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Is climate neutrality possible?

8 min read
18 Apr 2016

Climate change is a central debate the world over, especially focusing on how human activities are raising the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and impacting on local and global climates. Proposals for reducing emissions have been discussed on a local and international level, with the most recent global talks in Paris concluding it was in the world’s best interests to actively limit the global average rise in temperature by reducing the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. So, as we work towards lessening emissions, we ask if it’s possible to hit the gold standard and be climate neutral.

Climate neutrality defined

Climate neutrality balances the scales, with emissions on the one side and absorption on the other. Achieving neutrality would mean that global temperature increases would likely stabilise, and perhaps even begin to recover. The focus is often on carbon as this makes up 80% of the harmful gases. As for being climate neutral, it’s all about reducing emissions as far as possible, and offsetting the rest if needed.

How to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved in a number of ways, the most obvious being a reduction in the amount of fossil fuels used for energy generation. According to the WWF, 51% of Australia’s greenhouse gas pollution comes from electricity generation. Burning fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas produces a high proportion of the greenhouse gases which are causing climate change.

According to The Climate Institute, Australia is the 13th highest overall pollution contributor in the world

More efficient ways of using fossil fuels are contributing to a reduction in emissions, and new technologies that use less energy are also helping. However, many activities still require significant energy input, and Australia’s energy portfolio is heavy on fossil fuels. Being climate neutral would mean sourcing power from renewable sources, but even this has its associated emissions. Manufacture and maintenance of solar panels, wind turbines, and other systems produces greenhouse gases, though once operational their contribution to climate change would be minimal compared with non-renewable alternatives.

Calculating emissions and carbon footprints

Residents of wealthy countries like Australia use a larger proportion of the earth’s resources in their daily lives than people in poorer countries.

Australia has the highest emissions footprint in the OECD at 26 tonnes per year according to The Climate Institute

This global “footprint” can be measured using calculators such as this one on the World Wildlife Fund page, which can show how many earth equivalent planets would be required for all of the human population to live the same lifestyle. More specifically, the amount of carbon dioxide produced by a particular lifestyle can be a useful way to measure environmental impact, and that can be measured using a calculator such as this one.

Whereas energy production is often a national issue, calculating a carbon footprint takes this to a local level. There is debate regarding what is included in a carbon footprint calculation. Ideally it should include all emissions involved in an activity, which can be relatively straightforward in the case of something like growing food, but less clear when looking at other activities.

Take driving a car: The emissions from the fuel burned to get the car moving are the obvious part of the equation, but then there are the emissions involved in building the car, mining the materials such as steel that go into the car, extracting and refining the fuel itself, building and maintaining roads and other infrastructure such as traffic lights – it’s obviously not as simple as it first appears; which is why different calculators may give different results.

Is it possible to be climate neutral?

As can be seen from the car example above, it’s certainly tricky to claim climate neutrality. One way to align the balance sheet is to invest in a carbon offset scheme. Programs can include things such as renewable energy generation, or in some cases even tree planting projects. Tree planting can potentially reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide through the trees absorbing it and storing it as wood.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

Actions such as reducing consumption can have a huge impact on carbon footprints for individuals, in both tangible goods, such as clothing, furniture and electronics, but also in other consumables like energy. The plea to reduce, reuse, recycle has never been more pertinent than when trying to reduce environmental impacts, so buying less in general, and buying second-hand or recycled goods wherever possible can really make a difference, not to mention being usually a less expensive way to live.

Local foods often have lower footprints

Sourcing local food is another way to reduce environmental impact: Generally the less distance a food travels, the less emissions associated with it. Also, the less a food is processed, the lower its carbon footprint. These two factors are often combined, as food is usually processed to a greater degree the further it has to travel. Frozen and otherwise preserved foods such as canned goods may travel hundreds or even thousands of kilometres before being sold in a retailer, so trying to eat fresh local food will really put a dent in those food related emissions.

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Could a diet change be necessary?

It’s more likely that a plant based diet will have a lower impact on the environment, as diary and meat production generally requires greater energy inputs than food plant farming. An average diet is estimated to be responsible for 2.5 tonnes of CO2 per year per adult, whereas a Vegetarian or vegan diet equates to less than 2 tonnes.

Getting around

Public transport, riding a bicycle and walking are all much more environmentally friendly ways to get around. As well as the extra exercise for the driver by getting around under their own steam. Not using the car for short trips or combining more than one errand into a single trip will help cut down on the direct emissions from fuel consumption. For short inner-city trips, jumping on a bike or catching public transport is often quicker than driving, especially during peak traffic times in the capital cities.

Lowering your footprint at home

Around the house there are dozens of ways to use less energy, from sealing up cracks, to installing insulation. Even planting trees and shrubs in the right places will reduce the energy use in the house as well as directly absorb some carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Rooftop solar panels or solar hot water systems are another way to reduce reliance on fossil fuel generated energy. Design of new houses can even make a difference, for example by putting more windows on the north side of the house and fewer on the south to maximise heat gained from the sun in winter, and minimise heat loss.

Purchasing carbon offsets

For things that we can’t personally or directly reduce emissions for, such as manufacturing, there are ways to buy carbon offsets that go some way toward alleviating the impact of greenhouse gas production. These kinds of credits may be used to invest in renewable energy, or investigate carbon sequestration technology as well as simpler methods such as planting trees. The carbon offset calculator on this page not only calculates how much carbon you have used in a given period, it provides suggestions of how to offset that much carbon dioxide by linking directly to carbon abatement programs all over the world.

Can you really be climate neutral?

It is highly probable that it’s not possible to get our personal climate footprint down to zero in real terms. Only about half of emissions are directly attributable to individuals, the rest coming from industry, including manufacturing and agriculture, as well as in heating and cooling other buildings such as schools and workplaces where most people spend a lot of their time.

Related: 15 ways to recycle repurpose and reuse around the home

As a result, offsetting those emissions by other means is the only way we have to keep to the goal of preventing global temperature rises. Offsets may be built into all kinds of products, for example this insurance policy includes a carbon price based on the type of car and how far it’s driven in a year to calculate an amount of carbon that can be offset by investing in carbon abatement projects to counter the emissions from driving each year. While future technology offers the hope that new, less polluting forms of energy may be possible, for now the best option is to reduce the impact you have on the climate by thinking carefully about how much you use, and where reductions can be made – the upshot being that energy bills will also reduce!

Whether it’s in material goods, or energy directly, using less is the most direct way anyone can have an effect on keeping the environment in a livable state into the future.

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