What else can I do?

Friends, while writing the slides for my recent talk to teenagers, I became very aware of the awfulness of the future facing the children I was addressing – and my own children who are only around 8 years older.

This awareness took the form of something between panic and gloom. And it caused me to reflect on my own efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and to ask myself “What else could I do?”.

In case you are short of time I will summarise my conclusion here: I have eliminated most of carbon emissions from my life that can be cut by simply spending money! To go further, requires significant lifestyle changes. And maybe trying harder to influence other people.

What am I doing already?

As summarised on the ‘My House‘ pages of this blog and this video, I have spent most of my life-savings (aka my ‘Pension Tax-Free Lump Sum’ of around £60,000) on steps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from my house in Teddington.

Briefly, the money has been spent on:

  • Triple Glazing & External Wall Insulation reducing the heating demand by half.
  • 12 Solar Panels generating ~3,500 kWh/year of electricity, Together with a battery, this is enough to take us off-grid for roughly 90 days a year and to substantially reduce the use of grid electricity in all but the darkest months.
  • A heat pump eliminating the use of gas for heating.

Altogether, these steps have reduced CO2 emissions associated with the house by around 80%, from 3.7 tonnes per year to about 0.8 tonnes per year.

And our lifestyle has not been impacted at all: in fact the house is more comfortable: warmer in winter and cooler in summer – cooled with solar-powered air conditioning.

These carbon emissions are real reductions of emissions – actions that result in no CO2 being emitted into the atmosphere when compared with the alternative of not taking these actions. And after the carbon payback period, emissions associated with the house will be around 3 tonnes less per year than they would have been.

But in this calculation I have not included three other things that could notionally be included.

  • Exports: Each year the house exports ~900 kWh of electricity to the grid. One can argue about how much this reduces emissions from other people’s use of electricity.  But this probably reduces emissions by between 0.2 to 0.4 tonnes per year.
  • Direct Air Capture: Each month I pay the Climeworks foundation £40 and in return they promise to directly capture 50 kgCO2 from the air and turn it into carbonate rock deep beneath the surface of Iceland. I really don’t know how well-validated this process is, but Climeworks promise that within 6 years of my payment, they will permanently remove 600 kgCO2/year from the atmosphere ‘in my name’. Notice this is not ‘offsetting’ which I believe to be tantamount to fraud.
  • Wind Farm: Earlier this year my wife & I paid Ripple £2,000 to buy a share of an 8-turbine wind farm they plan to build in Scotland. This share is sufficient to generate roughly 3,500 kWh/year of electricity – 100% of the electricity the house draws from the grid each year. It’s scheduled for completion in November 2023 and from that point onwards, the carbon emissions nominally associated with the house will fall by very roughly 600 kgCO2/year.

In accounting terms, this means that – as the graph below shows – the household could possibly be classified as ‘carbon negative’.

Click on image for a larger version. The graph shows cumulative carbon dioxide emissions from the house up to the year 2040 based on several different assumptions. The red line shows expected emissions if I had not done any work on the house. The green line shows the effect of those works. The dotted black line shows the effect of my paying for Direct Air Capture of CO2. And the dotted blue line shows the effect of my purchase of a fraction of a ‘Ripple’ Wind Farm. The carbon embodied in the modifications to the house is now (July 2022) just about paid off.

What else could I do?

House

There is only limited scope for further work on the house. Installing underfloor insulation could reduce the heating requirements by perhaps another 20%. And there is room for a few more solar panels and more batteries. However neither change would alter the graph above dramatically.

Additionally I am keen not to adopt a techno-utopian stance – forever consuming more of the latest tech to enable me to humble-brag about some sexy piece of equipment.

So what about emissions from other aspects of my life – Transport, Consumption and Pensions.

Transport

My wife and I still own and drive a car and we drive around 3,500 miles/year which corresponds to just over 0.8 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

It pains me every time I drive – wasting 70% of the energy in the petrol and emitting CO2 directly. However, although my wife might be able to afford an electric car, with our low annual mileage, the 10 tonnes of CO2 emitted during the manufacture of an EV is hard to justify.

Probably our the best strategy is just to reduce the amount we drive – cycling and using public transport even more than we do.

I guess at some time I will be obliged to travel by air again – but until that becomes necessary, I will simply try to avoid this. Although the idea of international travel is intermittently attractive (particularly to my wife), to me it seems too appalling to emit tonnes of CO2 in an afternoon on nothing more than a whim!

Consumption

I have given up taking milk in my tea (and coffee) and this has resulted in our using 1 litre of milk less each week – saving 50 litres per year. Using figures from Our World in Data, this – apparently – reduces our annual carbon footprint by ~ 0.15 tonnes! Other sources suggest that UK milk does not have such high emissions, and the avoided emissions are more like 0.075 tonnes (75 kg). Whatever the actual answer is, I have made the switch and I don’t intend to switch back. And even 75 kg per year up to my planned date of death is 18 x 75 = 1,350 kg CO2.

My wife and I have both changed our diet significantly in recent years: reducing beef purchases to zero, and only eating other meats perhaps once a week. We eat vegetables and salads much more than we used to, including food from my wife’s allotment which has low associated ‘food miles’. However, we still eat eggs and cheese.

I am trying to buy fewer ‘things’. And as my perspective has slowly shifted, I have realised I really need very few new objects.

