Preservation of our natural habitat has been high on pretty much everyone’s agenda - at least while there is nothing else to worry about. Governments around the world picked up the idea of reducing emissions to slow down climate change, which is a scientific fact. There are of course other environmental concerns, but climate is certainly one of uniquely global impact and has been well understood during the past decades. Sadly it has been underestimated for far too long while spreading comfortable lies. I am convinced that we must act fast to avoid the worst, which is mass mortality and whole regions becoming inhabitable. Planet Earth will certainly survive this in the long run, but most animals, plants and humans living today don’t have the capability to adjust fast enough.
At this time the wishful thinking is to cap global warming below 2,0°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. Given the fact that the world, especially China, is still adding emissions, institutions like IPCC and others expect that we will level out at 3,0°C which will have disastrous impact on most non-wealthy communities. While not being a scientist myself, I think the argument for 3,0°C is very solid and 2,0°C is in fact a pipe dream. That’s a direct impact of doing too little, too late, which has become the norm of governance for wealthy nations.
Lots of people appear to think 2,0°C or other metrics would be a threshold in the future that we must not cross to avoid catastrophe. The catastrophes do however not start when crossing a threshold, we already see shit hitting the fan right now. Any increase in temperature based on today’s levels will have profound impact on the ecosystem and affect us as a species. Some are delayed and exponential effects, and people are notoriously bad at understanding the speed and impact of such processes. Being a realist, I think it is already too late to reverse the trend, and we must find ways to protect ourselves. However, we also need to become a lot better of prevention.
In Germany the government was lobbied into shutting down nuclear power and phase out coal power production only in 2038. In my opinion the correct way would have been to develop and add modern nuclear plants and shut down coal immediately. That is now wishful thinking since it has been passed into law. At the same time, the addition of renewable energy has been slowing down during the past years, which is the real tragedy. This is most due to NIMBYism, people are fine with burning coal somewhere else but detest a windmill in line of sight. This is horrifically stupid and selfish thinking, burning coal is by far the worst source of all sorts of emissions. Following this trajectory, Germany will either end up extending usage of coal and oil or greenwash itself by purchasing dirty energy from its neighbors in the east - and dirty energy is just one part of the problem.
That could all be seen as an excuse for defeatism, but I see it as a challenge that “we the people” need to do more and be faster with it than government intervention can ever be. Also, political change in a democracy is always impeded by public opinion and if you hurt someone too much too fast, you won’t be able to implement your agenda. There will always be NIMBYs and short-sighted people. We can’t wait until we convince a huge majority to vote for the right parties and implement the right policy to get this going. I don’t mean that in the way some activist groups do, which accept the creation of an illiberal dictatorship to implement their agenda for them - but rather as a challenge to civil society, where everyone can do their part and knows best how to optimize.
Roughly 70% of emissions are created by the 100 largest companies, however that does not reduce the responsibility of consumers when purchasing products from those companies. By “consumers” I primarily mean professional decisions, like where and under which conditions to source your input materials as a company. Many people are in one way or another powerful to influence such decisions. That can contribute a lot more than picking regional food or using public transportation - many of us are catalysts for huge change in their professional lives. The worst option is to wait until global governments put something into law. This is far too slow, an unnecessarily costly transition and will potentially lead to a more authoritarian society.
Another “argument” that is brought up a lot is that a country like Germany emits “just” 2% of harmful gas and is home 1% of the worlds’ population. People tend to think that these quantities do not matter and that the changes we implement are in vain unless top emitters like China change their ways. First, those numbers are wrong. While emissions in Germany may just be 2% thanks to regulation and modern industrial processes, our consumption in Germany leads to a lot of emissions elsewhere, particularly in China. We just outsourced those emissions, we are still causing them. Second, the conclusion is wrong. Germany has been at the edge of high-tech manufacturing for the past decades, and we could be in a great position to supply second-movers like the U.S., India or China with the equipment to reach their goals. There is a lot of wealth to generate in the process. Germany is one of the countries that has the economical, judicial and political power to push changes. In an EU context this which means potentially influencing the behavior of 500M people and 1/4th of the world economy.
Mahatma Gandhi may not have been a role model in many ways, but his quote “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” is spot-on. Tackling climate change requires profound changes in behavior of each individual person. But hey - what if the scientist were wrong? Well, then we created a better world by accident. I can live with that. To be clear, this is not a “holier than you” thing, but rather food for thought how you could make a change as well.
