Step by step towards a lower carbon future

Here’s a piece that ran in the Irish Daily Star in the first week of January, my 10-point guide for those dipping a toe in the water of climate action in 2023. It’s not intended to be either definitive or comprehensive, rather, a starting point for people considering getting involved but not quite sure where or how to begin.

AFTER YET another year of record-breaking extreme weather around the world, public concern about the climate emergency is now at an all-time high. More than four in five Irish people now say they are “alarmed” or “concerned” about the crisis, according to research from the Environmental Protection Agency.

However, while people are anxious and want to take personal action, many are unclear as to what are the most important steps to take to help tackle climate change. A study by the ESRI in early 2022 found that many people incorrectly thought recycling was more important than driving or eating meat in tackling climate change.

Here’s our list of the top 10 actions we as individuals can take that could make a real difference:

  1. Be political. Whatever party you support, question your TDs and local councillors about their position on the climate and biodiversity emergency, and let them know how important these issues are to you. Politicians often say they don’t prioritise climate change as “they don’t hear about it on the doorsteps”. Drop them a friendly email and remind them that you vote for politicians who support ambitious action. At the next election, why not consider volunteering to canvas for politicians who share your views about climate change?
  2. Cut down on flying. Only one in five people in the world have ever been on an aircraft. Flying is very much a luxury for wealthier countries like Ireland, but its impact on the global climate is severe. A single return flight from Dublin to New York generates around a tonne of carbon dioxide, that’s more than the total annual average emissions for a person in the world’s 57 poorest countries. Frequent fliers do the most damage. If that’s you, time to think again, forget the airport queues and rediscover the joys of the staycation and slow travel.
  3. More plants, less meat. The global livestock industry is the biggest driver of biodiversity collapse and deforestation, and the second largest source of carbon emissions. Put simply, we eat too much meat and dairy products, and these seemingly innocuous choices are having devastating consequences on the natural world, as more and more land is cleared for livestock, or to produce fodder for the 100 billion farmed animals in the world. If we all became vegetarian, it would reduce emissions from our food systems by two thirds. Even cutting back on meat and dairy can make a big difference to your carbon footprint – and your health.
  4. Ditch the car. Motor companies spend millions trying to convince us that owning a car means freedom. The reality for most people is being trapped in their cars in traffic, and paying an average of €10,000 a year, or €200 every week, in the total cost of owning, insuring and running a car in Ireland. With a huge range of e-bikes, scooters, cargo bikes and improved public transport, there has never been a better time to break free of the car. Fewer cars on the roads also means cleaner air, less noise, safer public spaces and more room for buses and bikes.
  5. Put a plug on it. If you’re not yet in a position to go car-free, as is the case for many people in rural Ireland, then it’s time to go electric. Prices for electric vehicles (EVs) are coming down, but the real saving is on the running costs. If you can charge from home, they are far cheaper to run than a petrol or diesel. Around 40% of the electricity on the Irish grid is from clean, home-produced wind energy, and this is rising fast.
  6. Get involved. We know for sure that the environment is far too important to be left to only environmentalists to protect. That’s where you come in. There are dozens of brilliant organisations, from the Irish Wildlife Trust, Birdwatch Ireland, Friends of the Earth, An Taisce and many more besides fighting every day for a safer, greener, cleaner Ireland. Have you a few hours to help out as a volunteer? If you prefer just to be a member, annual fees are modest, but the money goes a long way towards the vital work of speaking up for nature and demanding strong climate action.
  7. Think before you spend. For many of us, shopping is a habit. We often buy things we don’t really need, from throwaway fast fashion to cheap electronic items, simply out of habit. We have been conditioned by marketing to be ‘consumers’, to spend our free time and spare cash mindlessly shopping, often spending more than we can really afford. Instead of drifting into the shopping centre every weekend or buying impulsively online, why not go for a walk or cycle instead? You’ll most likely feel better, and save money too.
  8. Time to upgrade? There are now a range of supports to help people to invest in upgrading their homes to be more energy-efficient. Some, such as attic insulation, is cheap and effective, saving you cash and giving you a cosier home. Full retrofits are expensive, but will pay off over the longer term. If you have the option of installing a heat pump and solar panels, these should pay for themselves within 5-7 years, and will make a big impact on the amount of carbon your home emits.
  9. Get informed. While there is a lot of disinformation about climate online, visit reliable sources like the NASA website to find out the facts. Another great place to start would be to buy The Climate Book, a compendium of essays from top experts created by climate activist Greta Thunberg.
  10. Talk about it. Surveys find that many people concerned about climate think that their friends, neighbours and work colleagues are not, and so are reluctant to bring it up in conversation. The more we speak up, the more others know they are not alone, and the better chance we have of driving the truly radical changes in how we live, what we eat and our relationship with the natural world. As Gandhi famously put it: “be the change you want to see in the world”.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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