What is Carbon Footprint? Time to Put Your Foot Down On Climate Change

Posted 30 March 2012
It has taken more than a century for the global warming movement to gain momentum but an environmental revolution --- touting the ethics of a low-carbon lifestyle --- is now underway the likes of which have not been seen since famed nature writer Rachel Carson published her groundbreaking expose, Silent Spring, detailing the hazards of pesticides in 1962. NGOs, political icons, and more recently starlets and finance bigwigs from Western countries like the U.K. and the U.S. are leading the charge but Asia could be soon to follow---and Hong Kong has the potential to play a key role.? Carson notably brought to light the once debated, now truism that nature is vulnerable to human activities --- and that technological progress is not always harmonious with the laws of nature. Since Carson's public revelation, progress has marched on and mankind's carbon emissions---or what has come to be termed our "carbon footprint" --- have spurred on the advent of global warming, which if left untended is predicted to have an apocalyptic-scaled fallout.

With the planet's population fast swelling past 6 billion, fossil fuel demands are skyrocketing and entire cities are springing up in countries like Chinaas if overnight. Meanwhile, climate change impacts are unfolding more rapidly and dramatically than scientists previously anticipated---green house gas (GHG) emissions show no sign of abatement, the mercury is steadily rising, the ice caps are melting and hurricanes, floods and droughts of biblical proportions are sweeping the planet.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is now 90 percent certain that man is to blame for global temperature rises and warns that there are only eight years left to prevent the worst effects of global warming, specifically by acting to curb emissions. In lieu of such actions, billions of lives will be a risk and half of the world's species could be wiped out due to eco-disruptions. Thus a quarter of a century after Carson's Silent Spring birthed the notion of human culpability with regard to environmental woes, an idea once considered to be radical is now being echoed in urgent tones across the globe.

The Public Takes a Stand Against Global Warming
Even with a growing body of evidence warning of climate change's severe impacts, until this past year it appeared that the jury was still out with regard to the gravity, and authenticity, of the issue,---but three years of record-breaking temperatures, extreme weather and chilling scientific testimonies has changed public perception. With a Nobel Peace Prize now under the belts of former U.S. Presidential candidate Al Gore and the IPCC for their efforts to bring climate change into the global limelight and climate happenings making front-page news around the world, 2007 is proving to be the year that global warming captivates the world's attention. The public has been incited to action in an effort to salvage the planet---primarily by treading a bit lighter when it comes to personal carbon footprints.

Global polls reflect marked shifts of late in public attitudes towards global warming. According to a recent Yale University survey, over 80 percent of Americans now say that it's a "serious" problem---that's a whopping 70 percent more than thought so a mere three years prior. The Yale survey findings mirror polling results from a 2007 BBC World Service survey on climate change attitudes---nine out of ten now say action needs to be taken to address global warming, and a substantial majority think time is of the essence. Public sentiment is much the same in Hong Kong---and according to WWF survey results, the city famed as a shopping mecca ironically may have a heart of "green" after all. Nearly 100 percent of Hong Kongers are concerned about climate change, and three quarters of the populace is not pleased with the course the government is taking to prevent it.

The Low-Carbon Revolution
But the newly alarmed public is not sitting on its laurels while world governments drag their heels in making necessary carbon reductions---and a hot new term that's been inducted to the prestigious Oxford English Dictionary in 2007 is partially to thank for that. Alongside the media frenzy surrounding climate change this year, the moniker "carbon footprint" has recently flooded popular vernacular, and is helping people to understand that lifestyle choices bear influence on global warming, and that cutting personal emissions can slow the rate of climate change---which may just give political leaders the time they need to transform global warming rhetoric into action.

Broadly defined, a carbon footprint measures the impact human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of green house gases produced, measured in units of carbon dioxide, and therefore can determine the unique global warming impact of a person, product or service. Personal carbon dioxide emissions stem from every day energy-consuming activities, including electricity use, means and frequency of travel, food choices and equally polluting but less obvious sources, like spending habits---since everything with a price tag has a carbon cost, that varies according to production and transportation emissions.

Call it the hitherto latent powers of self-preservation, or the birth of a global environmental conscience, but there is huge momentum behind low-carbon living, which has given rise to carbon monitoring, through on-line tools like carbon calculators. Carbon calculators a vary in precision and technology but all have the common goal of helping climate saving seekers to obtain a rough estimate of their carbon footprint, and they are spreading across the Internet like wildfire.

