what they had seen, how it made them feel and what local actions they could take on their path to Net-Zero. We all felt a renewed sense of hope that if we act together we can create a better future for our planet.

LetsgoZero

I am proud to be supporting the LetsgoZero campaign organised by the Climate Action Charity Ashden. Over the next few months I will be working with them to encourage local schools to sign up to the campaign ahead of COP26 in November. But it doesn’t stop there; over the next few years we will also be helping those schools to develop their Climate Action plans and turn their commitment to NetZero into a reality.

Climate Journey Video

How many kg of CO2 make up your daily carbon footprint? It is probably more than you think, I was certainly surprised when I calculated mine.

In my new Climate Journey video I use buckets of water to visualise the size of a typical daily carbon footprint and map out my current path towards Net Zero.

When I set about making this video I had not appreciated how large my carbon footprint was at the beginning of my Climate Journey in 2017. I needed more buckets than we owned! Luckily my friend Jenny was able to lend me a couple of hers.

Since 2017 I have made quite a few changes which have enabled me to significantly reduce my carbon footprint. Some of these are mentioned in the video, others can be found in my Climate Journey pages.

What will the path to Net Zero look like and how long will it take to get there? This very much depends on the level of commitment that we all make and how we choose to work together to adapt the system to support a more sustainable future.

If you haven’t done so already, why not start your Climate Journey today!

En-Roads Workshop with DGS Science Club

Over the past two weeks I have had the pleasure of running En-ROADS workshops with the girls from the Didcot Girls School Science Club. We spent a couple of hours exploring the various Climate solutions sliders and their impact on green house gas emissions and global temperature rise over the rest of the century. The girls then made suggestions of how we could combine potential solutions to create a scenario which limited warming to +1.5degC by 2100, fantastic!

We closed out the workshop with sharing reflections on what it would feel like to make this scenario happen and discussing follow up actions based on what we had discovered. The girls made lots of great suggestions of what they were going to next from changing to a more plant based diet to buying an electric car. It was a real pleasure to guide them through the exercise and share in their enthusiasm!

Towards the Kaleidoscope -sustainable living

As a society we place a lot of focus on recycling our waste. I have always been proud of the amount of paper and plastic that I recycle;  my family would probably say that I am quite obsessive about it and my children have been made to “bin dive” on more than one occasion. A while back I had a revelation which really gave me pause for thought. Of the set of “Four R’s” relating to waste, recycling is last on the list not first. The order goes reduce, re-use, repair, recycle. I had been focussing in the wrong place. I was also surprised to find that many things which I had been putting out for recycling, such as textiles are really difficult to recycle so a lot of it ends up being incinerated. Even when things are recycled quite effectively, things like aluminium cans, there are material losses which mean that the number of times they can be practically recycled (in the case of aluminium cans about 14) is limited. The Ellen McArthur Foundation has produced a great video which explains this.

Currently we (Humanity) are stripping our planet of its resources on a drastic scale. It is estimated that, on average we use 1.6 planets worth of resources annually (3.1 if you live in the UK). It is this high consumption lifestyle which is in turn driving much of our greenhouse gas emissions and impacting on biodiversity loss. We urgently need to find a way to live sustainably and adopt the approach of One Planet Living to ensure that our planet and its ecosystem thrives well into the future.

The best way for any species – including our own – to ensure its longevity is to fully adapt to and preserve the ecosystem in which it is embedded… Put simply: if we want to survive and thrive for thousands of generations, don’t foul the nest.

The Good Ancestor, Roman Krznaric

This may seem like a Herculean challenge, surely it would mean redefining our whole economy, what can we as individuals do? The four R’s are useful point of reference when we consider practical ways in which we can live sustainably. If we look to reduce the frequency with which we buy new things and focus more on the quality of what we buy. If we consider re-using things (buying second hand), and repairing things rather than buying replacements as a first option that will be a start. Of course it will also help if these things become easier for us to do; at the moment the default of going on-line and one-click checkout is far too easy an alternative.

I am no follower of fashion; I typically shop for clothes once or twice a year. Even so I have several items in my wardrobe which I have only worn once and perhaps one or two I have never worn at all. In the past, when I have cleared out my cupboard I would have sent these items for recycling; now I give them to second hand shops. My children often buy from second hand “thrift stores” rather than new; the younger generations are leading the way on this and fashion swaps are becoming much more common. When I was a student with limited means I hired outfits for special occasions; sadly as an adult (with more money in my wallet) I got out of the habit . This is something which is slowly changing with many more retailers starting to hire out clothes as well as sell them; again the younger generations are tending to lead the way. The next time I need something “new” for a special occasion I will hire instead of buy.

