Climate change: What is the cost of going green and how can I reduce my carbon footprint?

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Wind farms are seen as crucial to creating green energy  (AFP via Getty Images)
Wind farms are seen as crucial to creating green energy (AFP via Getty Images)

Much of the COP26 summit might be focused on headline pledges made by governments on reducing emissions - but the truth is, we must all do our bit to help the planet.

For many households in the UK, living sustainably can often feel like a difficult prospect - requiring a dramatic change to our shopping lists, energy suppliers and holiday plans.

It is also feared that many of these changes could be costly, with experts warning that the transition to clean energy and a sustainable diet could be difficult for lower-income households.

However, there are simple steps you can take to bring down your carbon footprint that won’t break the bank.

The Standard spoke to a range of experts on how governments and the private sector can make the transition to a sustainable life more affordable - and how you can play a part in reducing emissions.

Shoppers should be wary of ‘greenwashing’ (AFP via Getty Images)
Shoppers should be wary of ‘greenwashing’ (AFP via Getty Images)

Food

The food industry is a major contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the UK and around the world. According to charity WRAP, around 35 per cent of the UK’s emissions come from the food and drink we consume.

However, sustainable food is often much more expensive. The increase in price is down to production costs and lower demand.

According to research conducted by Cambridge University, lower-income households would have to spent between 18 and 74 per cent of their total household income on food to transition into a sustainable diet.

This is compared to between 6 and 10 per cent for higher-income groups.

The median household income in the UK from the financial year between April 2019 and March 2020 was £29,000, according to the Office for National Statistics.

This means a lower-income household would pay a minimum of £5,220 a year for a sustainable diet.

Rebecca Tobi, Project and Engagement manager at the Food Foundation, says that Britons should bring out diet “back to basics” to halt emissions - and could save money while doing so.

“One of the least expensive things you can do is bulk buy beans and grains. Also, many of these foods can be less pricey in smaller, independent stores.

“Some plant-based dishes are also now as affordable as meat-based dishes. You don’t have to eat the more expensive, elitist foods you see on Instagram.”

Even consumers who shun sustainable food alternatives can reduce their carbon footprint simply by reducing the amount of food they waste, Ms Tobi said.

“A lot of food is wasted at a household level. Simple things like distinguishing between a best-before and a use-buy date can make a difference,” she said.

“Frozen fruit and vegetables are also a great way of eating the nutritional equivalent to the fresh alternative.”

Ms Tobi also urged Britons to look out for eco-friendly certification on products as a way of avoiding ‘greenwashing’ - the practice whereby companies falsely advertise or exaggerate their climate credentials.

“One thing that can help guide consumers see through greenwashing is to look for those established certification schemes.

“For example, if a company belongs to B CORP, it means that it has to set standards for rigorously proving its green credentials.”

Dr Lawrence Haddad, the Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), is urging supermarkets and retailers to make the transition to more sustainable eating more easy for consumers, and said we “have to make fresh food cheaper”.

“Retailers could create a voucher scheme on an app for buying fresh foods”, he said. “You could get a coupon when you buy a certain amount of fresh produce, allowing you to buy more.

“All of these ideas can help people save the planet as well as stay healthy.”

Primark has been criticised for its environmental record (Getty Images)
Primark has been criticised for its environmental record (Getty Images)

Fashion

Ditching unethical fashion brands is a simple way to reduce your emissions - but it comes at a price.

For example, a dress from H&M could set you back as little as £24.99, while the equivalent at Mother & Pearl - a high-end sustainable fashion brand which allows shoppers to see the exact emissions from every product - will cost you £295.

However, sustainable fashion is far likely to last longer and is made from higher quality fabric - meaning you will not need to buy a new dress in a month’s time.

“If you are someone who buys a lot of clothes and buys a new pair of jeans every six months, then reducing that is a way you can make a real change,” Dr Matthew Agarwala, an economist at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, said.

Indeed, the fast fashion industry - which includes huge brands such as Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing and Primark - are well-known for producing clothing that is cheap on the shelves but bad for the planet.

For a more climate-conscious wardrobe that won’t cost a fortune, climate experts recommend buying second-hand clothes.

There are a plethora of apps, including Depop and eBay, which serve as a thriving marketplace for used clothing in great condition - at a reduced price.

Livia Firth, the founder of sustainability firm Eco Age, also recommends the ‘30 Wears’ test - encouraging consumers to only buy an item if they think they will wear it at least thirty times.

Energy

Reducing emissions inside the home is a key part of the government’s Net Zero strategy - and with good reason. Around 22 per cent of our national carbon emissions come from our homes, according to the Energy Saving Trust (EST).

