Over the past year, I have witnessed increasing anxiety surrounding climate change in our communities. The covid pandemic, of course, played into people's worry. However, in addition to the pandemic, we witnessed devastating natural disasters, from extreme weather like forest fires to massive flooding. Rightly, there is so much political talk about climate change and what the world can do to curb the speediness of the effects. Nevertheless, I feel the political agenda will not say the one thing we can do that would have an immense impact on our negative effect "Consume less, " one of the most important conversations we must have now.
Over the last 800,000 years, there have been natural cycles in the Earth's climate with ice ages and warmer interglacial periods. When I was a child, my father, Paul Tudge, flew his helicopter and spotted something that looked like logs and stumps. It turned out to be a 45-million-year-old fossil forest more than 1,500 km north of the Arctic Circle in remote Axel Heiberg Island in Canada's Far North. My father passed away 20 years ago, and talked about climate change my whole life.
We know that the Earth goes through periods of change. However, what scientists believe is happening now is the acceleration of climate-changing due to human interference, which is an undeniable truth. We have entered a phase in the planet that scientists call Anthropocene, where humanity is the dominant influence on the Earth. It does not help that our current economic system relies on infinite growth, and everything on the Earth is considered a resource. These very principles in how we interact with the Earth need to change. Furthermore, until it does, all the increased taxes and battery-operated vehicles will not help us.
We need to look at our current climate change from many angles. The past centuries of deforestation, mining and extractions, agriculture, manufacturing and construction have been extremely hard on our environment. And then, we use the products and resources extracted from these methods and create waste and a lot of it. Companies and governments will never tell us to "buy less." They will only ask us to "buy differently." So, therefore, I wanted to look at our everyday consumption and waste to break it down into food, clothing, housing, transportation, and entertainment, and see how we can immediately change today.
Ever-expanding industrial food production has come at a high cost to the natural environment. For example, we have destroyed or irreparably degraded over 80% of the world's forests, primarily for agriculture resulting in being the leading cause of habitat destruction, the loss of species, and biodiversity erosion. Consumer food production also has profound implications for energy and water usage. Food systems consume about 30% of available global energy and 70 percent of all freshwater use globally. The environmental impacts of food loss and waste are enormous. Uneaten food is the single most significant component of municipal solid waste. Once in the landfill, food gradually breaks down to form methane, a greenhouse gas up to 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
The fashion industry needs to change to fundamentally mitigate the environmental impact of fast fashion. As a business model, the fashion industry treats cheap clothing as a perishable good to dispose of after brief use. In the U.S., people buy one item of clothing every 5.5 days. Furthermore, In the U.K., the average lifetime for a garment is estimated at 2.2 years. The complex supply chain process for clothing includes a heavy toll on the environment. Fashion production makes up 10% of humanity's carbon emissions, dries up water sources, and pollutes rivers and streams. Moreover, 85% of all textiles go to the dump each year. Nearly 60% of garment fibres such as polyester, rayon, nylon, and acrylic are essentially plastic. Reportedly, 35% of all microplastics in the ocean (the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles) come from the laundering of synthetic textiles each year. Synthetic polyester, which accounts for 51 percent of textile production, is made through a chemical reaction that involves petroleum, coal, air, and water. Additionally, when the clothing ends up in a landfill, it does not decay quickly. For example, a polyester shirt could decompose up to 200 years.
Then there is the dyeing of textiles, the world's second-largest water polluter, with untreated toxic wastewater from textile factories often dumped into ditches, streams, or rivers. In many cases, the manufacturing occurs in countries where regulations are less strict, allowing the wastewater runoff from the textile manufacturing to enter freshwater streams people live from and pollute the water.
Then there is the practice of luxury brands keeping their high prices. For example, the British fashion brand Burberry burned or destroyed more than $110 million worth of unsold clothing, perfumes, and accessories between 2013 and 2018 rather than sell those items at a discount.
The construction industry erects and demolishes hundreds of new buildings and homes daily. Nevertheless, not everyone realizes that when we build and demolish houses, we disturb and erode soil, disrupt habitats, deplete natural resources, pollute air and water and use upland.
Demolition wastes are an often highly toxic mix of building materials usually contaminated with paints, fasteners, adhesives, wall coverings, insulation, and dirt. As a result, construction and Demolition Waste is one of the heaviest and most voluminous wastes generated in the E.U., accounting for approximately 25–30% of total E.U. waste.
Electronic waste ( E-Waste) is another huge thing we need to consider. Electronics have become way more disposable in my lifetime, and the list of typical household electronics increases every year: smartphones, tablets, phablets, desktops, laptops, monitors, smartwatches, speakers, V.R. headsets, LEDs, LCDs, Projectors, T.V.s. Europe alone is over 10 million tonnes per year of E-Waste. For example, we are constantly advertising the next generation phone, with obsolescence being the planned design feature. Companies across the sector have increasingly changed the design of their products to accelerate the replacement cycle by promoting a new design, making them difficult to service or upgrade, shortening the useful life of otherwise functional devices. There is another side to all these electrical gadgets now: Household energy is the third-largest energy use in the United States. The average U.S. home uses 30 kWh per day.
Surprisingly one of the best ways to save energy is to stop "Vampire Energy." Vampire energy refers to energy use from devices that use power even when they are turned off. Including digital cable or satellite DVRs, laptop computers, printers, central heating furnaces, routers and modems, phones, gaming consoles, televisions, and microwaves. For example, a charger left plugged in can drain 1.5 kWh annually.
