It’s a sunny Saturday morning. I am sitting in the car with two friends on the way to the mountains. An hour of driving later we start a Via Ferrata. After an hour of sweating in the summer sun we have a small beer at the top, make our way back and get into our air-conditioned car. 30 minutes driving later we reach Chamonix gazed up at Mt. Blanc and walked past an enormous golf course just to find out that some hiking paths were closed due to a cable car renovation. What do we do now? We shortly decided to go hiking on the other side of the valley. So back through the golf course. Back past all the fancy BMWs, Porsche and others. Of course, most of them are SUVs.

We start our hike up the other side and walk mostly through the forest until we hit some rocky underground. I didn’t really know where we were going, I only knew we were hiking to a place called “Mer de glace” – “Sea of ice”. As we walked over the large but smooth rocks you could tell what had been here some centuries ago. A friend sat down in the middle of the path and shouted: “Wow the rock is so warm!”. Seconds later we were dozing off with our backs against the nicely warmed stones, only being kept from falling asleep by helicopters that every now and then hummed through the valley.

Another few hundred meters along the path and we saw it. I mean, basically we saw nothing but dirt and rocks, but there was supposed to be a glacier? At least underneath all that rock and dirt.

Mer de glace glacier covered with rocks and dirt

Already knowing what to expect, we started hiking to our destination “Mer de glace”. Most of the people take the train up there, which was built more than 110 years ago in 1906. Back then it was already transporting 45.000 people during the summer and these days over 450k people come and visit this place each year (with the train). Our trail from the valley crosses underneath a cable car, which takes visitors from the train some 100m further down to see the glacier and the “Grotte de glace”.

As we descend towards the glacier, signs are mounted on the rocks next to the trail. “Niveau du glacier 1890”. We continue to descend. “Niveau du glacier 1935”. As we reach the bottom of the cable car, we see another sign: “Niveau du glacier 1990“. Yet the glacier and the entrance to the cave were another 40 meters below us. 40 meters! Unfortunately, we arrived too late to descend further, but I didn’t need to go further down to realize the massive extent of our actions. Within the last 25 years, the glacier lost as much height as in the 170 years before.

Decline of the glacier from 1825 to 2016 (bad quality 🙁 click to enlarge)
Retreat of the glacier since 1988 (Source)

We are destroying our planet and precious nature every second and yet we don’t do anything. We recycle a bit of plastic here, a few glass bottles there and that must be enough, right? After all it’s pretty clean here and pollution is a problem that comes from China, India, Asia in general. Actually, any other country outside of Europe / US is not doing enough. We tend to look far away, blame it on others and enjoy our everyday life without compromising anything. We still want to have a steak a day, fly to Madrid or London for the weekend or simply sit alone (!) in the traffic with our large and fancy SUV, even though we don’t need it. But car = status = social acceptance. So, what impact could all of that have anyways? After all meat is ridiculously cheap, flights are so inexpensive that anyone can afford to fly twice a month and our oil prices don’t even remotely resemble the impact it has on our climate, so why not go for it? Since I am working 8 hours a day, I have definitely deserved it!

So, as I am hiking back to the valley, I am trying to grasp what I have just seen and I am angry at myself and everyone else. I may not have a big car, eat meat every day, but yet I still fly home to see my family every 3 months or drive 4 hours every other weekend for going climbing and hiking. I am selfish and I don’t care about climate change, because I want to enjoy my life, spend time with my family, buy some new stuff every other month and simply have fun!

But I do care about the environment, I do care about nature and I do realize that climate change and all that comes with it is the biggest challenge of our century. I do try to reduce, reuse and recycle all I can. I do bike to work, plant some tomatoes on my balcony, eat less meat and say “No” to consuming the newest stuff on the market. I really do want to have an impact and make a change. But what good can I do?

We have to realize that we are, every day, living beyond our means (in an ecological way). Just because we are “wealthy” doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want, especially that most of our wealth is (historically) coming from exploiting the poor in under developed and developing countries and, as of today, we are living at the expense of those people and the nature! But what will change if I convince everyone I know that what we do is so harmful to our environment? Yes, some people may change their habits, but due to our selfish nature only some or maybe even the majority will acknowledge, but eventually not change. After all we take the easy route, we blame it on others, ignore it or deny it instead of taking actions ourselves. It is time that all of us take actions and start making a compromise. And if your answer (after reading the whole post) is still: "I want a steak everyday!" then you're clearly the best example of our ignorant and selfish nature.

