How many Earths do we need to sustain your lifestyle?

If everyone consumed the same amount of natural resources as the average American, we would need the equivalent to five Earths to cope with the demands of the human population.

Although they are close to the top, Americans are not the citizens with the most environmental demanding lifestyle. First come the people of Qatar – a small country located in the Arabian Peninsula. Luxembourg and United Arab Emirates complete the podium. These are the countries with the highest ecological footprint per person. If all of us adopted the same lifestyle as their residents, we would need around eight, eight and five Earths, respectively, to support our everyday life. On the other end of the spectrum, we have places like India, where people enjoy life within our planet’s budget of natural resources.

According to the Global Footprint Network, the factors that dictate one’s ecological footprint can be broadly assign to one of four categories: transportation, food, waste and housing.

Are you walking towards a more sustainable future?

We have all heard it before. Burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, which will in turn escalate a very well proven and worrisome issue called climate change. So, the more distance you travel by car or motorcycle, the bigger your ecological footprint will be. Taking public transportation, cycling and walking are more eco-friendly alternatives that can help lower your daily impact on the planet. If you really need a personal vehicle for whatever reason, you can still reduce your footprint by car polling and by choosing a more efficient petrol/diesel vehicle or – better yet – an electric one. Air travelling is another bullet point you need to reflect on when planning for sustainable transportation. Flying is the most environmental detrimental way of travelling per passenger, accounting for about 1.5% of all greenhouse gases emissions in the world. I know this percentage does not sound like much. But let me put it this way: travelling by plane can release 23 times more CO2 into the atmosphere, per passenger, than a train ride to the same destination. Is it just me, or interrails are sounding more attractive already?

train vs airplane: which one is more sustainable?

How green is your grocery cart?

The food industry alone is responsible for about a quarter of all anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. So, obviously, what you eat has a huge impact on your ecological footprint. Several scientific studies show that a meat-based diet is less sustainable, as its production requires more land, water and energy resources while also causes more pollution. Beef is widely regarded as the most harmful food to the environment. In fact, in 2014, a study published in Nature journal revealed that the consumption of beef and lamb is sometimes associated with the release of 250 times more greenhouse gases than vegetables, per gram of protein. Even alternating meat-based meals with vegetarian ones can significantly reduce the environmental impact of your diet. But it is not just about what you eat. How far your food comes from and whether it is processed and packaged or not also influence its sustainability, since this chain of events generates extra greenhouse gases. However, according to a recent study published in 2018, these emissions represent only a small fraction of those resulting from the overall food production. For example, transport, processing and packaging accounts for only 1 to 6% of the total greenhouse emissions per kg of beef produced. Although I did not check the math, looks like having a beef steak from a cow raised by your welcoming neighbouring farmer still has a much bigger impact than consuming packaged lentils cultivated in the other side of the world. Nonetheless, it is still probably more environmentally friendly to buy peppers from him than to purchase imported ones at a supermarket. I repeat, probably. Because sustainability is a complex issue and there is a multitude of factors involved, like the specific agricultural practices employed. Contrary to popular believe, organic farming is not necessarily “greener”. This alternative cultivation scheme produces around the same amount of greenhouse gases as other methods and it is simultaneously more demanding regarding land occupation. Summing up, buying local and organic food is not enough to greatly reduce the negative impact of your daily meat-based meals.

A meal with beef or lamb can be responsible for the release of 250 times more greenhouse gases than a vegetarian dish. Read more on #sustainability at @ScienceStationS

greenhouse gases

How big is your trash pile?

Have you ever thought about what happens to your undifferentiated trash bag after municipal collection? Today, the main methods of disposal of solid waste consist of burning them or stack them in a landfill. The first approach releases greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and can also pollute the soil with ashes. The second one, besides generating greenhouse emissions, can leak heavy metals and organic compounds to the surround soil and groundwater. However, the pollution resulting from these waste management options occurs mostly at developing and lesser developed countries, where incineration and landfilling is performed in a less sophisticated manner. Developed countries have modern facilities that largely attenuate the environmental impact of these processes. Regardless, there is still a negative impact, greater than recycling. For instance, it is estimated that recycling a glass beer bottle releases between two to eight times less greenhouse gases than sending it to a landfill. But wait, do not start putting everything you possibly can in the recycling bin. Repairing and reusing are even more sustainable! Back to the beer example: buying this beverage in a returnable steel bottle produces less 15 to 38 greenhouse gases than recycling a glass one. The bottom line is you should give priority to reduce consumption, reuse/repair objects and, only as a last resource, recycle. The more often you incorporate these in your routine, the lower your ecological footprint will be.

reusing vs recycling vs landfill

Are your foundations eco-friendly?

Today, in western countries, most homes are made of concrete or bricks. But, did you know that manufacturing this kind of housing consumes about 200 to 400 times more natural resources than building a wood house of the same size? And the bigger your home is, the greater impact its construction has. The number of people with whom you share your roof is also relevant for the calculation of your ecological footprint. Generally, it is considered that larger households are more efficient – and therefore more sustainable – than smaller ones regarding energy consumption and land occupation. Multi-story apartments are slightly more efficient than freestanding houses for precisely the same reasons. These are all factors that you must consider BEFORE buying or renting a house. However, even afterwards there are still some steps you can take to reduce the environmental impact of your sweet home. Ensuring a good thermal insulation, buying energy-efficient appliances and trying to acquire your electricity from renewable sources are all great eco-friendly measures you can embrace.

sustainable housing

Since 1970, humankind has been using more natural resources than what Earth is able to restock.

Year after year we are getting even more in debt with our planet. Nowadays, we run out of our yearly supply of natural resources in less than seven months. Changing our lifestyle is not enough to ensure a sustainable existence of Humans, but it is surely a big step forward in the right direction. So, maybe it is time for you to reflect on how many Earths we need to sustain your lifestyle. You can find out the answer here.

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