The heatwave has been good for sun-cream sales and kids enjoying school holidays, but it has parched the landscape and increased the numbers of wildfires scorching the UK and across the globe. Are these extreme weather events set to become to the norm? Dr Matt Winning says they are, and he has some advice for those who want to save the planet for future generations: “The best thing you can do for your child is to not have a child.”
Which is an answer that presents its own challenges for longevity.
Winning is an environmental scientist at UCL who provides “economic analysis and macroeconomic modelling on climate policy”. He is also a stand-up comedian.“The biggest things you can do to cut your carbon footprint are also the most difficult ones to do,” he explains. “A lot of environmental charities shy away from talking about them because they’re worried about putting people off. Which is why I’m doing it with comedy.”
Through day-to-day activity – getting around, eating, using up electricity etc – the average person in the UK is responsible for emitting 6.31 tonnes of CO2 each year. Together with other gasses that contribute to climate change, this rises to almost eight tonnes of emissions. International targets aim to reduce this to two tonnes per person by 2050.
Recycling is great (and means less sea life choking on plastic) but it only saves 200kg of emissions a year. Switching to energy-saving lightbulbs saves 100kg. Every little helps, but it doesn’t add up to much. So Winning has compiled a list of five changes that would make the biggest impact.
1) “If you stop eating meat, you would reduce your emissions by about 0.8 tonnes, or 10 per cent,” Winning explains.
2) “Switching to a green energy provider saves about 1.4 tonnes – that’s also the easiest one to do.”
3) “A return flight to the US from the UK is 1.6 tonnes – about 20 per cent of the UK average, and double the emissions of avoiding meat for a year. Flying is the most emissions-intensive activity we can do and all you can do is do it a bit less.”
So one trip to Disney World would effectively wipe out eight years of diligent recycling. And even the most conscientious of millennials don’t think twice about weekending away on budget airlines.
Winning explains that around 70 per cent of flights to and from the UK are taken by about 15 per cent of people. To discourage this, an initiative called A Free Ride suggests a frequent flyer tax that targets those who travel frequently, and intensively, for business or pleasure.
Back on the ground, a bigger chunk of your carbon footprint could be removed by resisting another mode of transport.
4) Going car-free saves around 2.4 tonnes of emissions for the average person.
However, all these measures are eclipsed by the biggest polluters of them all: babies.
5) Having a child increases your annual emissions by a staggering 700 per cent.
This figure includes the emissions that the child during their lifetime will produce, along with those of their own children, and so on, dividing it by the lifespan of the parent. It results in the equivalent of an extra 58.6 tonnes per year.
Of course, it is not certain that your child will be terrible for the planet – it could grow up to be an environmental economist and/or comedian like Winning. But he believes population growth should be part of the conversation, alongside other measures. It could at least encourage us to make changes in other areas to offset a child’s carbon footprint.
There are, however, less dramatic-sounding ways that we can all make a big difference, according to Winning.
“We could all halve our emissions quite easily by changing energy provider and cutting meat consumption.”
And just as we are responsible for our offspring’s output, we can take credit for inspiring others to improve their behaviour.
“We’re influenced by those around us and what others say and do,” Winning says. “You often see solar panels on houses and a lot of houses in the same area also have them. A lot of that is social influence and neighbours talking about it.
“The solutions have different political issues but what’s happening isn’t political. When an election comes up, the top things people are worried about are the economy or national security. As an individual, you don’t really have any influence over those things, whereas with climate change you have much more control.”
So do you plan to make any of the changes suggested to help the planet? Or do you have some ideas of your own? Let us know your views: firstname.lastname@example.org