“To be young and aware today is to be confused; to wonder why you [governments] can stand in front of us and both call for change, and refuse to change. To be young and aware today, is to know that a bright green future is possible.” – Mirna Haider, Youth Delegation Lebanon at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Mexico 2010.

Beyond the compromises we should try to take individually, I believe that our governments need to take the lead, free themselves from lobbyism and pure "profit-making capitalism" and finally open their eyes to the real problems of the world. We need a government that is ready to take responsibility and initiate a change for the better. Our policies need to be based on facts. And as facts usually come from science, scientists should also be part of our government! Moreover, all of this has to happen fast and not with the slow pace that usual politics in Germany / Europe take place. We have slept for the last decades and done little to face the facts, so let’s start now and revert our mistakes! We are powerful, we are intelligent and indeed, there are smart and effective solutions - but we need to invest into our future, trust into new solutions and simply try them (not further discussed in here, but comprehensive ideas/solutions can be found: Efficient solutions labelDrawdown)

What to do? FACTS, not fiction!

CO2 emissions of the western world

  • Europe and the US are responsible for the most (cumulative) CO2 emissions in the world, roughly 70% together.
Cumulative CO2 emissions per region over the last centuries.

Food consumption vs dietary requirement

  • We buy, possibly consume more food than our dietary requirement. In Germany, 3500kcal is delivered (not necessarily consumed) to households each day, of which we require only two thirds (max. 2300kcal) to “function properly”.
Daily per capita caloric supply
Dietary energy requirement by country

Action: Eat less! We can easily reduce our daily food consumption without compromising our health.

Food waste

  • Us consumers are the biggest food wasters in the whole supply chain with over 50. We are most likely to waste roughly 70kg of food every year (Source with 2012 data).
Split of EU-28 food waste in 2012 by sector; includes food and inedible parts associated with food. Source

Action: Think twice before buying. Can you really eat it before the expiry date (which actually does not mean it's bad, so check before throwing it away!)? Will the fruits or vegetables go bad? Do I have to buy everything today or can I simply buy some more in a few days? Also, once you have bought certain items, you should actually use them and not start going out for dinner… It’s simply a matter of habits!

Environmental footprint of meat (and other food)

  • Eating meat has become a strong habit for people in industrialized, wealthy, but also developing countries. In Germany (and probably in most of the world), meat is produced in horrible conditions at such low prices that you can eat meat every day, all year long without even spending large amounts of money. At the same time, meat has the largest environmental footprint of our diet.
Greenhouse gas emissions per gram of protein by food type, *CO2e = carbon dioxide equivalent
Land use per gram of protein by food type, *CO2e = carbon dioxide equivalent

Action: Eat no or less meat, but when you do eat better meat! Buy local and not in supermarkets (reduces CO2 emissions for transport, supports small businesses in the area, more sustainable agriculture, ...)!

Over-consumption

  • Similar like food, we over consume all the time. We need new stuff all the time, but then end up throwing it away after using it three times or don’t use it at all. Of course, the more money we have, the more we consume and probably end up not using it. Remember: everything you consume has an environmental footprint!
Inequality of consumption (Source: World Bank Development Indicators 2008)

Action: Think twice before buying. Do you really need it or can you go without it? Will you use it multiple times / for longer? If you do need it, can you get it used or does it have to be new? Do you have to throw something away because of some small default or is it still usable? If it’s still usable, then give it away for free or sell it!

(De-)forestation

  • Planting trees is one of the best solutions for climate change according to Crowther LabHow trees could save the climate!
  • Deforestation has been present for centuries. In industrialized countries, we cut down our forests hundreds of years ago, while in developing countries it has been increasing in the last decades. Especially precious rainforest is was and still is being cut down. In the tropics it is heavily due to palm oil plantations.
Estimated deforestation by type of forest and time period, pre-1700-2000 (Source: FAO 2012)

Action: Raise awareness! Support Plant for the Planet or any other NGO trying to increase forest cover. We also need to force any producer to be transparent with their supply chain. Food producers need to prevent further deforestation (e.g. by using certified sustainable palm oil, whatever that means)! Buy local. Reduce palm oil product usage (this is tricky as using some other oil may be “worse”. Reduce, without replacing, is the best!) Do not buy tropical wood.

