Carbon footprints: too green for our own good?


Have you checked your carbon footprint lately? Do you know how much CO2 your activities produce in a year? Are you worried about the extinction of the species, or honestly, do you care?

Almost every week, new websites appear offering to calculate your carbon footprint, your baby’s carbon footprint and/or your dog’s carbon footprint. Last week Tesco became the first Irish supermarket to offer carbon labelling on 9 of its own-brand products, while KPMG boasts that it is Ireland’s first carbon-neutral professional services firm. CO2 emissions have become the year’s trendiest issue.

In UCD, in line with the national mood, students are keenly aware of the need to reduce their carbon footprint and manage the environment responsibly. However, though we are aware of this, are we really interested? And what are we actually doing about it?

Second year Science student, Padraig O’Rourke cycles to college every day. While he is glad to be able to help the environment, his motivation is more that he enjoys cycling and wants to save on transport costs. “I think the environment is becoming a more important issue,” says O’Rourke. “The subject really interests me.” However, he adds, “I don’t think that you have to do anything too drastic, just don’t litter or be wasteful of resources.”

Second year Arts student John O’Mara, who drives from the south of Co. Wicklow every day, argues that a poor public transport service in his area makes him less likely to think about the environment while driving to college each day. “It is important to recognise the environment as a problem – a very important issue – but I think the onus is essentially on the government to lead the way with bus services and public transport.”

While he is glad to be able to help the environment, his motivation is more that he enjoys cycling and wants to save on transport costs

What does he think about the carbon footprint hype in the national media? “It’s probably a positive thing”, he answers. However, O’Mara also finds “the amount of times people question me specifically on carbon footprints is both a positive sign and increasingly annoying.”

O’Mara does feel that, politically, students are not that motivated by green issues. “There are more pressing concerns,” he argues, because, “when it doesn’t affect [students’] pocket directly, it’s very difficult for them to get motivated about it.”

So what, if anything, are governments doing about climate change? Ireland has signed up to the Kyoto Protocol and the Marrakesh Accords – UN agreements and binding decisions designed to combat climate change. The signatories have agreed to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions during the period between 2008-2012, to 13 per cent above their 1990 emission levels.

Heavily industrialised countries in particular produce large amounts of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. Some commentators argue that the obligation to reduce emissions is disproportionately burdensome on developing countries who should be allowed to increase emissions for a period, in order to develop their economies. Also, the United States has opted out of ratifying Kyoto claiming it is too expensive to implement.

The problem with CO2 emissions (and other greenhouse gases) is that they are believed to contribute to climate change by absorbing infrared radiation and retaining it in the atmosphere – rather like how a greenhouse operates. Therefore, we are told that we should try to keep our CO2 emissions as low as possible, so as to slow down the rate of climate change.

However, on the other hand, there are also those who dispute the argument that greenhouse gases are the main cause of climate change and argue instead that solar radiation has a greater effect on the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere than any greenhouse gases, and has had so for millennia.

If we accept that CO2 contributes somewhat to global warming, how do we emit it? Other than by breathing – which we are not advised to reduce. The myriad of online carbon-footprint tests tell me that I emit carbon dioxide by driving my car, heating my house, using electricity from fossil fuels, taking the bus or train and by using manufactured products.

So, to wipe our carbon footprint we should reduce our fuel usage directly and indirectly by cutting down on car usage, change electricity supplier, using natural products and also, offset our CO2 emissions by planting trees, for example.

Yet, what if we don’t? Environmentalists point to global warming and the possible extinction of our species by overpopulation. Our overuse of natural resources combined with a reduced land space due to rising sea levels only present more challenges.

Some environmentalists go further, however. Last year, the British press reported on an environmental activist who chose to be sterilised to reduce her carbon footprint – because she felt that having children is selfish. The argument runs that each child born will use more food and water, more land, fuel and trees, and produce more carbon dioxide and pollution etc.

In a continent with an already aging population, which will inevitably cause pension problems for most western European countries over the next 10 to 20 years, the choice of climate change or children seems unnecessary for Europe.

Aside from the practical impact on our economy, we must decide what our values are, while striking the balance between nurturing nature and preventing ourselves from becoming controlled by our environment. Although our responsibility to the environment cannot be questioned, some continue to ask if it should come second to our responsibility to ourselves. However, our duties to the environment and ourselves are inextricably linked.