Having consciously avoided emitting excessive carbon for the past 20 years, I am about to embark on a carbon creating extravaganza. While there is no justification for this behaviour, I thought it likely that others who generally try to live low(ish) carbon lives might find my dilemma and attempts to justify it amusing.
I have long thought that environmental organisations are among the worst culprits when it comes to unnecessary air travel. I so often bump into supposed greenies who fly to Cape Town or Joburg for the day, conferences/ gatherings in Ghana or Germany at the drop of a hat, or are involved in research projects in Ecuador that demand their annual attention. This has always struck me as ridiculous, but I have sceptically listened to rationalisations about how environmentalists/conservationists should be allowed bigger carbon footprint allowances as their activities were supposedly helping the planet, by finding solutions.
Many years ago, I refused to travel to Europe to receive an award for the MMEP (ok, it was a small and insignificant award). I recall the astonishment in some quarters that I would refuse a free trip, but also that a few people were very impressed at my ‘walking the talk’. At the time it seemed bizarre to have banned staples and set up recycling bins in the office of the environmental education organisation and then jet off abroad for a frippery.
So now I am doing just that – watch as I try to justify this!
An opportunity arose to attend the annual Slow Food Terra Madre Salone del Gusto in Turin Italy. I have been a member for many years, certainly believe in the principles of good, clean, fair food and done my best to promote the cause. Ironically (in the light of the air miles I will be clocking up this week) I have never attended any of the local Slow Food functions in Durban as I thought they were too far away to be really local, so confined my slow food jaunts to the Midlands and ‘Maritzburg.
Slow Food really is something that is good for the planet. But seriously, a week in Italy with thousands of others from across the globe? The focus this year is on Indigenous food systems and I believe 400 Africans are travelling to Turin, along with countless South Americans, Asians and far flung Europeans. I can’t even begin to imagine the combined carbon footprint! Anyway, I am going, with my friend Ntombenhle Mtambo. They are putting us both up with local families, feeding us and arranging a bus to get around. So once we are there we will be pretty eco.
On the bottom of my airticket, it states “Estimated Total Carbon Dioxide Emission For Flights: 2812.80 kgs”. There are even suggestions on how to offset this. Ooooh offsets – that’s a whole story on its own, but I will try to focus on my personal issue. I check the figures on the various online calculators and discover that about 3 tonnes is correct. Is it possible to make this up/repay the planet? Friends tell me that I have ‘earned’ it with all these years of solar cooking and harvesting greens outside my kitchen door. I know too that not having children ‘earns major credits’. However, I was already doing these things perfectly happily, so shouldn’t I be doing MORE?
After sifting through all the info on ‘trading carbon’ and ‘selling carbon credits’, it seems that tree planting is punted by most carbon offset companies (the internet is littered with them). Ha! Well, I know how ridiculous that is. Grasslands store more carbon than forests and trees are always being planted in inappropriate places, which drives me mad. Apparently, I only need to spend R352.32 to make up the three tonnes. This is the amount of emissions an average South African home produces in a year. No wonder this is a thriving business, it is just so easy to do. I delve a little into a few of the companies and their tree planting projects – some are really enticing. Others focus on protecting rainforest and other ecosystems. I find one that focusses on installing low carbon cooking and lighting solutions in rural areas – that is very appealing and makes a lot more sense than planting random trees. But I already do that. I have given away many sunstoves, wonderbags, isitofu to save our indigenous forests being plundered and plastic burnt for fuel, and spent much of my energy promoting these things. Should I just do more of the same? But how much exactly?
I could, of course, give up my car. That really is a possibility – all I have to do is move into Howick where I can walk and ride my bike almost anywhere I need to go. That would mean I give my walks in the hills and dips in the dams which I do believe keep me sane and enable me to contribute to helping others live more sustainable lives… Am I simply trying to justify my idyllic life that is made possible by fossil fuel?
