Your planet: Low-impact lifestyles

We are told that, to live sustainably, we need to reduce our CO emissions by two thirds. Is this really feasible? Absolutely, says Donnachadh McCarthy, who has transformed his London house into a low-carbon, climate-friendly home
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The Independent Online

Whether or not the catastrophic flooding in central Europe, the devastating fires and drought in southern Europe or the tragic price of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans can be directly attributed to the global climate crisis is not the point. The crucial point is these are horrific examples of what scientists predict will be the norm within the next 50 years if we continue pumping out carbon dioxide (CO 2) into our environment at current rates.

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution calculates that Britons need to reduce CO 2 emissions by two thirds by 2050, as a contribution to avoiding global environmental disaster. The carbon offset company Climate Care estimates that the average two car household in Britain, which takes a European holiday, emits an extraordinary 15.5 tons of CO 2 per year. Thus the average home needs to cut emissions by ten tons per year.

Under Tony Blair's premiership Britain's climate crisis emissions have increased inexorably. At the recent G8 summit, Blair disastrously issued a joint statement with George Bush on the eve of the climate crisis negotiations, essentially endorsing the US's position that compulsory carbon reduction targets were not the answer. This deflated the enormous pressure on Bush to sign up to urgent emission cuts.

So the crucial question now is, can we take action ourselves despite Blair and Bush and reduce our own carbon output, despite nearly all our homes not being designed as low-carbon homes? The answer is yes. Since 1992, when I became aware of the global climate crisis after spending time with the Amazonian Yanomami Indians, I have gradually transformed my 1840's terrace home in Camberwell into an increasingly low-carbon home.

Electricity, space/water heating and transport each produce about a third of our domestic emissions. Let us take electricity first. Highly unusually, I get a credit of one-twentieth of a ton for my electricity emissions. This is because last year I actually exported 20 per cent more electricity to the national grid from the solar electric panels on my roof than I imported from the grid. With grants now available and costs falling it is getting cheaper to install such systems.

The installation of the solar electric panels in 1999 included an electronic display showing how much electricity the roof was producing, how much we were importing or exporting and how much the house was consuming. When we used electricity to heat water the display nearly went off the scale. Only then did I realise that the kettle uses a massive 3,000 watts and the electric immersion heater 6,000 watts. Modern energy saving bulbs consume only 20 watts. So turning the kettle on is the equivalent of turning on 150 light bulbs. After that we only filled the kettle with the actual cups of water we needed.

Even with renewable electricity it is still important to cut overall electricity use. This can be done easily by signing the Rio Earth Summit pledge to not leave on lights and heating in unused rooms, converting to energy-saving bulbs which emit four-fifths less CO 2 and buying the most energy efficient household equipment such as fridges and washing machines. These now have a handy colour-coded alphabetical EU energy rating, with A being the most efficient.

You do not need to install solar electric panels to make your electricity use carbon neutral. The most important single thing you could do as a result of this article is to buy your electricity from a renewable energy company which uses zero carbon energy sources such as wind or hydro power. The FOE website compares such companies and provides links to sites where you can easily change your supplier online. This will give a net zero carbon rating for your electricity use.

To tackle the second major source of emissions, I had a solar water heating system installed this June. During the summer I often had so much free hot-water, I wanted to invite the neighbours over to use my shower. It will supply up to 70 per cent of my hot water needs. Grants via Solar for London and Clear Skies, meant the extra capital cost for having free solar hot-water for the next 20 years came to £2,100.

This does not sound that much when you realise the average annual cost of a car including depreciation is £5,000. But again even without installing solar water heating, you can significantly reduce emissions by having showers instead of baths, using the washing machine only when it is full and putting a modern lagging jacket and timer on the hot-water tank. This can cut costs by up to 80 per cent. Replacing an old boiler with a condensing boiler can cut emissions by up to 45 per cent.

I have replaced some old doors and windows with double-glazed units, improved insulation and sealed my old floorboards. The roof is so well-insulated that supplementary heating upstairs is almost never needed. Open coal-effect gas fires can waste up to 90 per cent of the gas consumed and radiant gas fires can waste nearly 50 per cent.

Almost all of my space heating was supplied by one radiant gas fire downstairs. I therefore replaced it this year with a flue-less gas coal-effect fire whose catalytic converter turns 100 per cent of the gas into heat. This will cut my already low space-heating emissions by a further 50 per cent. Last year I used 3,100 kilo-watt hours of gas, which emitted half a ton of CO 2.

Simple measures such as draught excluders on letterboxes, thermally insulated curtains and decent loft insulation will also slash heating bills. Many utilities such as British Gas and London Energy are currently offering great deals for home loft and wall insulation, often covering up to 70 per cent of the cost.

You can mop up your remaining water and space heating emissions with carbon offset, where you pay a company like Climate Care to reduce CO 2 emissions elsewhere by the amount you emit. There is a CO 2 calculator at This is easy but it would be even better if companies like British Gas did it automatically. This will then leave you (as with your electricity, above) with a zero carbon rating for your space and water heating. Without even addressing car use, you are already well on your way to achieving the target set by the commission

The third and final major emitter is the car. Fortunately, I could not afford a car in my twenties and in my thirties I had become so environmentally aware that I did not want one. I cycle to work and my weekly shopping is delivered by cycle-trailer by my local Green Ventures organic box scheme. For some a car can be essential for carrying heavy goods or tools for work, or for visiting elderly relatives unreachable by public transport. But even drivers can easily slash carbon emissions.

Cars even within the same class can vary enormously. Your car's emissions can be found at Simply switching to a similar sized but more efficient vehicle would significantly cut your emissions. The average UK motorist drives 12,000 miles and emits four tons of CO 2 every year. Most car journeys are less than five miles and easily done by cycling or walking - which is much better for your heart. And then there's fuel. Cars using LPG cars emit 10 per cent less CO 2 than petrol.

Just addressing these three issues alone could cut your transport emissions to one and a half tonnes, with an annual mileage of 6,000. New alternative carbon neutral fuels such as bio-diesel and bio-ethanol produced from plant oils and sugars are now becoming available.

Whilst electricity, space and water heating and car use make up the bulk of domestic CO 2 emissions, nearly everything we do, from water use to the waste we produce, from the food we eat to the furniture we buy, produces carbon emissions. I have gradually tackled these. (For more on reducing waste, see page 36.) Meanwhile, the rain-harvester on my roof supplied nearly all of my toilet water needs last year.

Air-travel, which currently accounts for 4 per cent of global emissions but is rapidly rising, is discussed elsewhere in these supplements. If you realise a return flight to Miami from London emits two tons per person, you get an idea of the challenge. My own performance needs improving, as my work often entails flying, but I plant trees every year to compensate.

So where does all this leave us? Adding up my emissions for the three major areas last year gave me an annual total of only half a ton. This is about one fifth of the national average and well beyond the Royal Commissions target of a 60 per cent cut by 2050. And what about you? The practical measures outlined above for the average household which cannot yet invest in renewable energy, gives zero for electricity, zero for space and water heating and three tons for the use of two cars.

Again this exceeds easily the target set by the Royal Commission for household emissions. The measures outlined do not entail a hair-shirt life-style, indeed they could save not only time and money but improve your family's health. The tips on the next few pages take this process further; all are intended to be easy.

The exciting fact is that a low-carbon lifestyle is achievable now for all of us. The obstacles are ignorance and our human resistance to change. But looking at those TV images from New Orleans, Portugal and Switzerland can you really look children in the eye and say that it is not your responsibility to take action immediately? Their future and the planet's future counts on it.