5 Eco Myths
Myth 1 – Eco lightbulbs are the best way to save electricity at home
I like low-energy lightbulbs. In fact, I sell them at the local farmers’ market to offset my personal carbon sins. But even if a householder replaces all their bulbs, the total impact on yearly electricity consumption is likely to be no more than about 400 units (kWh) of electricity. A new plasma TV bought at the same time will outweigh any energy savings. The government talks about banning old-style bulbs, but no one dares mention the explosive impact on energy consumption of the latest generation of large TVs and games consoles. The power used by these monsters embarrasses their manufacturers and the online brochures usually omit all details of electricity use. I couldn’t find a single retailer that dares to list the power consumption of plasma TVs. The best rule for cutting home electricity consumption? Keep your old TV. If you still feel the need to buy something, get a new super-efficient fridge.
Myth 2 – Flying is responsible for only 2% of carbon dioxide emissions
Like all good myths, this one – much loved by the executives of budget airlines – has more than a grain of truth. Air travel is a tiny portion of global CO2 emissions. But in Britain 6% of CO2 comes from aircraft engines – far worse than the global average of 2% – and the figure is growing rapidly. More important, the global warming impact of jets is far greater than their CO2 alone. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the greenhouse impact of aviation is 2.7 times the carbon dioxide emissions alone. This means that air travel is already close to 20% of Britain’s total impact on the world climate. To put this into context, the government is now talking of setting a target to reduce UK emissions by 80% by 2050. Air travel already uses up almost that entire allowance.
Myth 3 – All packaging is wicked
Nothing arouses fury like the disposable plastic supermarket bag. Gordon Brown singled them out in his first speech on climate change as prime minister. The widespread hatred now extends to almost all plastic food packaging. But although plastic bags are detestable, they are almost irrelevant to climate change. Each of us uses about 2kg a year of shopping bags, and they perform multiple useful functions in the home after they have carried our shopping from the supermarket. Food packaging of all types is no more than 5% of the weight of our groceries. Wasted food, which rots in landfill and generates methane, is a far more serious cause of global warming. Rather than getting our retailers to strip the 3g of protective polythene from our cucumbers, we need to concentrate on reducing the 30% of food that goes to waste every week.
Myth 4 – Hybrid cars are the way forward
There is nothing wrong with hybrid petrol/electric cars. But they are an extraordinarily expensive way of avoiding emissions. The Toyota Prius may be lovely, but its emissions are no better than the latest generation of small diesels, which cost little more than half the price. Buy a small car instead and spend the savings on insulating your walls. It will have far more effect. Worried about the effect on your status of driving a small car? Buy an electric vehicle and people will simply think of you as eccentric.
Myth 5 – Avoid food miles
It makes sense to avoid unnecessary transport of food. Local food is fresher and probably healthier, and your purchase contributes to the local economy. But food transport, unless it is by air, is usually a relatively small part of a meal’s carbon impact. Reducing the amount of meat you eat has far more effect than deciding to buy locally. A kilo of beef from the farm next door will have 50 times the global warming effect of a can of beans shipped from Canada. Taking a few steps towards a vegan diet will reduce carbon emissions far more than local purchasing. Avoiding meat and also buying locally is better still.
Chris Goodall is the author of How to Live a Low Carbon Life (Earthscan) and founder of carboncommentary.com