It’s not just clothes that we should consider, what about white goods and tech items such as phones and computers? Many of us will upgrade these items on a regular basis even if there is nothing wrong with them; we are typically encouraged to do so. What do we do with the old items? Sadly, much of it ends up in landfill and only a small proportion is recycled. Again we are starting to do better especially with tech items; sending old models to be refurbished and sold on or replacing damaged ones with second hand. We need to do so much more and it will only be made easier by changes in manufacturing processes so that goods are designed to be more easily repaired or upgraded in order to dramatically extend their lifetime (adopting a Circular Economy approach). Again it comes down to quality and resisting the temptation to buy that bargain item which will probably break in two or three years. I have a microwave oven which is thirty years old, it was a relatively expensive model given to me as a gift by my parents; the lamp is broken but it still heats food reliably. I have bought three dishwashers in the space of fifteen years, each one a replacement for a broken one. It was cheaper to buy new than to get them repaired. That is something which needs to change; manufacturers need to have a vested interest in repair rather than replacement.

Of the resources we consume perhaps the most invisible, and hence taken for granted, is water. Maybe because it is not an end product but a transient part of our processes; flowing through our bodies, our hose pipes, our sewage systems, our manufacturing plants. That seemingly infinite supply of fresh water that we (in the global North at least) have ready access to and are prone to squander on a daily basis. But it is not infinite; once the ice caps have melted our major rivers will be reduced to trickles and our supply of fresh water will be dramatically reduced. Learning to value our fresh water and use it sustainably is becoming more and more critical. Indeed water is the topic of UN Sustainability goal number six. Capturing more of our rain water and putting it to use; reducing our consumption of potable water (which takes energy to purify and pump and hence has a carbon footprint) and replacing it where possible with grey water or rain water will be key to doing this. As individuals we can make a start by installing water butts for garden use and installing low flow and low flush sanitary systems. We can also pay attention to how much water has been used in the supply and manufacture of our food and clothes. Judicious choice of these can have a big impact on our individual water “flipper print” (sorry, calling it a footprint just seems wrong).

When I  consider my Climate Journey and look beyond my current path towards the Kaleidoscope landscape in the distance I am forced to pause and reflect on how sustainable my lifestyle really is. I need to do more than consider my carbon footprint and my direct relationship with land and nature; that will only get me so far. I have gone from an ecological footprint of 5.9 earths and reduced this to 1.6 earths in 2020. Now it is time for me to consider water and consumption of material resources and pay more attention to the blue and red paths as well.

Imagine, for a moment, what that Kaleidoscope landscape might be like. One where we emulate nature and produce very little which is genuine waste. One in which we have adapted our lifestyle such that we can live well within the resources of our planet. It may be a journey, many years in the taking, with some difficult terrain to navigate along the way but what a reward we will have to share with each other and our future generations when we get there.

Embracing the green – considering land use & nature

Since my childhood I have taken a keen interest in nature and the world around me. We used to go on family walks in local woods and fields and I would take delight in recording the names of the birds, butterflies and flowers that we had seen. We had a small vegetable garden in which I would spend endless hours getting grubby helping to plant and harvest or just watch a trail of ants as they toiled up and down the bean plants harvesting sweet liquid from the aphids that they were farming in their garden. I took it for granted that all that natural diversity and beauty would always be there and that everyone had as intimate a relationship with it as I did. As a parent I have travelled the same path with my children, sharing with them the delights of the nature around us and the pleasure of growing our own food. And yet the path is not as  rich in diversity as it once was; the erosion has been so slow and subtle that it is easy to be deceived. It is only when you listen to those from older generations sharing their stories of the abundance of nature and you look back at the records that have been kept that you are unblinded and notice how diminished our world has become.

We share Earth with the living world – the most remarkable life-support system imaginable, constructed over billions of years. The planet’s stability has wavered just as its biodiversity has declined – the two things are bound together. To restore stability to our planet, therefore, we must restore its biodiversity, the very thing we have removed. It is the only way out of this crisis that we ourselves have created. We must re-wild the world.

David Attenborough – A Life on Our Planet

This shifting of baselines is compounded by the increasing number of people who live their entire lives in an urban environment and have, through no fault of their own, become so disconnected from the natural world that they have no mental baseline from which to even make a comparison. The green path on our Climate Journey is tightly interwoven with the others, the health of the land, the abundance and diversity of the species which inhabit it are critical to maintaining the healthy balance our planet needs to sustain life. We urgently need to re-connect with and grow the green as well as reducing the black and grey. Each of us has a different relationship with the natural world by dint of where we live and how we source our food. Our opportunities to embrace the green path on our Climate Journey are in fact very similar, the difference is in the amount of help we may need to guide the way.

Although I have always had a strong relationship with the natural word around me it is not until recently that I have become more aware of how I can improve it further. Planting trees and growing plants is a good thing, protecting our existing established woodlands and habitats is even better. I have consistently supported charities like the Woodland Trust and the Wildlife Trusts who do essential work in this area. I have now come to recognise that the very habitats and species I seek to preserve are under threat because of some of the life choices I have made; most of these relate to food.

In the UK a large proportion of our food is imported and details of the conditions under which it is grown (or reared) can be hard to find. I have always been conscious of animal welfare and took care to make careful choices about where my meat came from. In 2019, when I adjusted my diet to a more plant based one I started to pay more attention to where all of my food comes from and how it is grown. I have tried to buy more local produce and increase the amount I grow myself. I have been careful about which brands of plant based proteins I buy and how sustainably things like soya have been sourced. Sadly this requires more than a casual glance at the packaging to determine but some brands are getting better at sharing this kind of information.