No one offers the option of helping you transition to a vegan lifestyle, but I think that may have the most impact. Most carbon calculators give lots of credits for this, but it is not an idea punted by the off-setters. Pulses only use 100 litres of water to produce 1kg of food compared to the 13 000/16 000 litres for a kilo of (feedlot) beef. The Slow Food Bite Sized Guide has this to say: “Meat consumption is reaching increasingly unsustainable levels and the environmental costs of such an unbalanced diet are enormous. Producing a kilo of beef using industrial farming systems releases on average 36.4 kilos of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (the livestock industry produces 18% of the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming, a higher percentage than the transport sector) and requires around 15,500 litres of water and 7 kilos of plant-based feed.”
Remember water uses heaps of energy to get where is needs to (unless you are carrying it on your head – then it is your own personal energy) – so the energy savings of a vegan lifestyle are obvious. The energy footprint of eggs and dairy is enormous if commercially produced. I eat only free range eggs produced as locally as possible and buy milk and cheese from a cow just nearby, so I think I am doing pretty well. But now that my attention is focussed on the issue, I need to take into account all the water and energy used to grow the maize fed to the happy chickens – I have yet to come across anyone leaving chickens to forage for themselves. Even grass-fed dairy ends up looking dodgy – especially during the current drought when fields have been irrigated or hay trucked in (along with some commercially produced food supplements). I can’t find any simple calculations comparing a vegetarian diet to a vegan one (and am so bothered trying to book umpteen busses and trains on the internet that I give up searching). I am a bit worried about all the extra almonds I might eat for breakfast instead of an egg. If a drought hits Prince Albert in the Cape and the nuts have to come from California, surely it would be better to eat my neighbour’s eggs?
So back to Slow Food. As part of the network, more than 2,400 Terra Madre food communities practice small-scale and sustainable production of quality food around the world. So far so good – that is the reason I am a member.
I wondered if the organisation feels any responsibility for the enormous footprint of this annual fiesta and am pleased to discover that they do make an effort. This is their blurb and I will be going to see for myself! Better not be green wash!
“Slow Food has always warned about the sickness of our Planet and it has been working in order to find solutions to this problem. The SEeD project (Systemic Event Design), by the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, it has managed to reduce the expected environmental impact for Terra Madre Salone del Gusto 2016. For the first time, the energy required for our event will be secured from renewable sources. Energy savings during the event will also be made possible through the use of lighting fixtures and low-consumption appliances. The commitment to reduce the amount of waste produced and to promote recycling will be central: more than 100 recycling areas will be set up, overseen by 250 volunteers. Visitors have been invited to reach Turin and travel around the city by using public transportation.
The theme chosen for the 2016 edition, Loving the Earth, will show the way to possible solutions. Serena Milano, General Secretary of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, explains: “Looking after the environment and the planet we live on is the most important issue of our time, and an obligation for everyone who works with food. We want to rediscover the pleasure of taking care of the Earth, together with producers, teachers, chefs, academics, farmers, food communities and above all, everyday people and families. For this reason, we are organizing workshops, conferences, tasting sessions and educational courses.”
Several themed spaces and interactive tours will be dedicated to crucial campaigns to save the planet: from the preserving of biodiversity to the need of reducing meat consumption, from the promotion of a more sustainable fishing, to the need of safeguarding bees and other pollinator insects increasingly threatened by the intensive farming and the use of pesticides, from soil defense to water, seeds and other common goods protection. Terra Madre Salone del Gusto will provide several educational spaces aimed at schools and families to learn how to grow a garden, make compost, chose seasonal vegetables, and take care of seeds. An invitation to cultivate in several contests: in the ground, in a vase, on the balcony, in the garden, in the countryside or in urban spaces.”
So that was a long slow ramble around my head to reach the conclusion that I cannot justify the carbon emissions and it will be difficult to make them up from my current lifestyle. I simply have to live with them. I doubt very much that I will do another trip like this one in my life.