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Your To-Do list to mitigate your carbon emissions—Part 1

A path to a sustainable life

Photography by Amandine Paniagua
Words by Amandine Paniagua

Published October 26 2023

I have been working on this article for over two years now. The idea was simple: to create a series of written content structured by the fields that impact our carbon footprint the most, highlighting what we can do as personal contributors and as a wider community or group, some action being theoretical, some more practical, to navigate the Anthropocene. Yet, the volume of information to cover the subject is astronomical, the task was daunting, even for someone who has a realistic idea of what is required to reduce a carbon footprint, create change, and break systems. And it goes without saying that the climate crisis is intersectional. It influences and is being influenced by more than just the release of greenhouse gases. Where to start? Do I know enough? There is space, a lot of space, to add on, to refine, over time. So, it's better to start somewhere than doing nothing. Let's dive in.

Initially, writing a developed action plan or task list came from personal observation that people had no concrete clue of what it means to mitigate climate change, a.k.a. forced climate transformation. A sense of hopelessness and perpetual cognitive dissonance makes it difficult for the quidam to challenge their personal status quo—what does life mean under a 1.5°C temperature rise or 3.2°C? Let alone what is required to stay below these numbers. I wrote an introductory article and updated it since, covering the fundamentals, what is happening, and why we, as a society, need to change and work towards reducing our carbon footprint and our overall impact on planet Earth. What is at stake?

We all have a role to play. We do have power, even in this moment of extreme legal and physical vulnerability. According to the 2019 study "Carbone 4, Doing your fair share for the climate", written by Alexia Soyeux and César Dugast, individual behaviour can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 45%. Unfortunately, governments and mainstream media logic are more problem-oriented than solution-oriented and influence our visions of climate change and the role we have to play in solving it. So, taking matters into our own hands by following a list of actions is a way to be proactive.

It is essential to understand that solutions to mitigate climate change are not the typical A to B situations. There are many angles to look at, and similar to planet boundaries, they are all intertwined. Formalising this content through a climate change mitigation To-Do list seemed appropriate. It gives a specific direction, helps find motivation, and to be effective.

Step 1—Expand your knowledge, get informed

While the end goal is to reduce carbon emissions, it only resolves some of humanity's problems. In addition to overflowing CO2, issues of power relationships, racial and social injustice, inequality of gender, access to land, and disregard for biodiversity, more challenges take place. Understanding as many issues as possible to develop and apply relevant solutions matters, so gathering knowledge is critical. Thankfully, in the age of the internet, it is easier than ever to learn about any subject. Also, this is an ego-related tip, but it feels good to get smarter. Here, the objective is to get a good sense of the big picture and order of magnitude that our actions can have.

Read books (and articles) regularly. There are so many, but the below curation covering economics, design, food system and relationships. This is my essential reading starter pack.

Articles are all over the internet. The Guardian, The Atlantic, Atmos, and Bon Pote are my favourite platforms to learn and get informed, in addition to Substack's writers. And Lagom too! We share many links and articles multiple times during the month, spreading the knowledge and the ideas flowing. Subscribe to our Substack newsletter here.

Study a course. An extension of reading, following classes is a fantastic opportunity to learn and share with others. I will forever be grateful that Benoit and I completed a Permaculture Design Course in Auckland. This course changed our lives and strengthened our knowledge and mental health. We graduated nourished by the feeling that, at least, we know what is coming for our society, giving us a better sense of control. We also met amazing people, some of whom became friends. The future Aotearoa Permaculture Course is in the works, to be launched next year, in-person and online. You can subscribe to their newsletter to stay updated. Also, look around where you live; PDC is an international program. Another great platform is the US-based Slow Factory.

Pay attention to greenwashing. Once you know more, you start connecting the dots. Notice how we are surrounded by nonsense. The frustration with greenwashing is that we think we are doing something to mitigate the environmental crisis, but we are still sustaining the systems that feed the crisis. Recent examples include:

  • Driving an electric car [while driving an electric vehicle produces less carbon dioxide and other global warming gases, the making of an electric car consumes an enormous amount of energy, in addition to the mining of the minerals for batteries, involving child labour, slavery and creating geopolitical issues within poor countries].
  • Normalising recycled plastic. [No matter how much plastic becomes recycled plastic (so far, only 9%), there is always 30% of virgin plastic required in recycled plastic, and more importantly, plastic is a by-product of the petroleum industry. It doesn't disappear like a compostable compound and carries harmful chemicals disrupting the endocrine system over time, promoting disease and infertility].
  • Organic grass-fed meat [no matter how the meat is grown or fed, if it is available at thousands of supermarkets every single day, in a constant abundance, it results in overproduction and methane pollution issues].
  • Conscious consumerism. There was the below tweet a while ago from The Last Farm, which resumed that conscious consumerism cannot do much ["Conscious consumerism" is such an obviously conservative idea: totally individualistic and pro-capitalist, it seeks to make change without ruffling a single feather or creating any collectivity or even hinting at structural change"].
  • Last year, Kourtney Kadarshian was Boohoo's sustainability ambassador [one is an uber-rich, hyper-consumerist, reality-TV star, the other a fast fashion brand. Every value they carry screams carbon emissions].

Step 2—Deconstruct your cultural bias, challenging your preconceived ideas

As a result of the previous step, questions arise. There are many thematics that we got told about or learned at school that are not precisely true. And some of these memes are deeply engraved in our knowledge and culture. So, it is about questioning a lot, self-analysis and humility. This step can be challenging, as we have to accept that what we believed in, well, we got it wrong for a long time—it is about letting go of our ego. Below are a few examples that stayed with me, but there are many more.