It was only in 2020, when I started to read more widely about our food system that I realised the full impact that agricultural methods have on our environment. Whilst I have tried to avoid pesticides in my own garden it is clear that their ubiquitous use has had a huge impact on our bee and wider insect population globally. I have until recently used artificial fertiliser until I became aware that it’s use leads to water pollution and formation of nitrous oxide gas which is a significant contributor to global warming. Only now do I realise that I should buy not just local but also organically grown produce. The next steps on my Climate Journey will be directed towards changing my growing and food shopping habits to further enhance the green on my path towards a more sustainable way of living.

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.

Sustainability Groups En-Roads Workshop

Yesterday evening I was joined by a group of enthusiastic representatives from several local sustainability groups in South Oxfordshire to explore potential climate solutions using the En-roads simulator. We had a really vibrant discussion and ended up creating a scenario that limited warming to +1.5C by 2100!

It was great to discuss the pros and cons of some of the solutions and how they worked in combination with one another. Everyone came away with some new insights and inspiration for the next step on their Climate Journey and a feeling of hope that creating this future would be possible.

Beginnings – dialling back on my direct carbon footprint

In late 2017 I made the first tentative steps on my Climate Journey and I started by taking stock of what “baggage” I was carrying as a part of my lifestyle and thinking of what I could easily do to lighten the load. At the time the biggest contributors to my “Carbon baggage” were flights, food and home energy; all part of what we might term “direct carbon footprint” . My carbon footprint was a whopping 18 tonnes of CO2 in 2017 (not including business flights) and 12 tonnes of that was from one thing, a return flight to New Zealand!. Typically I was flying long-haul every year for a family holiday and quite a lot on business too. We had already booked our next holiday in Canada and flying less on business was going to be difficult (although not impossible). I couldn’t instantly change this, however I made the commitment not to fly on holiday in future years.

So what could I change easily and immediately? The simplest thing was switching my energy provider to one which supplied 100% renewable electricity and green gas.

After my family holiday in Canada, when I finally realised the full consequences of the “baggage” that we all carry on our life journeys, my commitment to change was strengthened. It was definitely time to tackle the next things and have even more impact! I had already decided to switch to an electric car, my lovely Leaf which was delivered in November 2018. I also committed to driving less; why drive when I could walk, cycle or get the train. It made me fitter and I saved a lot of time (and frustration) not waiting in traffic jams! Taking stock at the end of 2018 I felt I had done pretty well and  looked forward to a 2019 in which my baggage would be much lighter. The journey was only just begun and already I could see progress!

Feeling encouraged I started to look at other things I could tackle. Food was still one of the bigger contributors to my Carbon Footprint, so what could I change? My eldest daughter decided to do “Veganaury” and switch to a vegan diet for January. To support her I committed to being vegetarian; I loved cheese too much to consider going dairy free at that stage. Eventually I took the plunge and after Easter I went meat and dairy free. We had our ups and downs; I have yet to find some vegan cheese which is palatable and some of the meat alternatives we tried were pretty awful. We discovered a whole range of new things which we really like and I lost those extra pounds I had been trying to shift for years. I actually don’t like cheese any more (too fatty) and the range of meat and dairy alternatives had improved dramatically. My husband and younger daughter still ate meat but much less often and only rarely do they have red meat so as a family we had been able to cut our “methane footprint” quite a lot. Recalculating my Carbon Footprint at the end of 2019 I was really excited to see that it was now down to 5.5 tonnes (excluding business flights) which was  a massive reduction!

Riding this wave of excitement we then took a look at what else we could do. One thing still to tackle was energy in the home. How could we do better there? We decided on two things; firstly looking to make our home more energy efficient and the second to start generating our own electricity from solar. You might ask why do the second thing if we had already switched to a green supplier? Simply put, because the grid is not powered completely by renewable energy (yet). It is perhaps better to think of switching to a green supplier as a way of investing in further development of renewables rather than buying 100% green electricity.

In early 2020 we had solar panels and a battery installed which means that around two thirds of our electricity has been self-generated since then – amazing! We also had a whole house energy survey carried out which identified a number of ways in which we can improve our energy efficiency, reducing our “carbon baggage” and our bills at the same time. Some of these were straight forward and relatively inexpensive things like cavity wall insulation and better loft insulation others were a bit more involved such as replacing the heating system from gas boiler to air source heat pump.

2020 has been an unusual year due to the pandemic so some of these things are still a work in progress. Despite this I estimate that my Carbon Footprint is now around 5.1 tonnes. Once we have completed the planned home energy improvement I am confident this will be reduced to less than 5 tonnes per year.

That is by no means the end of my Climate Journey; it is perhaps the end of the first leg. Now is a good time to reflect; I have shed most of the “heavy baggage” associated with direct carbon emissions. The next stage will involve looking more closely at some of the more hidden, indirect emissions and looking at other aspects of my “environmental baggage” as well.