The first step to reducing your greenhouse emissions is to do the maths.
Last year, Shaun Murray and his neighbours formed the Westside Carbon Rationing Action Group, aiming to reduce the eco-impact of their households. The first step was to estimate their greenhouse emissions.
The members plugged their energy use, flights, petrol purchases, and red meat and dairy consumption into a simple carbon footprint calculator (available on the Carbon Rationing Action Group website).
“It helps you to quantify and compare something that’s otherwise very hard to grasp,” Mr Murray says. “You get to understand the rough equivalencies – what it means if you switch to 100 per cent GreenPower or ride your bike instead of driving.”
The other benefit of these measures, he says, is that they help put our habits into perspective against others around the globe. Risk assessment company Maplecroft recently found that Australia has the world’s highest per capita carbon emissions from energy use, nearly twenty times more than India.
There are many other carbon footprint calculators available online that can help you decipher which aspects of your house and lifestyle have the most impact. The EPA’s Greenhouse Calculator is a comprehensive tool created by CSIRO (complete with teachers’ resources), while the Australian Conservation Foundation’s Eco-calculator takes account of water use and spending habits, as well as energy consumption.
Meanwhile, Mr Murray has reduced his carbon footprint to less than one-tenth of what it was. “I think that for a lot of people, it’s possible to make massive reductions in emissions,” he says.
Jeff Angel, executive director of the Total Environment Centre, agrees. “Do as much as you can by reducing your energy consumption and buying GreenPower,” he says. “After all those steps, you can make yourself carbon neutral by buying good offsets.”
Last year, the Total Environment Centre (together with Choice and the Institute for Sustainable Futures) founded Carbon Offset Watch, an independent ranking of Australian offset providers. “We set it up because there was serious public confusion about carbon offsets and major doubts about their veracity, accreditation and transparency,” Mr Angel says.
So which offsets will truly reduce your footprint? According to Carbon Offset Watch, the most effective projects change the underlying activities that create greenhouse gases. They include energy efficiency schemes, renewable energy funds, waste prevention and the protection of existing forests.
“The longer you have to wait for the carbon offset to mature, the greater chance risk that it may not eventuate – like tree planting,” Mr Angel says. “But if you are helping to pay for energy efficiency, those benefits are immediate when the new technology is put in.”
Climate Friendly was rated the best among the 20 offset providers that took part in the survey.
But there’s another catch. Under the Federal Government’s proposed emissions trading legislation, if an individual cuts their carbon footprint there’s no corresponding cut to the national target. Any voluntary cuts you make will just permit someone else to pollute more.
“Unless voluntary carbon abatement is ‘additional’ to the CPRS target, it becomes a feel-good exercise – it simply gives the big polluters an easier task,” Mr Angel says.
Carbon Offset Watch believes that although carbon offsetting is worthwhile, its future is in doubt if the flaw remains. “We’re campaigning for the Rudd government to solve the problem,” Mr Angel says. “The next two months will determine the success of the campaign.”