The world is running out of water, and the amount of freshwater consumed daily outpaces the rate at which we can replenish it. Water is something it seems people who have it take for granted. According to a projection by the United Nations, by the year 2040, there can be about 4.5 billion people affected by a water crisis. Nearly 1 million people die each year from water, sanitation, and hygiene-related diseases, and it is estimated that every 2 minutes, a child dies from a water-related illness. In Canada, people think of the abundance of rivers, some of the largest fresh lakes in the world and oceans. However, despite Canada being home to one-fifth of the world's freshwater, many indigenous communities have gone as long as 20 years without access to clean water.
All this makes it even more disturbing to find that it is estimated that the average Canadian uses about 329L of water per day. In the average home, domestic water use is broken down as 10% drinking and preparing meals, 25% Cleaning (including laundry), 30% toilet flushing, 35% bathing and unknowingly waste up to over 100 litres of water per day.
Worldwide there are 1.42 billion cars, including 1.06 billion passenger cars and 363 million commercial vehicles. The vehicles on the road will emit 2.23 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere this year. In addition, transport demand is expected to grow globally in the coming decades as the global population increases, incomes rise, and more people can afford cars, trains and flights. In its Energy Technology Perspectives report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) expects global car ownership rates to increase by 60% and demand for passenger and freight aviation to triple by 2070.
No one is going to say buy fewer cars. They say buy electric vehicles. However, keeping your old car until it is dead might be better for the environment because the carbon footprint of making a car is immensely complex. After all, materials like steel, rubber, glass, plastics, paints, and many more must be created before a new vehicle is ever on the road. Then the companies that make cars have offices and other infrastructure with their carbon footprints, which we need to allocate proportionately to the cars that are made. Although Electrical vehicles emit fewer greenhouse gases and air pollutants than petrol or diesel cars, we also have to consider the manufacturing impacts of new cars.
Additionally, we must consider that once you have an electric car, they run on energy. Electric cars burn no petroleum, thereby shifting any environmental impact from the car user to the electric utility. In South Africa, an electric vehicle will be powered by coal-generated electricity and harm the environment, versus in Norway, an electric car will be powered by hydroelectricity.
Then we need to think about the mining of Lithium batteries. According to some sources, between 2008 and 2018, the annual production of lithium rose from 25,400 to 85,000 tons. To extract it, miners drill holes in the salt flats and pump the salty, mineral-rich brine to the surface, leaving it evaporating in huge artificial lakes or ponds. This process uses over 500,000 gallons (close to 2 million litres) for each ton of lithium produced. The enormous consumption of water impacts the surrounding ecosystems. In addition, these large evaporation pools are often far from sealed, leading to toxic substances leaching into the surrounding water supply. For example, huge problems have been reported in the surrounding areas of Tibet's Ganzizhou Rongda lithium mine. Protestors from the nearby town of Tagong took to the streets in 2016 after fish from the nearby Liqi River were found dead in mass numbers following a toxic chemical leak from the mine.
Additionally, the end of a car's life does not mark the end of its environmental impact. Plastics, toxic battery acids, and other products may stay in the environment. The end of use for electric and fuel-powered cars, at the moment, is similar except for one big thing: batteries. Only around 5% of the world's lithium-ion batteries are currently recycled. That is a massive problem since batteries can leak harmful chemicals into the ground. Tesla says that it recycles 60 percent of the components from its lithium-ion batteries once they have reached the end of life.
I am not sure if people are genuinely aware of the environmental impact of the internet. The transfer and mass storage of our data is enormous and proliferating. Every time we perform simple daily actions like browsing a website, sending and receiving email, using an app on our phones, saving a file to our cloud drives or searching Google, data gets transferred between our devices and the servers. A typical website produces 6.8 grams of carbon emissions every time a page loads.
Data centres are detrimental to the environment, and there are now more than 8.4 million data centres on Earth. Facebook, for instance, electricity use has increased in recent years as newer data centers have come online. In 2019, the company's electricity usage reached 5.1 terawatt-hours ( 5.1 trillion watts per hour). Servers used by streaming companies like Netflix represent about 3.3 percent of all carbon emissions, and it will only get worse from here. 53.6% of the global population now uses the internet. Moreover, every small digital transaction we make adds up. The carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet and the systems supporting them account for about 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions.
One study from 2012 estimated that a five-hour meeting held over a video conferencing call between participants in different countries would produce between 4kg (8.8lbs) CO2e and 215kg (474lbs) CO2e. Imagine if we calculate that from the past year of the "zoom boom" with Covid forced home offices?
It seems I have barely touched the service on our current society's level of consumption and waste. There are currently over 7.7 billion people on this planet, and everything we do on this Earth has an impact, even if we can not see it. We can no longer rely on trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignoring the slight daily differences we can make, which, over time, add up to significant differences that we often cannot foresee. The time of infinite growth and resource extraction has to end.
The good thing is that nothing I have listed is new; industry and governments are busy with research and technology to address nearly everything I have discussed. However, what we can do immediately without spending billions on research and technology that will undoubtedly have an immediate impact is consume less, waste less, and rethink everything we are doing in our daily life in the way we all consume.