Pension

As I lamented in an earlier article, the money invested on my behalf by Legal and General and USS probably generates many tonnes of CO2 – probably more than all the other categories combined.

After writing that article, a correspondent suggested to me that considering emissions from my pension savings was double-counting. In other words, I was counting emissions from say petrol purchases already under the ‘travel’ category, so counting those again as part of a share portfolio that probably includes oil companies was not consistent. This is a fair point. The emissions associated with an oil company’s activities can either be assigned to the consumers of their products, or the shareholders, but not both.

However, my money is still invested in ways I would not personally choose. But I feel so unsure of myself as an investor that I am not confident that switching investment funds would result in an improvement.

Summary

Aside from emitting as little CO2 as I can, I also want to live a life which includes joyful activities and is not a relentless drudge.

But it seems that I am approaching the limits of what I can do personally to live a life with minimal emissions of carbon dioxide.

There are still actions I can take, – and I will – but at this point it seems that probably the most significant thing I can do is to try to influence other people to take action to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions.

Mmmmm. I will have a think about how best to do that.

11 Responses to “What else can I do?”

  1. Bruce MacNeil Says:

    What is your YouTube channel ??

    The effort you put into these posts would glean a 1000X audience with videos.

  2. trcal Says:

    Fantastic blog! I would be really interested to understand more about offsetting and carbon capture. I have all but stopped supporting these at the moment while I try to understand better what I am backing (e.g. not the “great carbon land grab” or other forms of climate colonialism). I am desperately feeling the need to do something though so set up Nature-Connected Neighbourhoods to try to encourage wildlife gardening and nature connection to help with climate adaptation & mitigation & averting ecological collapse as well as promoting eco behavioural tendencies.

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Dear Trcal,

      Nature connected neighbourhoods sounds fantastic: bring ecology to the forefront of our minds and also helping people to cope with the stress of what we are all going through.

      Good luck!

      M

  3. Carole Hegedűs Says:

    Hello Michael

    Just to let you know, in case it sometimes seems you are sending your blogs out to the ether, I take them seriously and forward them to wherever I think they can have an effect. This includes my daughters, some grown up grandchildren, my Kingston U3A Climate Emergency Group leader and others. And from feedback, it has definitely been worthwhile. I also intend to try to bring your sixth form talk to the attention of any education contacts I can.

    I bought shares in Ripple after you mentioned it, also for my daughter on the basis that it is an investment in my grandchildren’s futures.

    With regard flying, Austrian Airlines are offering an option to pay extra to fly on repurposed cooking oil, which can’t be reused for animal feed in the EU. It is about £140 extra for a return flight to Vienna, which isn’t cheap but it does mean that it is certified and doable with a clear conscience. And still cheaper than a train.

    I’m buying a lot fewer things also. I shall never be elegant again!

    Thank you and b/rgds Carole Hegedus (Vegetarian, solar panels and less than 500 miles on my car last year)

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Carole,

      Thank you for your kind words: they are much appreciated.

      And yes, I do often imagine my words disappearing into the aether – but I still feel compelled to write!

      I will look up the Austrian Airlines initiative: that sounds very interesting.

      Regarding ‘things’ I feel sure you will always look elegant!

      Warm best wishes

      Michael

  4. Ross Mason Says:

    When I was a child I was told in no uncertain terms, that the Queen never farts. When I was a little older, I discovered that if she didn’t, she would be dead by now. Now I am really old(er) I find there is no way the Queen doesn’t (or nearly didn’t) fart. Beans. Mushy Peas. Leafy stuff. ……and Metformin. So quite clearly Michael, any method of reducing the expulsion of Methane can be added (or subtracted?) from your count. All farts contain CO2. So its a win win for us all.
    More concerning is your statement of “my planned date of death”. Both our lives were clearly designed to annoy the shit out of our family, management, bureaucracy etc. I say extend our stay. Revenge can be sweet.

  5. Anto Says:

    Does your ripple investment and associated implied CO2 reduction get recognised in your house’s EPC? If not, why not?

    You may be interested in the case made by a firm called Atamate that carbon emissions from new flats can be greatly reduced by (obviously) a Fabric First approach and the use of relatively cheap electric panels and good occupancy-linked control systems that also control ventilation and micro heat pumps for hot water. Well-insulated properties’ main energy demand is actually hot water, not space heating. They are not fans of expensive air source heat pumps that decrease in efficiency as external temperatures fall, not of expensive temperamental solutions like MVHR systems. A useful start might be https://www.atamate.com/atamate-blog/case-study-reducing-costs-for-rental-accommodation and https://www.atamate.com/atamate-blog/electrification-of-heat-project-1-opportunities-and-limitations. There is a follow-on part 2 with further commentary on the appropriateness and cost-effectiveness of heat pumps in our older housing stock.

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Anthony, Good Afternoon.

      I think the Ripple investment is associated with me rather than the house, so if I move the investment would no longer apply to the house.

      Regarding the Atamate report, I agree that reducing heating requirements so that they can be met economically by simple electrical heaters is smart. But in both reports they seem to have a downer on heat pumps that I don’t understand. It is correct that heat pumps cannot be used in every retrofit, but they can be used in most without any modification to radiators or piping.

      The retrofit crisis is just one aspect of our larger climate crisis, and at this late point in the process, I would not with to make the ideal retrofit the enemy of the adequate: we urgently need to reduce energy spent heating homes.

      Best wishes

      Michael

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