A quick web search reveals that everyone from environmental groups to yahoo.com, who this past year created a green-sister site, to energy giant BP to travel websites, media conglomerates and eager entrepreneurs is using the trend-setting Internet to launch carbon calculators, and spread the word about low-carbon lifestylesand carbon-friendly consumer choices. Public figures like Tony Blair and media tycoon cum late-bloomer environmentalist, Rupert Murdoch, and more recently a handful of Hong Kong standouts, are sizing up their feet, and vowing to cut emissions.

Green Consumerism?
Concerned consumers around the globe are starting to navigate the waters of eco-friendly shopping—and when it comes to climate change, the green choice has become carbon neutral products—or in other words, products with low to zero emissions. This growing trend has not been lost on the business sector, which is quickly waking up to the profit-making reality of climate change.

Dan Esty, director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, says “There's been a dramatic shift in the business community's attitude towards the environment, rather than seeing environmental issues as a set of costs to bear, regulation to follow and risks to manage, companies have begun to focus on the ‘upside,' recognizing that society's desire for action on climate change, in particular, will create a huge demand for reducing carbon content products.”

Once unlikely friends of the environment are now racing to take advantage of consumer whims. Big-box retailers Wal-mart and Tesco are currently squaring off in a battle to win consumer hearts through new carbon labeling schemes that allow shoppers to gauge products according to the size of their carbon footprint. Even fashionistas are joining the low-carbon ranks—the posh brand Rag & Bone recently designed a “carbon free” t-shirt, available in two colors cloud, and what else but, carbon? It's become apparent that green is fast becoming the new black—and once derided as hippies, environmentalists could soon be hipsters.

Critics scoff that the latest hullabaloo surrounding low-carbon living is nothing more than a lot of hot air that can be chalked up to fad -following advertising ploys. Skeptics say that those leading the eco-charge are well-heeled globe-trotters and notorious consumers—in the wake of the Oscars and now the Nobel Peace Prize, Al Gore has come under much public scrutiny for his oversized footprint, a la travels via private jet, as has Tony Blair. But others commend those who have stood up for the environment and say the low-carbon bonanza is the harbinger of a far reaching environmental ethos, that may just spare humanity from global warming's worst impacts.

How Does Hong Kong Measure Up?
Hong Kong is a city renowned for its denizens' proclivity towards gross conspicuous consumption—the Government would willingly put “Shopping is Everything” on massive billboards to promote the city's tourism, and recreational consumption is an integral component of daily life. A 2006 ACNielsen survey evidences the extent of Hong Kong's material craze—93 percent of respondents from Hong Kong admit that they “shop for fun,” and 34 percent confess to shopping once a week “when they do not really need anything.”

Local green movement icon and founder of Greenpower, Simon Chau shores up survey statistics, while also posing a challenge to Hong Kongers. “We are too keen on shopping, buying unnecessary stuff just for the sake of purchasing...we are wasteful in food, paper, freshwater and electricity. Our travels, entertainment and eating habits are too ‘grey' (i.e. polluting, as opposed to ‘green')...to change our lifestyle is an essential struggle. It's a noble action of civilization.”

Hong Kong's penchant for purchase bodes both positive and negative when it comes to carbon counting. Without question, material consumption leads to bigger feet, which means that Hong Kong's “affluenza” (not to mention massive quantities of imported groceries and 40 million tourists and business travelers per year) is swelling the city's footprint far beyond the government reported figure of 6.5 tonnes per person each year.

On the upside, as indulgent, but moreover savvy shoppers Hong Kongers have the opportunity to slim their hometown's carbon footprint not only by curbing their tendency towards excess but, when given the choice, to opt for low-carbon products—which could have major ramifications for producers. WWF survey results are promising to this end—90 percent say that they are willing to reconsider lifestyle choices in an effort to soften climate change's blows. Beyond rethinking spending habits, Hong Kongers can engage in low-carbon living through simple, everyday actions, like moderating ac in the summer and heat in the winter, opting for public transport vs. cars and cabs and importing green principals to the workplace, among other things.

But it remains to be seen how Hong Kong will receive the Low-Carbon Revolution—and if the public is ready to shed, or perhaps just transform, their materials wants to acquire petite feet, and protect their own “human” habitat from climate change impacts. If so, Hong Kong has the opportunity to reinvent itself as a city oft criticized as eco-ignoramus into Asia's environmental sage. Hong Kongers have the potential to answer some of the year's most potent, and provocative, environmental questions: Can purchasing power buy it's way out of environmental disaster, or is green consumerism a load of rubbish? Is carbon footprint awareness enough to influence governments and industry to the point of effective change? And, is Hong Kong capable of pulling off what Simon Chau phrased “a noble act of civilization,” in an effort to save the future? A curious Hong Kong public is already starting to ask these questions—and to ensure a cooler, greener future by checking up on their carbon footprints. So, where do you stand?

by Pua Mench