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10 Climate Urban Myths

10 Climate Urban Myths

Here are 10 things I hear people say about climate action.  Are they true?

I do my bit: I recycle all my packaging

This reminds me of “you can’t see the wood for the trees” or “don’t sweat the small stuff”.  Yes, recycling is a good thing to do.  But it is so much better to reduce the excess consumption that inevitably results in the need to recycle, and to buy goods with less packaging.

A deposit return scheme could enable drinks containers to be washed and reused, which is better than recycling.  Even better, drinking tap water from a glass is far less resource intensive than buying bottled drinks. 

Tesco’s slogan is “every little helps”.  Yes, but every big change would help a lot more.  We need to cut our emissions to zero which requires some big changes such as installing heat pumps, travel less, changing our diets etc.

I do my bit: I have solar panels

Solar panels are helpful, but they won’t cut your carbon footprint by that much.  The real carbon issue in the UK is how we heat our homes.  The average house uses 3,000 kwh per year of electricity and 11,000 kwh for heating.  Electricity is already mainly generated from low carbon sources, and the Government target is for it to be carbon neutral by 2035, so installing solar panels won’t make a big difference to your carbon footprint. 

Meanwhile your gas boiler emits around 2.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.  Yes, we need solar panels, but we really need to tackle emissions from heating our homes.

Population growth is the problem

Our global impact on the environment can be expressed by multiplying population x consumption x resource efficiency.  Over the last century population has grown fast, consumption even faster; outpacing the steady improvement in resource efficiency.  Due to improved levels of education, population growth is slowing and is now falling in many countries, including the UK (excluding migration), Russia and China.  I think population growth will sort itself out over the coming decades.

Consumption is the elephant in the room.  It is the massive growth in our purchase of consumer goods and services that has caused an exponential rise in greenhouse gas emissions.  Historically, wealthy countries have driven this growth, but increasingly it is from the wealthy elite from all countries.  There seems to be no end in sight to the extravagance and massive use of resources that humans can aspire to.  Excessive consumption of resources is the problem.  The real question is how can we be satisfied with our lives without consuming more resources?  Tackling inequality will help.  Perhaps the topic of a future blog!

Local beef is sustainable

Cattle (in the UK) mainly eat grass grown from natural rainfall, and transport emissions to market are low.  Some contend that the methane emitted by cattle is somehow ‘natural’ and that this is offset by carbon sequestered into the soil.

Yes, local beef is better than cattle raised on grass or soya beans from land that was previously tropical rainforest, but it is not good enough.  Because of the methane produced, beef has a far higher impact on the climate and environment than almost every other food and this even applies to the most ‘productive’ beef raised in huge indoor pens in the USA.  And I can’t find a serious peer reviewed science paper that backs the long-term carbon sequestration argument.  Also, the grassland tends to be land that was previously woodland, so there is a better option to restore much of this for wildlife or timber production.  My conclusion is that we should reserve eating beef for special occasions, and yes, this should be locally reared beef - low density cattle farming done in the right way can be good for biodiversity.

Natural gas is clean

Interestingly views on this have shifted in the last decade or so.  Switching to ‘clean’ gas was seen to be an improvement at a time when coal generated our electricity and provided much of our heating.  Carbon emissions from gas power stations are around half that of coal.  But that is before taking account of any leaks.  Methane can leak at all stages of gas distribution; from gas wells, processing, storage, transmission pipelines and distribution pipes in our streets.  When you take this into account the overall emissions from gas aren’t that much better than coal.  Whilst the emissions from gas power stations could be addressed through carbon capture and storage, this is an energy intensive process that would require even more gas to be burnt to run the equipment needed.

We need to achieve zero emissions, so ‘natural’ gas just isn’t clean enough for electricity, heating, or cooking.

We need to protect ‘hard working families’

I dislike this phrase.  The implication is that taking action to cut emissions will unnecessarily harm ‘hard working families’.  What about families who are unemployed, or those who don’t work hard!  And not acting will harm all families, including the hard-working ones. 

We need to slash our carbon emissions, and quickly.  This can be achieved at little overall cost (eg as the cost of electric vehicles fall, they will save society money).  Policies can, and should be, designed to protect lower income families – many policies favour the wealthier who are more likely to take advantage of grants and subsidies for electric vehicles, solar panels, and heat pumps.  Isn’t it better to protect all society and strive for more equity and fairness?

Building 30,000 ‘eco-homes’ will reduce Council carbon emissions

No, no and no again!  All new homes will increase carbon emissions.  Even in the unlikely event that they are net zero in use, constructing them will result in emissions from clearing the land, building materials and construction activities.  Many ‘eco-homes’ are large, using a lot of resources to build and furnish. And they are often in the countryside with the inevitability of increasing car dependency.  A large detached eco-house in the countryside might appeal to many, but please think of the consequences.

Our focus should be to renovate and improve existing homes and neighbourhoods, and to encourage most of us to choose to live in towns and cities because they are attractive and vibrant places to live.

Carbon neutral aviation is just around the corner

I read regular announcements about ‘breakthroughs’ in sustainable aviation.  However, none are remotely near ready for mass deployment.

Electric planes are improving but will always be limited by the weight of the batteries which suggests that they will be of most use for short haul journeys.  My belief is that electric powered short flights carrying a few passengers will simply create a new demand for commuters and sightseeing tourists – but this will not substitute existing aviation routes.

An experimental flight across the Atlantic was recently fuelled by waste fats and oils.  But there simply aren’t enough ‘wastes’ available, whilst using biomass would require huge areas of land that could be better used to grow food, or as a wildlife habitat.

Two other possibilities are hydrogen (from renewables) and new synthetic liquid fuels.  Both are experimental and resource (energy) intensive to produce. They will therefore be expensive.  Maybe their day will come, but it takes decades to develop the infrastructure required for aviation, and of course, the industry is rather risk averse and difficult to change.  In the meantime, we should press for real carbon offsets of flights – pay to bury an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide for every flight taken.

Electric Vehicles are worse than petrol

Of course, all private vehicles have a significant environmental impact.  The best thing is to organise your life to avoid the need for regular travel and to use public transport, cycle or walk most of the time.

EVs are inherently more energy efficient than internal combustion engines. Only 30% of the energy from petrol is converted into useful forward motion, whereas an electric car achieves 80%.  This is a staggering difference and means that the shift to EVs will significantly decrease our overall energy consumption.

“But what about the battery”, I hear you say.  Batteries do require a lot of metal and minerals to produce and most of this comes from mining.  Some comes from unregulated mines in low-income countries causing environmental and social damage.   But overall, the volumes of materials required are a small fraction of the volume of oil drilled to run our petrol cars.  Have you seen the environmental mess of the Canadian tar sands, or the oilwells in Iraq?  In any case, it is possible to recycle and reuse most of the components in batteries so the long-term need for virgin mining will eventually decrease.

Environmental regulations hurt business

Nearly every new piece of legislation is accompanied by howls of complaints by businesses, and sometimes by journalists and consumers.  But just imagine if we didn’t bring in new legislation? We’d still be driving without wearing seat belts, our pubs would be smoky, our coal power stations would cause acid rain, we’d be using energy guzzling fridges and freezers, our ozone layer would be destroyed………

Sensible regulations improve standards and help to create a better society.  The presumed cost of new regulations is frequently exaggerated, and the benefits to society are understated (clean air). Sensible regulations create a ‘level playing field’ for businesses to compete.  Given the climate emergency, I think we need more regulations, particularly those which focus on outcomes as this provides some flexibility in delivery. 


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