Is it possible to stop flying and adopt a vegan lifestyle? It seemed daunting at first, but I managed to reduce my carbon footprint by 61% and it actually made my life easier and more fulfilling. | Jo Clay
Throughout my entire life, I have been concerned about the issue of climate change. During my childhood, we referred to it as the greenhouse effect and I naively believed that it would be resolved by the time I reached adulthood. However, this has not been the case.
In my twenties, I became aware that I, as an adult, had a responsibility to address the issue. I actively pursued positions in the field of sustainability and became increasingly disheartened by leaders who refused to acknowledge climate change. However, after having a child, my perspective shifted.
This experience changed me. The upcoming generations that I had been concerned about now had a tangible identity. I could no longer continue my regular job in recycling and traveling long distances to help a planet in crisis during my free time. I desired to take immediate and active measures.
In 2018, I embarked on a carbon diet with the goal of reducing not only my own carbon footprint, but also that of the average Australian by 75%. Through 34 lifestyle experiments, I discovered effective ways to cut down on carbon emissions. Along the way, I gained knowledge in carbon accounting, established a recycling business, documented my journey through a blog, expressed my creativity through art, and balanced caring for my daughter with my newfound political involvement. Meanwhile, Australia faced natural disasters such as floods, fires, and storms, as well as the challenges brought on by a pandemic.
Renewing the environment may be challenging, but following my carbon diet has yielded positive results. Australia’s ongoing battles over climate change in the past three decades have led us to believe that we must either live a primitive lifestyle or continue on our current path. However, this is not accurate. With the right knowledge, significant reductions can be achieved. Embracing change has improved my life in terms of simplicity and affordability.
According to the current federal inventory, the average Australian’s consumption-based emissions were 17.7 tonnes, which takes into account factors such as energy usage in schools and hospitals. Obtaining specific household data is difficult, but based on my amateur estimation, approximately 11.6 tonnes of these emissions can be attributed to actions directly controlled by individuals.
I implemented modifications that reduced the 11.6 metric tons to 2.6 metric tons, a decrease of 78%. In the process, I discovered that the main contributors to my carbon footprint are household gas and electricity usage, air travel, food consumption and waste, transportation, beverages, pet food, and purchases of clothing and miscellaneous items. This list is similar to the average Australian’s, although the ranking may vary depending on one’s lifestyle.
Significant benefits were achieved by transitioning to completely renewable energy, utilizing public and environmentally friendly modes of transportation (and eventually switching to an electric vehicle), reducing air travel, and replacing gas heating with electric alternatives. While adopting a vegan diet could potentially reduce emissions by a ton for the average Australian, it is not a widely accepted approach. Instead, I focused on making small changes in my grocery shopping habits, incorporating more plant-based foods and decreasing consumption of meat, fish, and dairy, resulting in a reduction of over 600kg. Another simple yet effective measure was switching my dogs to pet food without red meat.
My initial carbon footprint was lower (6.3t) due to my use of solar panels, frequent biking, reduced consumption of meat and dairy, and preference for second-hand items. However, I discovered areas of high consumption and was still able to reduce my emissions by 61%. To my surprise, cutting out bottled soft drinks and juice had a significant impact. While giving up wine has been more challenging, I have limited my intake. Previously, I followed a vegan diet during the week and ate beef on Saturdays, but I realized that this weekend indulgence had a high impact. As a result, I now only consume red meat once a month and incorporate more chicken, duck, and pork into my meals. I also became mindful of once-casual choices, such as flying my family to visit a friend in Reno, which would have negated nine years of my veganism efforts.
There were unexpected occurrences. The concept of food miles receives excessive attention due to our tendency to prioritize visible factors over invisible ones. I discovered that the practices on the farm have a greater impact than any subsequent actions, especially when it comes to meat and dairy products. While recycling is important, the items we purchase typically have a larger environmental impact than their packaging.
It is simpler to decrease your carbon footprint with either time or money, however, I managed without both. Utilizing public transportation, cycling, and being more efficient with errands by reducing driving all proved effective. However, in 2020, as a busy and well-paid politician, I exchanged our gasoline car for an electric one (although I still ride for personal reasons). For those who lack both time and money, making any changes can be daunting.
For one year, I made changes in my daily habits such as replacing lightbulbs, taking shorter showers, and adjusting the heater to 14C during the day and turning it off at night. However, the Australian Capital Territory government recently declared that our electricity grid has reached 100% renewable energy. I was initially happy about this news, but then became frustrated at how much effort I had put in compared to the seemingly effortless solution by the government. This experience showed me the boundaries of personal responsibility.
I have discovered that finding a compromise is more practical than adhering to strict beliefs. Completely giving up flying, adopting a vegan lifestyle, and not having any pets was too difficult for me. Instead, I choose to eat meat twice a week and have steak once a month. I also take vacations to the beach and only fly occasionally. While these choices are intentional, they may be difficult to explain to those who have chosen a more extreme path.
Fortunately, reaching a compromise can yield positive results. My efforts to reduce my carbon footprint proved that small changes can have a significant impact. The most important lesson I learned was that it is possible to make changes without sacrificing one’s quality of life. As I write this, my children are on school break. In the past, I would have taken them on a trip that we would hardly remember. However, this past weekend, my nine-year-old daughter was able to catch the perfect wave in her kayak at our nearby beach.
A fulfilling life with minimal impact is achievable. To succeed, we require assistance, guidance, and accurate information.
From 2018 to 2020, Jo Clay documented her journey with the Carbon Diet on her blog. She was then chosen as the representative for Ginninderra in the Australian Capital Territory in 2020.
Change by Degrees provides weekly advice and strategies for sustainable living to minimize your household’s impact on the environment. Do you have a question or suggestion for reducing your household’s carbon emissions? Contact us at [email protected].