2020 was the year of the Coronavirus. It swept across the globe, upended our plans, and unfortunately, took over a million lives in the process.
The world that we knew beforehand has been replaced by one that’s uncertain, ever-changing, and in constant thrall to an invisible enemy. As horrible as the fallout from the virus has been, it will eventually subside.
At the start of the year, one of the biggest stories was the bushfires that were raging in Australia. Huge swathes of land were burnt to the ground as intense heat gripped the continent. We saw images of kangaroos and koalas struggling for life, while acres of forest burned endlessly.
This was replicated in America during the past few months, with wildfires gripping the West Coast of the country. In scenes similar to Australia, the sky turned orange, reminiscent of scenes in Blade Runner. Suddenly, science fiction had become reality.
It’s widely accepted that climate change is driving these extreme weather events. Events that were once considered to happen once in a generation are now seen as regular occurrences. Our thirst for fossil fuels has resulted in a warmer and more volatile planet.
While the emphasis is on politicians to come to agreements to limit the amount of carbon that is pumped into the atmosphere, we can play our part too. In fact, if we change our behaviour and make more environmentally conscious choices, we can help affect change that will pay dividends in the long run.
The impact might be small at the individual level, but if all of us made a few changes, we’d make a big difference. Below are a few ways you can make small adjustments to your lifestyle that will have a big impact on improving the environment for everyone.
Get on your bike
Cars are one of the worst emitters of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The Environmental Protection Agency in the USA estimates that a typical car emits 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.
When you consider that 273.6 million cars were registered in 2018, you begin to realise the scale of the problem. When you extrapolate this across the rest of the planet, the issue becomes even starker. Cars are great for getting around but terrible for the environment.
The advent of electric vehicles will reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. But the production of these cars, and the batteries in particular, still contribute to greenhouse emissions. The extraction of nickel in mines in Australia, Canada and Indonesia releases plumes of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere which contains chemicals that are known to be cancerous.
While cutting back on how much you use a car will be difficult for some, if you live in a big city, public transport and cycling should reduce the need for a car. Cycling is a brilliant way to get around. It’s easy, cheap and good for your health.
You’re not going to be stuck in a traffic jam. Your bike can fly past stranded cars, while it emits no carbon dioxide either. I appreciate that you’re not going to cycle from LA to San Francisco every day for example, but if you can do your commute on a bike instead of a car, you should.
It’s a simple and cost-effective way to reduce your emissions and improve your health at the same time.
Pass on plastic
Plastic is everywhere. It’s on your food, it’s in our gadgets and it’s in our oceans too. The material is so widespread that the United Nations estimates there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050.
That statement takes a while to sink in, but when it does, it becomes clear just how big a problem plastic pollution is. When you realise that plastic production is increasing year on year, it’s clear something needs to be done.
Cutting back on plastic can seem hard because it’s everywhere. Nearly everything that we use contains plastic in some form or another. I’ve cut back on my plastic usage, but sometimes it’s hard to avoid.
However, there are ways you can reduce your plastic consumption. Buying your food from local markets is one solution. Most of the food is free of plastic containers or warping and you can store them in your own bag instead of placing them in a single-use plastic one instead.
Buying a reusable water bottle and coffee cup instead of purchasing bottled water and takeaway coffee cups is another easy solution. A less common one is to switch from a plastic toothbrush to a bamboo one that will decompose rather than sit in a landfill or sink to the bottom of the ocean.
Until governments take action and limit the amount of plastic in our lives, it’s going to be hard to avoid it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take action ourselves. If you’re smart, the ability to use less plastic is within your grasp.
As plastic takes a thousand years to decompose, it’s vital we cut back to avoid leaving a plastic planet as the legacy of our age.
Change up your meals
Red meat contains several important nutrients that constitute a healthy diet such as zinc and Vitamin B12, however, it’s not without its faults. Overconsumption of red meat is linked to health problems such as cancer and heart disease, but it has an environmental impact too.
Worldwide, agricultural activity, with livestock production the main contributor, contributes to one-fifth of global greenhouse emissions. It’s not something many of us consider, but what we eat can have a huge impact on the planet.
People love meat. It’s as simple as that. Since 1961, the average amount of meat consumed per person has increased from around 23kg in 1961 to 43kg in 2014. This increase is linked to rising living standards and the desire of many in emerging economies to adopt what they perceive to be a ‘western’ diet.
The problem is that this level of production simply isn’t sustainable. We have a limited amount of land on which to farm. Intensive farming practices lead to biodiversity loss as rainforests and wild countryside are cut back to grow agricultural feed for livestock. To exacerbate the problem, these crops need a lot of water, which leads to lakes and rivers being drained to irrigate the land.
The process that involves a piece of meat going from the farm to the supermarket and your plate is costly in environmental terms. The solution to this is to eat less meat. I haven't eaten any meat since 2018, but I realise a lot of people enjoy meat and are reluctant to give it up completely.
A simpler solution is to cut back on your consumption. Instead of eating meat with every meal, have a few meals without any. You could commit to a few days a week where you don’t eat any meat.
People underestimate how easy it is to survive without meat and how delicious vegetarian or vegan meals can be. You don’t need to become a fully-fledged veggie, but eating less meat is one of the easiest and most effective ways you can benefit the environment.
Be more sustainable
Sustainability is becoming more and more in vogue as the year's progress and there’s a good reason for that. We can’t continue to participate in a throwaway culture, where we buy the latest gadgets and clothes while tossing out our old ones at the drop of a hat.
Instead, we need to recognise that everything we consume has an impact on the environment. The move to a circular economy, as the economist Kate Raworth outlines in her book, Doughnut Economics, is necessary to tackle the effects of climate change.
One way of doing this is to be more conscious of the clothes you buy. The fashion industry is one of the worst polluters believe it or not. Writing in her book on the industry, Fashionopolis, the author Dana Thomas states the following:
“Fashion’s speed and greed has eviscerated the environment in all ways. The World Bank estimates that the sector is responsible for nearly 20 percent of all industrial water pollution annually. It releases 10 percent of the carbon emissions in our air; 1 kilogram of cloth generates 23 kilograms of greenhouse gases.”
But it doesn’t end there, of the vast number of clothes made each year, the majority go unsold: “Of the more than 100 billion items of clothing produced each year, 20 percent go unsold — the detritus of ‘economies of scale.’ Leftovers are usually buried, shredded, or incinerated, as Burberry embarrassingly admitted in 2018.”
The solution? Be more conscious of what you buy. Instead of playing along with the latest fashion trends, buy clothes that will last for the long-term. Companies such as Patagonia make clothes from recycled plastic, this is another way to have a positive impact on the environment.
Every choice that we make has an impact on the planet. By choosing to be more sustainable in your actions, be it growing your own vegetables, or purchasing more environmentally friendly clothes, you can help lessen the burden that we are placing on the planet as a species.
It’s easy to become fatalistic when considering the perilous state of the planet. Our actions are damaging the environment, yet we feel helpless in the face of this. How can one person make a difference when the problem is so big.
Indeed, one person won't make much of a difference. But if you can influence someone else, and they another, slowly but surely, the tide can change.
The power of humanity is that we have the ability to act together to bring about change. The actions of the individual may not add up to much, but together, we can all make a huge difference.
If everyone who read this article made a slight change to their lifestyle as a result, the effect would gradually add up. Change is necessary, but it’s not as difficult as you think.