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Carbon Guilt and Frantic Justification

Generally we are pretty ‘right on’ as a family. We live in town in a two bed flat with all A-rated appliances – a condensing boiler etc. The building is old but we don’t have much external wall space and we have argon filled double glazing and draft proofing in most of the old sach windows. We are in a conservation area so can’t change them to anything else.

We are vegetarian though not vegan and we don’t fly for recreation. I have to fly for work sometimes and one day I will take the kids on a plane somewhere just so they have the experience. They are the only ones in their classes at school who haven’t been on an aircraft and some of their class mates don’t believe them when they say so.

The one fly in the ointment of our general green-smugness is our vehicle. A year ago we did away with the car and bought a modern VW camper van – a year old California. We don’t actually use it on a day to day basis as we walk and cycle everywhere. This is our weekend machine. From central Edinburgh we can be in Northumberland or the highlands in two or three hours. It also enables us to partake of the out of town shopping experience occasionally and do trips to the South of England to see family. The downside is that it only does between 35 and 40 miles to the gallon of diesel on a run and about 30ish in town once it has warmed up. It does sleep four comfortably though!

I thought it would be nice to see how much CO2 we were emitting by using the van and initially I wondered how I would calculate it. Then I realised that the litres of diesel are written on the receipts! So for the last year I have been collecting all the receipts for diesel and putting them in a spreadsheet. April to April we have spent £1,352.56 on 1,080.25 Litres of diesel. Using the conversion factor of 2.6391 this means we have emitted 3,569.54 kilograms of CO2 – just over 3.5 tonnes. That is quite a lot of guilt but we did get a lot of value out of it. We had several trips to the South of the UK (the van acting as an office outside mother-in-laws house on a number of occasions). We had several weeks away and I have lost track of the number of weekends. I did five long weekends in North Wales whilst doing the mindfulness course for starters. At Easter this year we had a whole week away on a single tank of fuel – around 190kg of CO2.

What else could we have blown 3.5 tonnes of CO2 on? According to the figures on this site 3.5 tonnes is the equivalent of  12,321 passenger miles short haul, 17,601 medium haul or 20,166 on long haul. Now there are four of us so we have to divide these by four to see where we could go – so that is roughly 3,000 miles short haul, 4,500 miles medium and 5,000 miles long haul.

It is about 3,000 miles Edinburgh to New York so we could have flown to Newark on Continental Airlines and then two thirds of the way back – which wouldn’t have been a very pleasant holiday – especially the last part. Or we could have gone to somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean and made it all the way back. Perhaps a week in North Africa? The trouble is none of this would have included our obligations to visit family or my five weekends in North Wales or out of town shopping trips. We would have had a single holiday at one location and/or burnt more carbon by running a car or maybe hiring one.

What about alternative lifestyles. What if I worked in Livingston (20 miles away) and commuted in a Toyota Prius? Then at the weekend we went camping in it. At 225 trips a year is 8,800 mile at 72mpg is roughly 1.3 tonnes of CO2 then we did about 9,000 mile for leasure in the van so an equivalent in the Prius would be another 1.3 tonnes. So 2.6 tonnes total – not bad at all as long as we weren’t tempted to jump on a plane. I have a sneaking suspicion that a Prius wouldn’t do 70+mpg if you sat four people in it and put all the camping gear for a week in the highlands in a roof box on top. Camping in Scotland can be pretty unpleasant for much of the year which is why we got the van and why alot of people take a cheap package holiday to Spain mid winter (that’s 3 tonnes of carbon for the family).

I think my conclusion is that this is far more complex than it at first seems. Although I feel guilty at driving a large vehicle, especially when we do use it for the occasional shopping trip, it is nothing compared with a quickly forgotten week in the sun and many people do both. Thinking it through has made me appreciate every litre of fuel we burn – which must be a good thing.

Next month we are off to France in the van. It should be exciting and we shouldn’t use any more fuel in the tank than flying but maybe we will have more of an adventure. The trouble is we are getting the Plymouth-Santander ferry and that will use loads of carbon. Still lets get the most out of it by trying to do some whale watching. It has to be a better use of resources than watching inflight videos.

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