How do I do 'low carbon'? (and how you can too!)

This was written in 2010 and I'm updating it in 2017, updates in brackets!

The biggest part of the average Westerner's carbon footprint is their diet, and after this, their home heating, power and travel choices.  However, the footprint of your diet is difficult to measure, whereas your energy use in the home or your car mileage is easier to calculate.

So, here I list what I think makes me 'low carbon', starting with the most important things first and lower on the list there are smaller contributions to my greener lifestyle.

I am vegetarian (now vegan 3 or 4 days a week).  I try to eat local, in season fruit and veg, but my diet is not just fruit and veg.  I eat nuts, seeds, beans, grains, oils, dairy, and to be honest, I don't know what percentage of this is local and what comes from afar. If I have a choice down at the greengrocer, I choose vegetables which have come from the nearby village (there's a farmer in Heslington who grows carrots and potatoes) or from the UK. (The greengrocer closed so now we get veg from the Co-op and various other places. Local produce is not necessarily as easy to find, sadly.)

I grow some of my own food, but only a small percentage of my annual diet is home grown... a few potatoes, beans, tomatoes, yams, spinach, pumpkins/squash, courgettes, blackberries, apples, pears, black and red currants, loganberries, raspberries, chives, other herbs.  I harvest the pumpkin seeds too, and nasturtium seeds, walnuts which don't get eaten by squirrels, and a few mushrooms on logs.

I forage from hedgerows and 'the wild', especially mushrooms and nuts. 

I also eat quite a lot of food which was destined for landfill.  I occasionally (often!) look in a skip or 'dumpster' for food (more about skip diving later) but the majority of the waste food I get is given to me as part of my composting activities.

The rest of the family is vegetarian too, but this blog isn't really supposed to be about them, although my wife and children do get a mention now and again. (Both sons are now vegan.)

Our house does have a gas central heating system but we haven't used it for years.  We use two smoke-free highly efficient woodstoves, both built by Clearview.  We have a 4.5 kw 'Pioneer' and a 8 kw 'Vision'.  These are both flat topped, allowing placement of kettle, saucepans, large pans for bathwater, medium pans for washing-up water.  Additionally, the constant warm air stream allows me to make dried fruit, most of which comes from the compostables I rescue. (I also now help with Edible York's 'Abundance' project, harvesting unwanted fruit from peoples' gardens, and giving some of this to schools and the food bank. I keep some apples for drying.)

These stoves heat the two downstairs rooms, and the rooms above, but the two upstairs rooms furthest from the stoves are quite cold.  The house is relatively poorly insulated due to it's solid wall construction.  All the windows and external doors are double glazed, but we would like to insulate the walls next.

We use approximately 4 to 6 tonnes of waste wood a year, the vast majority I haul home with my bike trailer, cut with an electric chainsaw, split with a maul or axe and wedges, and stacked by hand (is there another way to stack wood?) so it dries and gives the best return.

As already indicated, a lot of our daily hot water needs are provided with renewable biomass, but we also have a solar thermal panel, made by Solartwin.  This either preheats water so the gas combi boiler doesn't have to do as much work to heat it up to bathwater temperature, or it heats it enough to by-pass the boiler, so fossil gas is not needed at all.

We use electricity like most people, for lights, computers, TV,  fridge and freezer, recharging the toothbrush and more.  We pay our bill to Good Energy, which only buys and sells renewable electricity.  Our annual bill is about £300, which is something like 4 units a day. This is quite low as we have A-rated appliances and no incandescent bulbs, and don't have a lot of electrical gadgets.
We use fossil gas for occasional 'instant' hot water, and for baking bread, cakes and quiches in the oven.  Our gas bill is about £100 a year.

I have written a separate essay about water use here and it contains information about my compost toilet, washing up activities, bath versus shower dilemma, hand washing, plant watering.

