Eating the planet

Dick Searle‘You are what you eat,’ some say. And new findings from a groundbreaking Carbon Trust report show that all too clearly. In a nutshell, we’re eating our way through planetary resources at a very high rate of knots.

The Carbon Trust foreword introduces the issue dryly and succinctly: ‘Most consumers don’t realise that the food and drink they consume has released greenhouse gases as result of cultivation, production and transportation processes. Far fewer understand the relative impact of these emissions compared to their home energy or transportation usage.’  Personal Carbon Allowances White Paper

The report’s research findings turn many commonplace ideas on their head. Many of the study participants, for example – monitored for their carbon useage – thought that they were doing their bit with some increased recycling and with turning off unwanted lights at home. Most of them thought that their everyday consumption of food and drink had little or anything to do with carbon footprints or climate change. Well, guess what? It’s everything. Together with leisure activities, food consumption is the most important factor in your carbon lifestyle. It accounts for some 23% of the average personal footprint; more than your transport; more than your annual foreign holiday with jet-travel included.

Everyday consumer perception, however, was found to be focused on matters outside of the individual; on external factors such as transport and packaging. In truth, as the study documented, most of these issues have no independent existence or reason to be. They are merely delivery systems of one sort or another, especially for food, drink and other consumer products.

These latter categories are titled ’embodied emissions’ and they are going to be taking root with us for some time. The age of consumerism will then gradually wake up to the age of consumer responsibility, with or without our current political structures.

The numbers don’t lie and the truth is not always there at face value. Organic over non-organic food? What about the matter of crop yield? Local over imported produce? What about the use of heating systems to catalyse growth and product yield?

The White Paper notes that many consumers ‘tended to concentrate on more tangible issues, such as food packaging or plastic bags, even though these form a relatively minor part of the overall embodied emissions of products in their shopping baskets.’

Quite so. As one US general put it during the Vietnam war. ‘We found the enemy – and he was us.’ Putting it too starkly? Perhaps so. However, and whichever way the cookie crumbles, it cannot be denied that consumer behaviour and consumer responsibility is the real and determining factor in the environmental piece. Change that and you change everything.

Many thanks

Dick Searle


Carbon footprint – it’s our consumption that matters most

Dick SearleYou may have noticed that there now tends to be less rather than more talk of carbon footprinting. Part of the reason may involve the usual squabbles over statistics, method and application – all expected when it comes to applying a relatively new science.

However, the truth of the matter is that the data itself presents an inconvenient story, offering politicians very little wriggle room at all.

Our Energy and Climate Change Select Committee MPs certainly thought so when last month they urged the Government to think again about the UK’s record in this matter. Their research showed that the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions – including our consumption of imported goods have risen by some 20% over the period 1990 to 2009. The official line would rather argue that the UK has dropped its emissions by 20%; thanks to ‘territorial’ based reporting on improvements in the infrastructure; transport, power generation and so forth.

However, the consumption-based figure – is the true answer. And moreover it feels in complete accord with the facts of the last twenty years; our rising population and the credit and consumption boom only recently stalled with the credit crunch.

Select committee chairman Tim Yeo correctly made the point that the UK now gets through more consumer goods than ever before, and that we can hardly blame China for that country’s enviromental performance when much of that pollution is created making products for us and other high-consumption economies.

Once again – conscious or unconscious – we can see the aversion in the political world to looking fairly and squarely at consumer behaviour and including it in the mix. More than ever we need joined up and holistic thinking in order to get the real figures up on the board and then deal with consequences and possible remedies.

One of these days our politicians will have to face their own market place and deliver the message to their voters/consumer that ‘less is more’. Call it austerity? Not quite – but the parallels with our current political wranglings in Europe are very interesting.

Thanks again

Dick Searle