Counting my carbs: What I learnt on my year-long low-carbon diet

By Jo Clay

Updated

June 02, 2019 08:12:24

The whole world is thinking about going on a crash diet. Not to count carbs, but carbon. Like so many diets, this one might not stick.

Climate change means the global average temperature has already risen by one degree since the 19th century. To limit further damage, Australia said we’d cut carbon under the Paris Agreement.

But we’re the great diet cheats. We’ve got one of the highest emission rates in the world but we’ve pledged a tiny trim, dropping from 21 tonnes to 20 tonnes of carbon per person per year.

It’s not enough. If everyone followed our lead, the world would warm several degrees by the century’s end.

Forget about a one-tonne cut. What about a 15-tonne cut? What would life look like?

I decided to find out. Over the past year, I’ve been trying to cut my carbon footprint by 75 per cent through a different experiment each week.

I use carbon accounting to get my results. Instead of working out how much money something costs, carbon accountants estimate how much carbon it emits during its creation, use and disposal.

I use government data (like the National Greenhouse Accounts Factors) and academic sources.

I expected some conclusions — flying is bad, vegan is great — but others came as a shock.

Carbon pawprints beats clean eating

I trialled 5:2 fasting and vegetarianism. Both cut carbon for the average Australian by around 350-450 kilograms per year.

But changing the way we feed our pets had up to 10 times that impact.

With more pets than people in Australia, it makes sense. Those mutts get through a lot of meat.

If you don’t want to switch to vegan dog food, small changes make a big difference:

  • Pick a complete and balanced supermarket kibble that lists grain as the first ingredient
  • Don’t overfeed your pet
  • When adopting a new pet, consider a smaller animal that eats less
  • Always pick low-carbon meats, like chicken, kangaroo or duck. Avoid beef and lamb, because ruminant cows and sheep are very bad for the climate (it’s all that methane they fart and burp)

Eat local and seasonal — if you hate the planet

The food miles furphy doesn’t stack up. Most of the impact from food happens on the farm.

Only a small portion comes from transport, particularly where it travels in bulk via efficient road and shipping networks.

Local food actually has a higher impact in some circumstances. For instance, regional hothouse tomatoes often lead to higher emissions than field-grown imports, because hothouses use carbon-intense energy for artificial heating.

The buildings also contain embedded emissions, unlike fields.

The exception on food miles is air freight. Any produce that travels by plane is responsible for a lot of carbon. Unfortunately, you can’t easily avoid this.

Neither Coles, Woolworths nor Aldi could tell me how each variety of produce arrived in their shops. Labelling laws, please?

“Eat seasonal” says every green blog ever, but what does that mean?

Do I stick to food grown in the last week? What about fresh Nigerian melons, can I fly those in? Does my bread need seasonal flour? When do I eat pickles?

While there’s some logic to the idea, I couldn’t find any data backing it up. Worse, if eating seasonal means shunning cold storage apples in favour of farm fresh cheese, it means more carbon, not less.

Keep it simple and stick to Michael Pollan’s advice: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Plastic really is fantastic

I love War on Waste, so this was a shock. Plastic packaging saves carbon.

I’ll say it again because you probably don’t believe me. That plastic wrap on your steak? It’s harmless, especially compared to the steak.

Manufacturers have developed thin plastics that contain very little embedded carbon and emit none at all in a landfill. Embedded emissions in my plastic packaging accounted for about 3 per cent of my food’s carbon footprint.

If I drove my small car to the farmer’s market to buy plastic-free food, the petrol for the extra 17.5 kilometre return trip would generate more carbon than the plastic wrapping. The journey negates its purpose.

The packaging also protects food during transport and storage and extends shelf-life. This massively reduces food’s carbon footprint by reducing food waste.

Straw No More and plastic bag bans are great for the turtles, but they won’t stop climate change. We need to think less about the packaging and more about what’s inside.

Enjoy the hard stuff, but give up soft drink

I enjoyed spending eight weeks finding out about how my food generates carbon, but I dreaded looking at drinks.

What if it meant banning coffee? What if it meant banning booze?

Modern drinks are a weird beast. None of us need them, most of us have them and they generate almost half as much carbon as our food.

Spirits, wine, soft drink and beer all have a similar index, which means the 30ml shot in your cocktail accounts for less carbon than the 200ml mixer.

Coffee and tea aren’t too bad especially when brewed at home with no added cow milk. Bottled water has a low index compared to the rest, but it’s massive compared to tap water, so why not ditch it altogether?

Your doctor may disagree, but I say pick your vices, just watch your overall quantity.

The carbon diet

Over halfway through my project, some changes make life better. Forget distant goals and weak targets.

I’ve found it’s easy to slash carbon with the right information. I can still live a good life.

Jo Clay is an author and environmental activist.

Topics:

environmentally-sustainable-business,

environmental-policy,

environmental-management,

environmental-impact,

food-and-cooking

First posted

June 02, 2019 06:00:17

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