Transportation

  • Transportation makes up ~20% of worldwide CO2 emissions:
Carbon dioxide CO2 emissions by sector or source
  • Major greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from road transport. Together with aviation they make up 85% of the GHG emissions. (I excluded maritime since it should be mostly transport and less people using boats...)
EU - Share of transport greenhouse gas emissions (Source)
  • Another small graph shows the different impact of flying, driving (alone), taking a bus, taking a train:

Action: Try to reduce car usage! For short distances, use public transport or the bike! Carpool as much as you can on any distance! Take a train over a car and plane, or a car (if you are multiple people) over a plane. If you do fly, compensate your flight (https://www.atmosfair.de/en/, https://www.myclimate.org/, or any other project that supports protection of our environment, forestation, …)

Energy production

  • Energy production from coal is still one of the biggest emitters of CO2. I still don’t understand why Germany is supporting coal so much, yet shut down its nuclear power plants. Coal mining was strongly subsidized and will still be for the phasing out until 203X (Source). Nuclear power plants would have been the best way to go carbon neutral, but I guess that decision won't be reversed (I believe environmental activists shot themselves in the knee by calling for an end for nuclear). Interesting and shocking read on this topic.
CO2 emissions by fuel type

Action: Stop coal as fast as possible! The governments need to take action on this! Germany – stop coal! You as an individual may change your electricity plan to “green” and support renewable energies, but I am not convinced this will have a fast & strong impact.

Plastic consumption and pollution

  • Plastic production and with-it plastic pollution have dramatically increased over the last decades as it’s cheap, versatile, lightweight, resistant and has a lot of benefits throughout our supply chains. Nevertheless, plastic is usually not biodegradable, so that we either need to recycle it, burn it or put it in landfills. While the first option is the best, plastic degrades during recycling and sooner or later needs to be disposed of. Burning it creates GHG emissions. Dumping it in landfills may result in other bad impacts on our environment. If plastic is not properly disposed off and ends up in our oceans, it will have a dramatic effect on the ecosystem.
  • According to data from "Our World in Data", Germany is one of the best in recycling and has a low amount of "mismanaged waste". However, Germany seems to still export large amounts of plastic waste to Asia, where it has a high chance of entering the ocean. While our efforts in garbage separation and recycling are good, we are producing the most plastic waste per capita in the world! If we don't manage recycling properly and export our garbage to Asia, we are to blame for it!
Per capita plastic waste generation (selected countries).

Actions: Reduce plastic usage. Refuse to take plastic bags / plastic straws / ... whenever you can. Use reusable bags / reusable straws (and use them as long as they last as otherwise, they will not be more “efficient”!) If you have plastic bags, reuse them instead of simply throwing them away! Buy more local products that are not packaged! Buy less packaged products (you don't HAVE TO take a plastic bag, even for vegetables, in the supermarket!!)! Bring your own container to local shops (e.g. Original Unverpackt in Berlin)!

Inequality

  • While rich people get richer, in relative terms poor people get poorer (while absolute wealth may have increased and total poverty has decreased). However, we “westerners” are part of the wealthiest people in the world. We can complain about 1% of the world population having 45% of the world’s wealth, but instead we can just try to be the solution and share some of our wealth.
Global adult population and share of total wealth by wealth group, 2018

Action: Donate to people in need, NGO’s, other causes that you deem helpful.Also donate to restoring our nature, as this will help all of us in the long run! Furthermore, we need to raise awareness and force our governments to take actions on this. Big corporations should not be able to avoid taxes, pay huge manager wages while the normal worker gets nothing.

TL,DR:

Don’t be selfish and start to make a change! Eat less (meat), eat more local produce, don’t consume all the time, reduce flying, do carpooling, ride your bike, take public transport, say no to plastic!

More solutions to climate change:

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming

World Alliance for efficient solutions

Related interesting movies:

Sharkwater / Sharkwater Extinction

Revolution

Mission Blue

Help protecting our environment and mitigating climate change through donations / emission compensation:

https://www.plant-for-the-planet.org/en/home

https://onetreeplanted.org/

https://www.coralguardian.org/

https://www.myclimate.org/

https://www.atmosfair.de/en/

…and many more!

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