Irish people generate about 10 tons of carbon dioxide each year and are creating a footprint that we can ill-afford to leave behind. Not only are the pollutants we generate contributing to the climate catastrophe we are hurtling towards, they are also costing us cold hard cash every single day.
Of course we all know this – or at least everyone but the most deluded climate crisis deniers knows it – but despite that, many people seem reluctant to make even small adjustments to their lives, with a sense of hopelessness to blame in many instances.
Last month, the 2019 Behaviour & Attitudes Sign of the Times survey focussed, in part, on Irish attitudes to sustainability and the climate crisis. It pointed to growing concern among consumers about the environment but it found that this concern was not being matched by action.
The report suggested that one reason for inaction was a perception that there is not a lot we can do on an individual basis to achieve sustainability as the scale of catastrophe facing the planet is too grave.
The people at the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) have long identified this as a problem and have gone so far as to set up a behavioural economics unit to deliver programmes specifically designed to make it easy and attractive for people and businesses to avail of clean energy.
Speaking in this newspaper when the B&A report was published, SEAI programme manager Karl Purcell said that a reluctance to do much to fight the crisis illustrates a typical problem in environmental psychology known as the "attention-action gap" which is the difference between what people say they would like to do and what they actually do.
While it would be easy to throw our hands in the air like some class of latter-day Maude Flanders and declare that everything is hopeless, it would be better to do something, even a tiny thing. Maybe if we all did more, the Government would pay heed and do more than pay lip service to environmental concerns that will define the generations to come.
Irish people could handily reduce the amount of carbon we generate by about a third by being more mindful of what we are doing. The steps we can take might be small but by taking even some of them you will feel better about yourself and save a few bob into the bargain. What’s not to like about that.
In Ireland transport is the sector which uses the most energy and within that sector private cars are the worst offenders. Private cars accounted for 41 per cent of energy usage in 2017 with aviation finishing in second place on 20 per cent followed by heavy goods vehicle (HGV) freight on 15 per cent. It is somewhat damning that public and private bus or coach transport accounted for less than 3 per cent of transport energy use in 2017, while rail accounted for less than 1 per cent.
So the undeniable truth is that the single biggest issue we must tackle when it comes to transport is private cars. There is no point in waiting for the State to invest properly in a public transport and cycling infrastructure so it is up to us. If we were to make a conscious decision to walk or use public transport just a bit more we could make a big difference to our carbon footprint while saving money too.
Because we are heading in to summer it should be easier to leave the car behind for travelling distance of 2km or less. And if you have to travel further than that it is worth looking at alternate options. A tank of fuel to take you from Dublin to Galway or Cork will cost about €50. GoBus will take your there and back for not much more than €20. And it will give you access to free wifi too.
The average motorist drives 16,000km every year and if the average price of petrol is €1.44 a litre, driving the average family car, which does 12.4km per litre (35 miles per gallon), will cost about €1,857. Reducing your fuel bill by just 10 per cent will save almost €200 a year.
If you must drive, might you consider an electric car? They still leave a carbon footprint but it is much smaller than a car which directly burns fossil fuels.
By some estimates it can save a motorist more than €2,000 every year in running costs based on factors such as road tax and fuel. The SEAI offers grants of up to €5,000 to people buying qualifying electric vehicles.
Even if you stick with whatever car you have and drive it as much as you always do, you can still reduce the amount of carbon it emits by being a bit more tuned in to how it runs. Ensure the tyre pressure is right, get rid of any roof box you might have on it and don’t be turning on the engine to heat the car on cold mornings.
By taking advantage of the tax breaks available to cyclists and their employers, you can get a decent bike on the cheap. The Bike to Work (biketowork.ie) scheme covers bicycles and accessories up to a maximum of €1,000. Your employer buys it and you pay for it, tax-free, over 12 months, which effectively knocks about 40 per cent off the price. Every kilometre you choose to cycle instead of drive saves approximately 250g of CO2 emissions, so you could easily save yourself a tonne – literally – of carbon each year. If your commute is just 8km each way and you usually drive, then you will save about €400 a year in fuel costs alone each year.
Eat less meat
While many farmers would rather we didn’t say this, the undeniable reality is that people who eat less meat generate less carbon. Ireland consumes twice the global average of meat and 25 per cent of the average Irish person’s carbon emissions comes from diet. Simply by becoming a vegetarian a person can reduce their emissions by half.
We are not suggesting that everyone convert to a purely plant-based diet and becomes a hardcore vegan overnight but if you were to cut meat out of your diet on just two days a week you would make a significant reduction to your carbon footprint.
And eating vegetarian food is cheaper that eating meat as well. Let’s say you spend €15 a week on steak and mince for two dinners and you replace that with a fiver’s worth of beans, vegetables or pulses, you will save yourself €500 over the course of a year.
Collectively Ireland throws away more than one million tonnes of food every single year. Not only does that produce methane in landfill but the waste has to be transported from the farm and the home or restaurant to the rubbish tip. Then there is all the energy wasted in the production of that food. The most effective way to cut your emissions in this space is to only ever buy what you will eat. The average Irish grocery bill is about €8,000 a year and if you can cut your food waste to as close to zero as possible you could save yourself as much as €1,000 a year.
And while we are here you might want to think more about where you shop and where it comes from. We live in a world where fresh mangoes and strawberries are available year round. But at what cost? Where possible, shop in farmers’ markets and co-ops and buy food that is grown locally. And if you wallet allows it, buy more organic products – they are better for the environment and, possibly, better for you too.
