Everything you do has an impact on the planet

Every little thing you do leaves its mark on the planet, whether it's eating meat, driving a car or taking long, hot baths. Now a new website can measure your personal impact on the environment. Natasha Courtenay-Smith puts her lifestyle to the test
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The Independent Online

My approach to the environment could easily be described as hit and miss, with more misses than hits. I am not an environmentalist, and cannot make any claims to having mastered being green. If I'm really honest, I'm happy to engage in conversations about global warming, but my mind is likely to meander away from the plight of the polar ice caps to what I'm having for dinner that evening.

And while the latest on Kate Moss's ménage-à-heaven-knows-how-many never fails to capture my undivided attention, news items about rising sea levels don't have quite the same impact on my life.

That said, I'm not completely oblivious to what is going on - I don't know how anyone could have failed to notice that this October seems ridiculously warm compared with the cold and frosty ones of two decades ago - and I like to think I'm doing my bit.

I dutifully put all glass into a recycling bin that the council kindly plonked outside my back door; I decline carrier bags at my local Best One store, and march home with my groceries tucked under my arm; and I've finally, I'm proud to say, broken my habit of turning off the television with the remote and started turning it off at the switch. The fact I only broke that habit when the batteries on the remote finally went flat is something I prefer to keep to myself.

But what is the impact of my could-do-markedly-better lifestyle on the environment? Am I right in preferring to think that my personal actions won't really make a difference, or should I be hauled over the coals by the greenies as punishment for my lax approach?

In the interests of research, I submitted myself to an assessment of my ecological footprint - a measure of the biologically productive land that is needed to support my lifestyle, to produce the resources I use, including food, oil, wood and water, and also to absorb the waste that I produce, such as carbon dioxide, pollution and refuse. Worldwide, there exists about 1.8 global hectares per person with which to do this.

As a beginner, I opted for a simple online tool that asks 15 seemingly harmless questions about where you live, what you eat and how you travel around, and takes just a few minutes to complete.

A few clicks of the mouse, and the quiz has concluded its assessment of my life. And it is not a pleasant one.

In the middle of my computer screen, three-and-a-half globes pop up, accompanied by the words: "If everyone lived like you, we would need three-and-a-quarter planets."

I am using more than six global hectares. And that's not even taking into consideration the things I know I'm doing wrong but thankfully wasn't asked to confess to, such as being in possession of a fan heater that I keep under my bed for extra-cold nights, or the fact I keep the water running while washing up.

According to Joanna Yarrow, director of Beyond Green, who spends her life advising clueless individuals like me how to reduce the impact they have on the environment, this particular quiz is regarded as being an easy way to work out the impact that the seemingly ordinary routine and habits of our lives are having.

The quiz is divided into four sections and works out your foot footprint, goods and services footprint, shelter footprint and mobility footprint, before giving an overall result.

First up, food. Now, I consider myself very healthy - I don't eat ready meals and I don't eat fast food. If it's good for me, it must be good for the planet, right? Wrong, according to Yarrow. "Food contributes about a third of our ecological footprint because of the resources, such as land and water, used to produce it," she says. "Meat, especially beef, is not very environmentally friendly. Not only is producing protein via animals an inefficient way of using resources such as land and water compared with producing protein via vegetable sources, but in certain parts of Africa, rainforests are being felled in order to produce cattle ranches aimed at selling cheap beef to the Western world.

"Also important is the distance food travels; the average meal in this country travels 1,000 miles before it reaches your plate, and that's just delivering it from the farmer to the depots and supermarkets and back to your house. If you buy imported food, especially exotic fruits and vegetables, they have to be flown here."

On close inspection, the produce in my fridge has been on a rather enviable jaunt around the globe. My kiwi fruit have been flown here from New Zealand, my bananas are from Honduras, my blueberries are from Holland and my mango hails from Israel.

Next, my goods and services footprint. This will tell me how much waste I am producing and, if it's anything like the rest of the country, it's not going to be good - in Britain, we're producing 3 per cent more waste year on year, and enough to fill the Albert Hall every two hours.

"The general attitude is that recycling is the important thing, which of course it is," says Yarrow. "But recycling uses energy, too. Think of a glass bottle: to recycle it, you've got to transport it from the bottle bank to the depot, use fuel to crush, melt and reform it, then transport it back. If you re-use that bottle, or even better, don't use it in the first place, you're saving all that energy. Before recycling, everyone should be thinking about reducing and re-using their waste. "

The only section I scored well in was my shelter footprint. I am inadvertently reducing the impact of the energy used to heat and power my flat by sharing it with a friend, but that is due to financial constraints. The fact I live in a flat in an apartment block, and not a large, detached house - another plus point - is more to do with my bank balance than a desire for an eco-friendly home. And in yet another big cross next to my name, I have to confess I don't have energy-saving light bulbs in the flat, which, according to Yarrow, are a must.

"They cost more, but last 12 times as long and are estimated to save £65 in electricity bills per bulb over the course of their lifetime," she says. "If everyone in Britain changed one normal light bulb to an energy-saving one, you'd have enough energy to power a town the size of Basingstoke."

My worst score came on my mobility footprint. The pull of cheap flights is far worse for Planet Earth than my penchant for driving when I could take the bus or train. Last year, I clocked up more than 40 hours of air travel during holidays to Egypt, Thailand, Portugal, New York and Newquay for a weekend of surfing.

With three-and-a-quarter planets needed to support my lifestyle, I am left feeling as though I have no choice but to hang my head in shame. Yarrow reminds me that I am not alone. The average person in this country has a lifestyle that would need 5.3 global hectares to support it, which would be around the 2.9 planets mark. And even the most environmentally friendly of people can undo allwith just one long-haul flight.

But to say: "Everyone else is doing it, so that's OK" would be continuing exactly where I left off. Being green has always felt like hard work, but at the same time, I'm pretty convinced that we're not going to get another two planets to support people like me. Now, where can I get an energy-saving light bulb?

To work out your ecological footprint, log on to www.earthday.net/footprint. For more about Joanna Yarrow, log on to www.beyondgreen.co.uk


Former BBC royal correspondent Jennie Bond is now presenting BBCs Cash in the Attic. She says: "I live in Devon, there isn't a village shop and the nearest town is nine miles away so I rely on the car.But I do eat local organic produce, so my food miles are low and I do try and recycle as much household waste as possible."

If everyone lived like Jennie, we would need 9.5 planets.


Jilly Cooper is the bestselling author of books including Rivals. She says: "I think I've scored well because all I've been doing for the past two years is sitting in my shed writing. My husband Leo and I put all our scraps out for badgers, we have a compost heap, we recycle plastic and give all our newspapers to our neighbour for her aviary."

If everyone lived like Jilly, we would need 1.2 planets.


Norman Baker is the Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes. He says: "I've stopped eating meat for land-use reasons. I also have a compost heap, have cut down on packaging and use energy-saving lightbulbs. Rather than drive from my constituency to London, I always take the train. But I do fly over 25 hours a year for parliamentary business."

If everyone lived like Norman we would need 6.8 planets.


Alistair McGowan will soon be seen in Bleak House on BBC 1.

He says: "I always eat local food - the only exception being bananas and Kenyan green beans. I never fly unless it's essential, and when I go on holiday I take the train to France. I've got insulation, double glazing and I don't run the dishwasher unless its full."

If everyone lived like Alistair, we would need 1.1 planets.