Caring about the environment, reducing our ecological footprint, fighting global warming, finding solutions to plastic pollution and overconsumption of natural resources... The world is facing a lot of serious challenges. But what can we do to help? And what matters the most? I am going to try answering these questions as objectively as possible by giving you an overview of the facts.
Saving animals from extinction
This is in my opinion the most important ecological issue the world is facing. Life has existed on Earth for nearly 4 billion years. The evolution process was very slow and the very first relatively large, complex, soft-bodied multicellular animals did not appear until about 600 million years ago. Since then, life on Earth has experienced five major extinction events. The last one was that of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, in which 75% or more of all species on Earth vanished. We are now entering the sixth mass extinction, known as the Anthropocene extinction, as it is caused by human activity, such as pollution of rivers and oceans (including chemicals and plastics), hunting large animals to extinctions (especially for the use of traditional medicine in countries like China), overfishing, use of pesticides in agriculture, global warming, desertification, and overconsumption of resources. Among these, ocean pollution and deforestation are the first causes of species extinctions, as ocean pollution affects all marine species and 80% of the world's land-based species live in forets, with the highest biodiversity found in tropical rainforests.
It is estimated that 20% species on Earth now faces extinction, and that will rise to 50% by the end of the century unless urgent action is taken. Of all the ecological challenges to which we are confronted, the extinction of species is the most important as it is the only one that is irreversible. According to The Nature Conservancy, rainforests cover less than 2 percent of Earth's total surface area, but are home to 50 percent of Earth's plants and animals. The Amazon rainforest alone contains around 10 percent of the world's known species. Yet, around 17% of the Amazon forest has been lost in the last 50 years, mostly due to forest conversion for cattle ranching. The second biggest rainforest region is found in the Indonesian archipelago, where it is mostly palm oil plantations that are the cause of deforestation. Thousands of species disappear every single year because of the rainforest destruction. Forever.
What can I do to help?
Eat less/no meat, especially less beef. It takes 7 kg of grain and 20,000 litres of water to make 1 kg of beef! Cattle ranching is the number one of the Amazon forest destruction. All the forest fires you heard about in the news are in most cases intentional, so that farmers can get more land for cattle. It is especially important to stop eating beef if you live in the American continent (including the United States and Canada) and East Asia, as these are the main markets for Amazonian beef.
Avoid products containing palm oil or buy products made from sustainable palm oil. This is not an easy one as most people have no idea what palm oil is used for. It is found in a lot of baked goods, ice cream, margarine, butter spreads (including peanut butter), creams and fillings, grated cheese, canned frosting, shortening, frozen products, pizza dough, candies, cereals and granola bars, coated snack bars, hamburger, sausage, vitamins and supplements, cleaning products, lotions, moisturizers, shaving cream, deodorants, serums, foundations, cosmetics, body soaps, shampoos, laundry and dishwasher detergents, and the list goes on... To know whether a product contains palm oil, you'd need to check the ingredients or buy products labelled as eco-friendly. Another way to go is to know how much you can trust major brands in using sustainable palm oil. The WWF publishes every 3 years a Palm Oil Scorecard which rates the sustainability of palm oil used by many multinational companies.
Buy Fairtrade and/or sustainable (UTZ or Rainforest Alliance certified) coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas, etc. as they come from small sustainable farms instead of big plantations made by razing rainforests.
Bring old appliances, batteries, light bulbs, oils, chemicals, etc. to your recycling center. This is even more important as all of these contain toxic chemicals that need to be properly disposed of to prevent land and water pollution. Recycling also lowers the need for additional minerals and petrol for the manufacturing industry.
Use reusable shopping bags. It's a small thing, but if billions of people avoid throwing away plastic bags it will seriously reduce plastic pollution.
Use eco-friendly deodorant like sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). Once again you avoid water pollution and preserve your health from nasty hormone-altering chemicals that can cause anything from diabetes to infertility.
If you don't want to spend time checking all the labels of things you buy to see if it contains palm oil from deforestation or noxious chemicals, the easiest is to rely on ecological brands that will guarantee all this for you. Here is a list of good places to shop for eco-friendly products. Even if some provide worldwide delivery, try to choose one located close to you to reduce the CO2 impact from long-distance shipping. Certified B Corporations are indicated as B-corp
Fashion, cosmetics, body care, zero-waste products, jewellery, homewares, furniture, gifts...
What about deforestation from the paper industry?
With some 400 million tonnes of paper produced each year, the paper industry is another driver of deforestation. Or at least it is for badly managed companies that do not respect of FSC standards of forest management, such as reforestation and nurturing of forests. So the main concern here is irresponsible logging, especially in tropical regions where such standards are less likely to be applied and deforestation has a bigger impact on loss of biodiversity. In Indonesia, Greenpeace reports that 76 to 80% of logging is illegal. The WWF published a Timber Scorecard assessing the sustainability of timber products used by 122 companies with operations in the United Kingdom (including many multinationals). A more international index is the Forest 500 report, which tested 350 corporations for the sustainability of deforestation-related commodities: palm oil, soybean, beef, leather, paper and timber. It is saddening to see that very few of the large companies reviewed scored well. Even in the UK, where companies rank among the most ecologically aware in the world, over half of companies making significant use of timber/paper in their business obtained a poor rating. The only fool-proof way to avoid deforestation from the paper industry is to reduce one's paper consumption.
