Our impact on the environment might not be at the forefront of our minds during the rush of the Christmas festive season. We might be far more worried about our light wallets from the expected pile of presents and massive food feast. Many of us are concerned about just getting through it.
But the consumer madness of late December is the perfect time to ponder the consequences of our habits and excesses. Christmas is probably the most extravagant of our Western celebrations.
And if we check out the latest science, we are likely to get a surprise about the main sustainability offenders amongst our Yuletide season choices and actions. They are not the usual suspects.
Your eco-footprint is a measure of your environmental impact. This involves more than just pollution and resources. It also includes the full life cycle and global supply chain of good and services you use. There is also now a greater emphasis on well-being in eco-footprints, rather than just reducing our environmental impact.
There have been rapid advances in improving the accuracy of measurements of the environmental, economic, and social footprints of our activities.
Using these new tools, we can identify five major areas that will have a real effect on our eco-footprints this Christmas:
For Australia, electricity is a major source of environmental impact. This is because about 86% of it comes from fossil fuels.
The Christmas lights aren’t really an issue here. Even with 2,500 LED bulbs glorifying your home five hours a day for 30 days they will only add about 2% to your annual power bill (around A$50). It will be 10 times more if you use incandescent bulbs.
The biggest energy hog is actually space heating and cooling. About 40% of residential electricity use, depending on your local climate of course, goes into indoor temperature control.
Fans, on the other hand, typically use about 20% (or less) of the energy consumed by air-conditioners. So, rather than running the air-con all day, why not sit on the veranda or use a fan, and make sure you’re stocked up on cool drinks?
With newer and more detailed methods for measuring footprints, we can get a firmer grip on the primary environmental offenders. Apart from electricity use in the home, food and transport consistently top the list. Most people still link greenhouse gas emissions mainly to transport. However, the livestock industry and other meat production produce more than all forms of transport combined.
On average, meat, poultry, and dairy products have far greater pressures on nature than other food. The carbon footprint of a heavy meat diet is considered to be about double that of a vegetarian_ (and more than that for a vegan). Meat and dairy also tend to be worse for the use of water and energy and across many pollution and soil degradation issues.
So it’s best to minimise meat and dairy in the Christmas feast. We should also consider planning for how much food we actually need in order to minimise over-consumption and waste.
Gift-giving has become a central part of the Christmas experience. But gifts often also come with a huge footprint.
As a first step, consider buying fewer gifts. And at least get your loved ones gifts that will last a long time, are efficient in their use of energy, water, and other resources, and are easy and safe to dispose of. This is especially critical for whitegoods, appliances, and electronic gear.
Solid waste, including electronic waste, is a major environmental problem, and one of the few that is getting worse in high income nations. Buying smaller products with less packaging and presenting them without or with recyclable gift wrapping all help.
And maybe you should reconsider buying that newest e-gadget – is it really needed, and if so, could you find a quality secondhand product instead?
A great way to reduce your material footprint is to go for non-consumptive, immaterial gifts in the form of services such as e-books, massage, yoga classes, cinema tickets, and gym memberships. As a bonus, many of these have additional health benefits.
Another key part of improving sustainability is to buy ethical gifts that can be shown to have been made without exploiting workers in terms of wages, conditions, safety, human rights and child labour, and environmental harm.
Oh no, this one really hurts. Unfortunately, we can’t do much in the short-term about having to take the car to the rellies for the Christmas festivities. Yet transport fuels are well-known as major sources of greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and related problems. So if you need to drive, why not try and car pool; road trips are more fun with company.
But, while reducing low occupancy car use is vital, it seems that one flight can undo all our good work. Taking a plane from Sydney to Bali, for example, has almost the same carbon footprint as a typical year’s worth of driving. I wonder if Santa has Skype?
5. New Year’s resolution
If such austerities are all too much in the expected pleasures of Christmas, then perhaps you could defer them to your 2016 resolutions for a new, more sustainable lifestyle.
Ideally, it would be good to commit to:
- eat less meat and dairy
- continue to get more efficient space heating and cooling equipment and use fans whenever possible (fingers crossed for bearable levels of global warming!)
- convert your home to solar energy and hot water, economise on long travel, and exercise more
Such changes obviously need support across the community. So, another lifestyle change would be to commit political support for renewable energy, energy efficiency, better public transport and more compact cities, alternative long distance travel modes, and more.
Peace and goodwill to all
And in the Christmas cheer, remember not to drink too much and accidentally procreate.
In high income countries, the most unsustainable thing we can do is have another child over above the replacement rate of 2.1 children per couple. There is already evidence of a surge in Australian births about nine months after Xmas!
This Christmas, let us reflect a little more on how we might help bring peace and goodwill to all in our highly connected and finite world.
Senior Lecturer, Griffith School of Environment, Griffith University