Working together to tackle climate change

Working together to tackle climate change

In 2011 my Churchill Fellowship provided a fabulous opportunity to observe communities managing their own lands for themselves and for wildlife in Kenya and Namibia. Fast forward 10 years and community management still hasn’t happened in Scotland. Could action for climate change make a difference?

Jill Matthews helped to set up a trail showing how much woodland is needed to capture the carbon footprint of various everyday itemsDownload image
"At COP26, world leaders will be negotiating global solutions, but everyone can do something to help." - Jill Matthews, Fellow

In 1992 an international gathering in Rio spawned three separate UN conventions – on climate, biodiversity and desertification. In the subsequent three decades, destruction of the environment has continued apace. Action to reverse the declines is now so long overdue that we talk of the climate emergency and the biodiversity crisis. In August 2021 the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was launched, with a stark warning from the UN Secretary-General, who called it “code red for humanity”. Interest is growing in ‘nature-based solutions’ to tackle the climate crisis, but experts estimate that these can solve only about 30% of the problem globally. Technological solutions for capturing carbon dioxide fast enough and at scale don’t yet exist. To slow climate change, we must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

With COP26 taking place in Glasgow in November 2021, many local communities have initiated different local activities related to climate change. My local conservation group wanted to bring together the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis and work out how nature helps us with climate change locally.

Initially we were bamboozled. The numbers around climate change are so large that they are impossible to comprehend. These numbers are measured by a confusing array of different units. The language used by scientists is not the same as that used by engineers. Greenhouse gases are invisible, what does a tonne of CO2 even look like? And why so much talk of the far away Amazon rainforest and polar bears and so little about local wildlife and wild places? Initially our conversations were muddled, but eventually we decided to link trees, which we understand, to carbon footprints.

Here’s a basic introduction to ‘nature’. Plants capture carbon dioxide and convert it into food energy using photosynthesis. Big plants, like trees, capture more than little plants like daisies, because trees need more energy to grow. Trees also store carbon in their trunks and branches, and pass carbon down into the soil where it is stored. Soils are massively important for storing carbon. Peaty soils, rich in organic matter, are better at storing carbon than sandy soils.

For carbon footprints, we used the book How Bad are Bananas?, subtitled ‘the carbon footprint of everything’ - which includes bananas, a pint of milk, a car journey, a mobile phone, using the internet and a plane trip. It gives the carbon footprint of the average UK citizen as 12.7 tonnes of CO2 per year. For comparison, the carbon footprint of the average US citizen is 1.5 times bigger, and that of the average Malawian is 60 times smaller than ours.

We set up a trail on our local hill showing how much woodland is needed to capture the carbon footprint of various everyday items. The trail encircles the area of woodland (1.7ha) needed to capture the carbon footprint of the average UK citizen. Along the trail are everyday items displayed next to the area of woodland, marked with rope, that is needed to capture the CO2 emissions from each item. The trail shows how much more woodland is needed to capture the emissions from a meat feast pizza (5.4m2 of woodland) than a margherita pizza (3.4m2). It shows that the week’s shopping for an omnivore (120m2) needs nearly twice the area of woodland than for a vegetarian (63m2), commuting to work by car needs more than travelling by train, and taking a return flight to Australia needs a whopping 18,223 m2 of woodland.

Along the trail, the main message is that we need to conserve nature because it helps us with climate change, but nature alone can’t do enough, and we must stop burning fossil fuels because they emit greenhouse gases. Inevitably the ways we use land are going to change in the next 25 years.

At COP26, world leaders will be negotiating global solutions, but everyone can do something to help. You can work out your own carbon footprint using a calculator - we use one called Pawprint. Roughly speaking in the UK, a quarter of our footprint is ‘food’, a quarter is in the ‘home’, a quarter is ‘travel’ and a quarter is ‘other’. Here are a few general tips to reduce each quarter of your carbon footprint:

  • Food: reduce consumption of meat and dairy because livestock farming is carbon heavy. Avoid foodstuffs which have been air freighted, because air transport is carbon heavy. Minimise food waste because both producing food and throwing food away emits greenhouse gases.
  • Transport: walk or cycle where you can and use public transport or shared transport whenever possible. Electric cars are more climate-friendly than petrol or diesel, especially if powered by renewable energy, but their manufacture raises other issues. Keep plane travel to the absolute minimum.
  • Home: switch off appliances when not in use. Keep electronic gadgets in use for as long as possible (for example, discarding a 2-year-old phone is not good) because more carbon is used in manufacturing most of our electronic gadgets (embodied carbon) than in using them. Soon we will have to change how we heat our homes and switch to renewable heating, but government incentives should help with this cost.

At COP26, international delegates will negotiate how to de-carbonise the world in a way that is fair for everyone. At the national level, governments will set targets to de-carbonise and policies and incentives to encourage the switch from fossil fuels to renewables. Businesses are beginning to work out how to reach net zero. Communities are mobilising to act in a variety of ways. And as individuals we all need to change our ways to reduce our carbon footprints, so please do whatever you can.

What will de-carbonised Scotland be like in 2045? I hope I am fortunate enough to live long enough to find out. I am optimistic that the changes needed will benefit wildlife as well as people, and this gives me great cheer amongst the prophesies of doom and gloom.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.