Opt for online bills and bank statements instead of paper ones. It also avoids clutter and makes it easier to organise your documents.
Don't print out if you can avoid it. Use apps like Evernote to save webpages, take notes or make shopping lists. Use e-tickets for trains, planes, concerts, museums...
Fighting Climate Change
Climate Change is one of the greatest problems humanity is facing. It is not the main cause of Anthropocene Extinction, but it is a contributing factor. It is as much an ecological catastrophe as a humanitarian one. Some people have argued that global warming has benefits, but the negatives overwhelm the positives.
Global warming accelerates desertification in Central Asia, in the western half of the United States and Mexico, in eastern Brazil, in the Sahel, in southern India and in Australia, among others.
More forest fires every summer are destroying the environment and people's homes, especially in regions with a Mediterranean climate like southern Europe, California and southern Australia.
The rise of sea levels that will flood a lot of coastal cities worldwide, including many very large ones (New York, Boston, Washington, Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Rio, Sao Paulo, London, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Barcelona, Dubai, Lagos, Bombay, Chennai, Calcutta, Dhaka, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Osaka, Tokyo, Yokohama, Sydney, Melbourne and so on).
People displaced by rising sea levels and desertification are going to cause massive immigration problems elsewhere.
And last but not least, there are major concerns that the melting of the Arctic ice will shift the Gulf Stream southward, which would cause a significant cooling of Europe, so that it's climate would become more alike to Siberia (despite global warming, ironically).
Global warming is caused the enormous rise in human activity over the last 150 years; the carbon dioxide resulting from the combustion of petrol, natural gas and coal, be it to power our vehicles, warm up our houses in winter, or produce electricity; from the activity of factories; from the methane produced by the billions of farm animals around the world, especially cows. Deforestation is in itself estimated to be responsible for about 12% of the global greenhouse gas emissions.
What can I do to help?
Eat less/no lamb and beef. As mentioned above, cattle ranching is the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon forest. Not only does this cause the exctinctions of thousands of species each year, tropical deforestation itself is responsible for 10% of global warming. Even without taking this into account, cattle emit methane, a greenhouse gas with a global warming potential (GWP) 84 times greater than CO2. According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), agriculture causes 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly half of it is caused by ruminants, mainly cows. To put this in perspective, the aviation industry is responsible for 3.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions - three times less than cattle! About one quarter of global warming is caused by the combination of Amazon deforestation and animal farming in South America. If cattle were a country they would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions (after China and the USA).
Only use climate-friendly air conditioners. Ideally don't use any air conditioner at all if you can. But if you live in a region where it is essential, make sure to buy a model using R290 or R600A refrigerants and avoid at all costs HFCs refrigerants like R-410A, R-32, and R-134, which have a global warming potential hundreds of times greater.
Open a green online bank account such as Tomorrow, which protects 1 m² of rainforest for every € spent and only uses money to fund sustainable projects.
Use Ecosia as your search engine. The first certified B-corporation in Germany, Ecosia uses clean, solar energy to power the searches and donates most of the money generated to plant trees. This makes Ecosia a carbon-negative search engine. Unlike other search engines, it is a not-for-profit company and is privacy-friendly. Reforestation won't be back extinct species to life, but it does help reduce global warming.
Recycle everyday (paper, plastics, glass, metals). Recycling paper slows down deforestation. Recycling pastic lowers greenhouse gas emission from the petrol needed to manufacture plastics, and prevents the decomposition of microplastics in nature, which could very well end back up in the food chain and our bodies later. Recycling glass and metals also reduces CO2 emissions. Metals are particularly messy and polluting to extract in mines.
Walk, cycle or carpool whenever possible instead of using the car. That's to reduce CO2 emissions, but it also keeps you healthy and fit.
If you want to go further and save money in the long term while you do it:
Make sure your home is well insulated (less wasted energy to heat or cool down). It's not just to avoid wasting natural resources, it also makes economic sense.
Install solar panels on your roof. After a few years you will have paid them back and will be starting saving or making money.
Invest in projects that install photovoltaic panels in developing countries, such as Trine. This not only generates money for you, but it helps poorer countries get clean electricity instead of relying on the cheap but extremely polluting coal eletric plants.
Choose a green electricity provider that uses only renewable energy with emissions close to zero. The difference of price is often negligible. In some countries, including the USA, the UK, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and Italy, you can also get green gas (biomethane) for heating.
Save electricity (and money) by using LED lights and energy efficient eletric appliances. Manufacturers have been working so hard on improving their energy efficiency thanks to EU regulations that often using a 10 or 15 year-old fridge or washing machine uses so much more electricity than a new model that buying a new one makes economic sense as the energy saved pays for the new appliance in two or three years.
Drive a hybrid or electric car. Ideally powered by solar panels on your roof.
Even a small amount is better than nothing if millions of people do it. And keep in mind that donations to such charities are tax deductible (in most developed countries), so that's money you will (partly) get back.