However, there are fears that the government’s pledge to replace gas boilers in homes with low-carbon heat pumps by 2030 could be expensive for households.

The EST estimate that a typical air source heat pump installation will cost you between £6,000-£8,000, while a ground source heat pump installation can cost £10,000-£18,000 depending on the amount of heat required.

Cost projections drawn up by the energy research firm Delta-EE also suggest that heat pumps are likely to still cost at least £4,000 more than a gas boiler to buy and install by the end of the decade.

However, installing a heat pump could pay dividends in the long run, particularly given the soaring cost of natural gas. The EST estimate that replacing an old gas boiler with an air source heat pump in a four-bedroom detached home would save £395-£425 per year on heating bills.

According to EDF, an air-source heat pump could have a working life of 20 years or more - potentially saving a family-of-four thousands of pounds while also being far better for the planet.

“For most households, it’s a massive investment and the concern for many is that if you don’t have the space, the land area, you cannot have a ground source so you have to go with the air source,” Dr Agarwala said.

“The grants will be helpful but only to people who are wealthy to begin with. And that may be the reality - it might be that wealthier households are able to make the switch first.”

In the meantime, the EST is urging Britons to make small behavioural changes to reduce their carbon footprint while also keeping costs low.

Brian Horne, a Senior Insights & Analytics Consultant at EST, told the Standard: “There are some things we can do today at little or no cost, such as optimising heating controls and draught-proofing around windows and doors.

“Other measures, including installing wall or loft insulation or upgrading your heating system, will require more time and investment but will bring greater rewards in the long term.”

One of the most simple steps you can take is replacing traditional lightbulbs in your home with LED lightbulbs, which uses 80-90 per cent less energy.

The switch could drive down your carbon dioxide emissions by up to 65kg a year, according to the Trust. This is the equivalent of driving your car about 220 miles.

Most modern appliances, such as washing machines, also now have ‘eco-modes’ and you can also reduce the amount of water you use by taking showers rather than baths. This can also help save on utility bills.

Mr Horne added: “Reducing your washing machine use by just one cycle per week could save £8 a year in energy bills, and an extra £6 in water bills if you have a water meter.

“If everybody in a family of four replaces one bath a week with a five-minute shower, anyone with a meter could also save £8 a year in energy bills, and an extra £13 in water bills.”

However, experts have stressed that avoiding higher costs will depend on firms making affordability a priority for energy customers making the switch.

“The thing we have to do is make the green decisions further up the production chain so that the default option is green”, Dr Agarwala said.

Britons have been urged to take less flights (AFP via Getty Images)
Britons have been urged to take less flights (AFP via Getty Images)

Travel

With the summer weather in Britain likely to remain unpredictable, even the most climate-conscious among us will be loathe to give up a short-haul flight to Spain or Greece.

One significant barrier to climate-conscious travel is price. For example, it is possible to reach tourist hotspot Barcelona in a day by train - but this would involve first travelling to Paris on the Eurostar before catching a high-speed train to the Spanish city.

The journey takes at least ten hours - around seven hours longer than a flight.

A return flight from London to Barcelona for a week-long in July 2021 currently costs as little as £74, according to Skyscanner. This does not include transfers to the airport and other baggage or booking charges.

Meanwhile a return rail journey, beginning in London, would set you back at least £180 - well over double the price. The Standard came to this figure by adding the lowest return fares for the Eurostar in July with average fares for the Renfe-SNFC service to Barcelona in the same month.

However, your carbon emissions would be just 7kg on this journey, compared to 180kg on a flight, according to GreenTraveller.

But smaller, more incremental changes to your travel routine could still make a significant difference, according to experts.

Dr Matthew Agarwala says that choosing domestic rail trips instead of driving is one of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint - but urged the government to introduce cheaper fares.

“One of the biggest challenges in the UK is making trains affordable and reliable. This is a huge weakness.”

While avoiding long-haul flights has obviously environmental benefits, Dr Agarwala stressed that arguing for a ban on flying is “simplistic and too harmful”.

“Yes, flying is a carbon intensive way of travelling and those carbon emissions have a negative economic consequence, but flying is also a way in which we can share cultures and ideas and cuisines and experiences, and its a way that businesses can coordinate and cooperate.

“I think it means we just have to try that much harder to get rid of the emissions elsewhere in the economy.

“But if you fly a lot and don’t have, then conceivably that’s a way to make a change.”

Likewise switching from cars or other transport to cycling can save commuters money.

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