Be a better shopper
We live in a world where many people treat clothes like disposable items. Some shops sell stuff so cheap that there is little incentive to take care of what you buy. But the amount of carbon generated by getting a €2 T-shirt to you can be horrendous and far outstrip the amount you are likely to use in a single day. So only buy what you are going to wear.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is a phrase we are all familiar with, perhaps too familiar. But it is worth reflecting on what it means – we all need to consume less and use it for longer and in more ways than it was intended. And then once we are done with it try to find another home for it.
Seal your home
Make sure your home is properly insulated. Getting a handle on where your home energy is going will save you money. Home Energy Saving Kits can be borrowed at many of Ireland’s libraries. They are made up of six tools which address three key areas of energy use in the home: space heating, hot water and electricity consumption. The kits come in a foam-padded suitcase and include a thermometer for measuring the temperature of fridges and freezers, a humidity meter, a radiator key, a thermal leak detector and a plug-in energy monitor. We came across a tip last week that really appealed to us. It is not winter so we can’t really try it yet but apparently if you put aluminium foil behind the radiators in your home it will reflect the heat back into the room, instead of it escaping through the walls. If you can reduce your home energy bills by 10 per cent you will save €200 a year.
Switch to white bin bags – they are much easier to recycle than black ones. Don’t overfill your kettle. Turn off the lights when you leave a room. Turn off your gadgets and don’t leave them on standby. Turn the heating down. Invest in a smart home thermostats which can be controlled remotely. Make sure all your light bulbs are LEDs.
Only print stuff if it’s absolutely necessary, use laptops instead of desktops – they are much as 80 per cent more energy efficient. Dimming your monitors can save a third of the energy and turn your back on screensavers – they keep the monitor active when it would be better off asleep. Shut off everything when you are using it. Take the stairs at work rather than forcing the lift to take you up and down.
One of the more difficult steps to take would be to dramatically cut back on the time you spend on planes. This is a problem for Irish people because of the fact we live on an island.
Drink tap water
Except for those people unfortunate enough to live in areas where boil water notices are in place, there should be absolutely no reason why anyone is this country drinks bottled water.
Indoor plants will do their bit to suck some of the carbon out of the atmosphere. If you are not overly green fingered, pick easy-to-grow things such as bamboo – it is a nice house plant, grows quickly, is low-maintenance and can suck as much as four times the amount of carbon dioxide than other plants.
We visited the Dublin Beekeepers’ Association website to find out what we should plant to make bees happy. They suggest having flowers year round and allowing weeds to grow. Flowering trees are especially useful in late winter and early spring as they provide pollen to build up the bee brood, while multiple flower heads are excellent, either in a spire like a bell flower or trailing racemes such as wisteria, or flat heads like achillea and ice flower. Full sun plants tend to produce more nectar and pollen while flowers with open faces are better for bees.
The view from Twitter
We also asked Twitter users what they were doing to lessen their carbon footprint. Here are just a selection of the responses:
I started cycling to work – Mick Finnegan
I cycle, have a keep cup & a chilly water bottle. In two years I've saved between 10c and 35c on each coffee bought (at least one a day) and I can't tell you how long it's been since I bought a bottle of water. Obv all inspiration from the OH @SmallchangesIE – Niamh Maher
Our household has [cut back] but financially it hasn't been worthwhile. Electricity costs up, gas up, use the car less but insurance hikes & public transport fare increases pretty much cancelled that saving, recycle more but our annual bin charge has increased . . . where's the incentives? – DJ Taranis
Yes, eating less meat, only washing full loads, flying less, using washable serviettes, recycling more. Every little helps to reduce the carbon footprint – Angela Holohan
Absolutely. Not just the usual recycling and minimising single-use plastic stuff but everything from eating a "shedload" less meat to investigating carbon offsetting any flights I have to take – Rick O'Shea
Yes, cut back on single use plastic and other items, use washable nappies rather than disposable, switches to renewable energy providers, carbon offset when possible – Ciara O'Brien
Installed nest system to control heating, not burning as much oil as previous years –Alan Fairbrother
Not having children. So easy, cheap and far less noisy – Liz Nugent
I became vegan 3 years ago which more than offsets my car mileage which I have no choice about as I live and work in rural Ireland with no possibility of commuting using public transport. Plus the added sense of smugness I derive keeps me warm at night! – Sonya Murray
Have stopped buying certain plastic items & found good alternatives. Use public transport when/where possible & practical. Investigating energy efficient measures for our home (120 yrs old), generally trying to use less all round. It's worthwhile to me – Tracey Holsgrove
Gone vegan and the rest of the family are largely vegetarian. Stopped buying bottles of water, tend to buy glass bottles or jars now where I can. All cleaning products are eco friendly. Leave large areas of the garden wild & only mow every few weeks – Nuala Ní Chonghaile
Stopped using car unless really necessary . . . totally worth it . . . feel smug and it's more exercise for all the family – Mary McCarthy
I dunno about it. We reduced plastics a bit but what's the point if you get on a cheap flight for a mini-break? Also I'm still reeling from the revelation that long life bags worse than the regular ones.... gotta rein in China if decent impact to be made – Sarah Carey
Yes, stopped buying plastic bottles of water for kids lunches. Invested in stainless steel ones instead, which at €10 each means they have to mind them! Yes worth it, totally! AND it saves on bin charges as bins don't fill as quickly if we're buying/using less plastic cha-ching! Oh and trying meat free Monday to help the vegetable farmer Oh and also the husband just got a new bike on the bike to work scheme – Oonagh Monahan
I no longer buy or use plastic bottles, I carry a reusable bottle instead. We now have a compost bin for food waste. I buy local, in season food as much as I can. I need to make more changes but I believe it's worthwhile to choose habits that show respect for our environment – Helen Ahern