I have a driving licence which I got when I was training to be an Environmental Health Officer, but I enjoyed driving so much I knew I must never have a car.  I believe it is impossible to be truly low carbon if you jump in a car regularly. 
I love my bike, and had it built specially to be very very strong, as I absolutely hammer it with heavy use.  I carry heavy loads and go fast and go long distances.  I love cycling, it's possibly my favourite daily activity as it's healthy and aerobic, great exercise, and when cycling my mind clears and I enjoy the thinking time.  I'm quite happy to load up my Fiddlesticks stuff and cycle 20 or 30 miles to a gig... and back again.
I like train travel too, much prefer it to bus travel.  It is quicker than the bus, statistically safer, and a bit more expensive.  I sometimes use a taxi or get a lift from the nearest station to a gig, but I don't like motorised road transport much.  I'm not that keen on walking either, although I do sometimes go by foot instead of getting the bike out.  Now and again I'll hop on the unicycle to go to the Co-op or post office, but the two-wheeler is my ultimate transport.  My trailer is over 10 years old and I also had built for me, on the LETS.  A few years later I had it galvanised, to reduce rust, and it's been repaired I don't know how many times.
(My bike and trailer got stolen a few years ago and although the trailer was returned, the bike was never seen again. I decided to get a better bike and trailer system and got a Surly, the trailer can carry 150kg, and the bike is extremely strong.I sold my old trailer to another cyclist in York and I see it around and about sometimes. Happy memories!)

I'm not into shopping.  This dislike of buying things also helps keep my carbon footprint small.  Everything we buy has an embodied footprint... from the way the raw materials were mined, grown and refined, the power used to put things together and transport them.  Clothes have a huge environmental cost, as many fibres come from crops like cotton... which has to be irrigated and uses fertiliser and pesticides (unless organic, and I do have some organic cotton clothing). I don't have many gadgets.  I have had my laptop for years and when the screen broke I replaced that, when an 'ordinary' person would have upgraded the whole thing.  I made it run faster by doubling the memory... costing £10.  I have a second hand mobile phone but I'm not keen on it... I like being out of contact.  I do like finding things in skips and rubbish bins, and some of my best 'things' are from freecycle, charity shops or from what other people have thrown away. (I eventually replaced my old laptop after about 8 years! I also have a new mobile phone, a very simple one which doesn't take photos or connect to the internet.)

When I do buy things I like to get good quality, as I believe they last much longer for a small increase in price.  For instance, my first unicycle was £70, a Far-Eastern import, and it broke within a year.  I then spent £125 on a hand built British unicycle and it has lasted 15 years.  I imagine it will easily last another 15... at least!  So, far fewer materials used if averaged out over the lifespan of the object. (Unicycle still going strong, although due to an accident it needed a new wheel.)

I have a similar approach to furniture and white goods... we spent a bit more on an A-rated fridge and an A-rated freezer when we moved to our current house, as I felt that the cost of electricity for each of these per year (about £15 each) would save us money in the long run... a D-rated fridge uses about £45 worth of  electricity a year.

I am pretty good at switching things off when not using them, and have no problems switching everything off at the wall.  Nothing is left on standby... apart from the WiFi thing, which we were told is best left on all the time.. not sure why.  That gets switched off if we go away.

When cooking, we put lids on pans and turn the gas (if we're using this!) right down once the pan has got up to the boil.  Before the contents are fully cooked, we switch off the heat and leave the food in the hot water cooking but not using extra energy.  I cook on the woodstove if at all possible and often offer to take a pan from the cooker to the stove for Gill, who sometimes forgets we can reduce our fossil energy use by cooking on the woodstove

I'm really into recycling... obviously there's the glass, paper, cans and plastic bottles going into the kerbside box, and I save all our drinks cartons and take them to the carton bank at the Civic Amenity Site in my bike trailer.  I save clean plastic film and occasionally send it to Polyprint. (I now take this to Sainsbury's Foss Bank and they have a plastic film recycling bin.) I take broken electrical and electronic goods to the 'Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment' area at the CAS in my bike trailer.  I even do this with electrical items other people put in skips.  I collect metals and take them to a metal merchant, who gives me some cash.  This is mostly aluminium cans, but some copper wire and pipe and now and again, I get a bit of lead pipe or sheeting which has been thrown away.