So rather than waiting for government dirigisme, I implemented a few changes which I think have profound impact while maintaining or even improving my quality of life:
While everyone talks about energy production and transportation, reducing the consumption of beef is the individual decisions which has by far the largest impact on the environment. Beef production is extreme inefficient and outputs more than 20x as many emissions than producing poultry or plant-based food. It requires about 30x the energy to consume one calorie of energy through beef than using a plant-based diet. This is not just about Carbon-dioxide but primarily about Methane, which is a lot worse for the climate but also dissipates relatively quickly - so a reduction has swift impact. Beef production requires a huge amount of water and pasture, which more often than not means cutting down forests and adding to drought. I still consume meat 2-3 times per week, but reduced beef consumption to zero. Do I miss eating a good steak? Hell yes, I do - but this is a small price to pay, given its advantages.
Much energy is consumed by heating and cooling of buildings. This is harder to optimize than purchasing an EV, but I reaped the opportunity to save emissions and, frankly, cost, when purchasing a modern home. We use a very efficient local power plant, good insulation and optimized controls for our underfloor heating. This led to a fossil energy consumption which is about 5x lower compared to the average household. Adding solar and photovoltaics is next on the list, and we consume electricity fully produced by renewables. Sure, that’s the talk of someone who has the means for such changes, but even as a tenant you can lobby your landlords to add more efficient appliances rather than wasting resources. Energy costs will only go up, so energy-efficient apartments become a huge selling point.
Consumerism can be a huge source of emissions - usually elsewhere. Any mobile phone, T-Shirt and fridge comes with an emissions price-tag that is currently an externality to economics. This will hopefully change by using cap-and-trade and border-tax programs for emissions. Using long-lasting goods can severely reduce the emission footprint, so I always put quality and expected lifespan above price or brand when consuming.
Modern cars and trucks add modestly to climate change, but there are very good alternatives, like EVs, that also reduce other kinds of emissions, like sound. EVs are cheaper than fossil cars due to tax breaks, incentives, maintenance and rising price of fossil fuels. They are also a lot more fun to drive. I currently still own a fossil-fuel car, however once that’s beyond usable I will go electric, a charging station is already in place to switch from fossil to renewable energy. At this time I don’t see an economic or ecologic reason to switch cars since the existing one is perfectly fine and has been used for a quarter of a million kilometers. Picking any kind of new car would be worse than continuing to use the existing one. A new car will have to reach break even to offset its production cost and emissions until it’s a net-benefit.
Air-travel is obviously the least effective mode of transportation when it comes to emissions. I try to minimize personal air-travel and offset the rest. Whenever feasible I walk, use my bike or public transportation.
In my role at work, I am traveling a lot and can chose the mode of transportation. Whenever possible, I use the train service or a car rather than air-travel. The cost savings don’t affect me directly like they do when going on vacation, but I think I can make a difference by leading by example and show that reducing air-travel is entirely possible in many cases. There are situations where air-travel is inevitable, but I try to be mindful about that decision. From where I live there is just one national air-travel connection which makes sense and safes time compared to other modes of transportation.
Lobbying for change at work can be very beneficial as well. Too many people just accept their professional environment as carved in stone. In reality, there are many inefficiencies that can be solved. For example, I brought up the case that we were using a Nescafé capsule system for coffee supply - and in our industry, coffee is used a lot. Moving to another solution did not only reduce the amount of waste drastically but also reduced cost and some savings went into coffee machines that create a much better result. Often such solutions exist only due to convenience, unawareness and nobody does question them ever.
Further improvements have been the usage of renewable energy for facilities and making video-calls the default which severely reduced travel. While this was certainly a result of the pandemic, everyone can help make remote meetings the norm, if it makes sense. Always second-guess if business travel is really necessary or if it is rather used as a perk.
Reducing the individual negative impact to our natural habitat is a journey and there are always things to consider as new industries are spun up and deliver better alternatives. Here are a few things I may consider in the near future:
- Switch from cow-milk to plant-based protein replacements.
- Further reduce food and consumption waste, these are in fact “free” improvements that do not influence lifestyle.
- Finally get to drive an EV.
- Replace natural-gas powered heat production with climate-neutral hydrogen.
- Consider adding insect based protein to the diet.
- Find a substitute for diary based cheese, this will be a tough one.