The capitalist economy. A regular point of contention in debates is the redirection of our current global economic system, letting go of the capitalist economy as it is the reason for resource depletion, inducing climate change. In the words of Jason Hickel, philosopher, economist, writer and activist: "The problem is not simply that capitalism produces too much, but that it produces the wrong stuff [...] It overuses resources and still fails to meet even basic needs. In this respect, it is a wildly inefficient system. This is the sort of irrationality you get when production is organised around the interests of corporate profit and elite accumulation rather than around human well-being and ecology." Many individuals, even if they love animals and want to do good for the planet, do not understand that this over-consumption, no-limit trade economy will have to change. Why is capitalism a problem? How will life be without recurrent abundance in supermarkets? Travel through cheap flights? Buying stuff on Amazon? And more importantly, are there any other ways to do economics? I am questioning how we will curve carbon emissions if we keep doing what we've been doing since the 50s. Fear not; there are other ways to do economics, to structure society. Similarly, patriarchy, the other face of the capitalist's coin, is to be heavily challenged, including its subsequent intersectional issues, touching race, gender, sexual orientation and class. Though no blanket solution exists to oppressive, systemic problems, they require system change.

Colonisation and responsibilities. It is difficult to refute that Western countries initiated human-induced climate change. Many former European colonies are paying a higher price for climate disruption, their population suffering much more than those in wealthy states. We also have to face the fact that the American Westernised way of living, imposed across the globe through trade, is impacting our planet's function. I am French, living in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and I know that by living in these societies, I have my responsibilities in the depletion of Earth's biodiversity and resources. Of course, this doesn't mean we must constantly whip ourselves and cry in a corner, but it requires humility. The sooner we accept the length of our protagonism in this story, the faster we can collectively imagine another inclusive society. Governments are not leaders; they are followers, so we must demand change from them. They are the ones that brought us into this mess in the first place. Thankfully, on this subject, change is taking off at international levels.

Homo sapiens superiority. Another topic up for debate is the recurrent sentiment of superiority humans tend to have over other species, or Nature in general, reducing land and animals as resources or stock instead of connected or conscious living beings. Why do many feel that way? I believe education, or lack of education, of long-term thinking, misinterpretation, and absence of humility are reasons. Religion as well. It is essential to underline that these views are quite opposite to the populations living symbiotically with Nature, such as indigenous societies, that understand the importance of preserving what gives us life and the principles of reciprocity.

Step 3—Calculate your carbon footprint

Concept. When I discovered the idea of individual carbon footprint, I wasn't super convinced by its usefulness. After all, it had been promoted by the petroleum industry, first by BP, who spent 370 million dollars in the early 2000s popularising the concept to the public and swiftly shifting its polluter responsibility onto individuals. Others followed through and haven't stopped over the last 20 years. However, as individuals actions still matter, by simulating our carbon footprint, aka the total of greenhouse gases that we might produce, using a calculator, it lays out the domains that influence CO2 production, showing us levels and proportions of our impact on the climate, and where we have to work the most. It is a valuable guide.

Goal. To meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting the increase of global temperatures below 2°C, ideally 1.5°C, by 2050, individuals should emit a maximum of 2.3 tons of CO2eq per year. The point of writing this To-do list is for us to reach this goal or to get as close as possible. To give an idea of what it means, in 2019, a French person was estimated to emit 9.9 tons of CO2eq, the carbon footprint of someone living in Argentina was 4 tons of CO2eq, and a New Zealander was 15.18 tons of CO2eq. Someone living in one of the poorest countries in the world, such as Burundi, would have emitted less than 0.1 tons of CO2eq, while at the other end of the spectrum, a US American would have produced 15.7 tons of CO2eq. It will be a lot of effort, depending on where you live and your lifestyle.

Tools. There are many platforms you can use to calculate your carbon footprint. This page lists a few international, based on where you live. In Aotearoa, New Zealand, Future Fit is the go-to platform to make the calculation. In France, this tool by the ADEME, the French agency of the ecological transition, is open source, complete, and comes with many ideas to help you reduce your carbon footprint.

I took the ADEME test, and my results were estimated at 9.1 tons of CO2eq per year. I would have expected less because I eat plant-based daily, use the bus to go to work, don't buy many things and pay attention to reducing waste. Yet, my yearly long-distance plane travel blows my carbon emissions production. I go to France to visit my family. Even if it is only once a year, it is a lot of CO2. The app also advised me to eat more local food, which Benoit and I do as much as possible, but millet, soy milk or olive oil are still not produced in Aotearoa, New Zealand. The last advice was to renovate our house. We rent, so we cannot do much about this at the present. I would take the Future Fits test later and revert here to compare the differences.

And now, what next? We keep going. Shifting our way of living can be daunting, as it means going out of our comfort zone, but it is also exciting. It is an opportunity to discover and implement other ways of living, and it also empowers us and gives us a sense of control over the climate crisis. We shift our interests, meet new people and make new friends. We reconnect with Nature. We learn. There was this quote from Rutger Bregman, author of Humankind, "History teaches that progress begins with people [...] whom others feel to be preachy or even unfriendly. Who raise unpleasant subjects that make you uneasy. Cherish these people, because they're the key to progress." I loved becoming that person, and I also love meeting these people.

The next piece, Your To-Do list to mitigate your carbon emissions—Part 2, will develop more tangible actions towards an effective, low-carbon lifestyle, breaking down through Transport, Housing and Food. Stay tuned! And please, do let us know what you've read and learned and what your footprint calculation results were!

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