Composting is a major part of my life.  I've been interested in decay and moulds since I was a child, and I collect roughly 5 tonnes of compostable material every year, stuff destined for landfill, and carefully and lovingly recycle it in a variety of compost systems.  Really, I'd like to be a professional composter.  If I could do it all day every day I'd be happy.  I enjoy riddling (sieving) it and love it when people take the finished product from me and use it.  I do make a small amount of money from this, but that's not the point.

One of the best by-products of the composting collections is that I get a vast quantity of unsold fruit and vegetables, some of which gets made into soups, stews, fruit smoothies etc, and lots of fruit gets prepared and dried on the woodstove.  I like dried fruit more than fresh fruit.

Gill and I run a food co-op, which means that some of our food comes in bulk bags, saving on packaging.  This reduces the cost, so that we can afford to buy organic, which is normally more expensive than mass produced oil-drenched food. We share this with a few selected friends. (We haven't used our food co-op for ages as we are part of someone else's which is more convenient.)

Finally, I teach people about carbon footprint related subjects, so although this doesn't lower mine, it is a way of spreading the behaviour and encouraging others to cut their own impact.

I like The Carbon Account as it gives a graphical representation of your emissions changing over time.  However, I've also used the UK Government's calculator, ActOnCO2. (I cannot access The Carbon Account now, not sure why, and don't bother to work out my footprint any more. I know it's still as low as it was, if not lower as I constantly try to behave in a greener, lower carbon way.)

The Carbon Account tells me my Carbon footprint is 0.48 tonnes a year, compared to a UK average of 5 tonnes for the parameters they measure, which are: home energy, travel including cars and  flights but no other public transport.

I suggest these steps:
Firstly, consider making a list of your needs. Then a list of your wants. Then to look again of the list of your needs and to consider what should really get moved into the wants. I think it's a really good exercise, a kind of needs/wants audit.

You must ideally fulfil your needs but you don't HAVE to have your wants, not all of them. You can exist without your wants, and actually get by perfectly well. I'm not suggesting you stop having some of your wants, but being aware of these differences is a good first step towards greener living.
Secondly, do a carbon calculator and note the figure.  When you've made some changes, re-do the calculator and see how it alters.

Focus on cutting the big things first.  If you take a flight twice a year, cut it to once every two years.  Even better, stop flying... I haven't flown since 1997, and my life is still great! Reduce or eliminate your car use, meat and dairy consumption, and switch your energy provider to a 100% renewable one such as Good Energy.

Replace incandescent and compact fluorescent lightbulbs with LEDs. When appliances need to be replaced, get the best energy rated one you can afford, it will be worth it financially and carbon-wise.

Think carefully about your shopping habits.  Even little things add up to a big annual carbon footprint.

Carbon isn't the only measure of being green. I believe that there's a social angle too, which involves embracing fairness and equality into every aspect of your life. This should include gender and sexual orientation, age, race, disability, faith, relationship orientation, health status, and even considering the human rights of people not yet born yet. I extend the concept of fairness to animals, and try to treat them with respect too.

I think it's important to add positively to the community, with volunteering and charitable work. I think people in developed countries need to recognise that much of our wealth originates in developing countries and I extend the concepts of equality and fairness to this imbalance too, so supporting initiatives like microfinance and sponsorship of foreign students might be another 'green' action.

Finally, the amount of pollution generated and resources being used is connected to the sheer vast number of people on the planet. People in developed countries have a far higher per-capita impact than the average person in a developing country, so any way people in the developed countries can cut their impact is especially valuable. One way is to have smaller family sizes, or to choose to not reproduce.  The carrying capacity of the planet is debatable but it is definitely not 7 billion people all living like Westerners. So ideally the numbers of humans on the planet should drop, and/or the global average carbon footprint/resource use should drop. A simple way to do this is to have fewer children, and this is mainly (but not only!) aimed at people in countries with a high per-capita impact.

This is only a brief look at how someone can be green, low carbon and ethical. It's a big and complicated subject!