After lunch we’ll save the planet

Recycle it, don’t bin it. Walk, don’t drive. Don’t have lots of kids. For decades we’ve been lobbied by the environmentalists to change our lives and our habits. What difference does it really make? We asked four families — each a different shade of green — to keep an eco-diary for one month. Then we measured their carbon footprints. The results surprised us all.

When it comes to looking after the environment and the climate, the lecturing never seems to end. Stop using plastic bags; fly less often or not at all; buy local, seasonal veg; build a compost heap… You do your best, but it's hard to get it right because the messages are confusing. Take the issue of biofuels: at one time they were the next big thing, now the debate is whether or not they could cause worldwide food shortages. And how do you deal with local councils that refuse to recycle certain types of plastic?

Even thinking about your carbon footprint can leave you overwhelmed, admits Chris Goodall – whose book How to Live a Low-carbon Life is described by New Scientist as ‘the definitive guide to reducing your carbon footprint' – or simply embarrassed, when it comes to answering questions about holidays, mode of travel, or food, particularly how much is wasted.

For all these reasons, some of us prefer not to think about personal responsibility. And it can be easier to pretend that the answers to issues such as climate change, resource shortages, overpopulation and desertification lie entirely in the hands of governments. Nations will deliberate at Copenhagen – and we will all either be saved or doomed. But the truth is that, regardless of what the governments decide, we can do a great deal on an individual level, as Goodall discovered after auditing four families for The Sunday Times Magazine. Turn to page 21 for the verdicts

The Michaud/Methot Family, Oxford

Antoine Michaud and Caroline Methot have three children aged eight, four and two. Antoine works for a multinational company

Antoine Michaud and Caroline Methot are French-Canadians who have been living in Oxford for eight years. When they first arrived, Caroline was shocked by what seemed to her like a lack of support for recycling, particularly when she tried to get rid of old batteries.

“My heart just went ‘Aargh!' “ she recalls, “and I felt we really had to do something.”

She joined a local environmental group and raised the issue at her first meeting. Since then, the group has put up collection points for batteries and taken the collections themselves to the local recycling centre.

Methot has also been involved in the group's other activities, which include collecting litter and cultivating abandoned land in secret.

At home, she recycles well beyond the requirements of the local council collections.

“I recycle my soft plastic, like yoghurt pots. Oxford doesn't collect them but I put them to one side and take them to the recycling centre [which does] when I'm taking batteries.”

She does this, she insists, not out of eco-fear but for its own sake.

“I am not afraid of what is going to happen to the planet,” she says. “Sure, there are things that are dramatic. But it's not fear that motivates me. It's just that these things need to be done.”

There are some things she can't do, however. She can't change her utility supplier to another one that's more green, for instance, because she does not own the property where she lives. Nor could she even persuade her landlord's agents to put an insulating jacket around her hot-water tank.

“They said it's not necessary,” she reports. “The intention is there but we can't do everything we want to do.”

Isn't that frustrating?

“No, because I'm doing other things. I'll do it later. I really want to do it – and I will.”

If her own commitment once seemed a little extreme, the evidence suggests that it's recently become much more normal:

“Six years ago, I met someone who was deliberately not recycling. I didn't know what to say. She was very, very well educated. I met her again a few weeks ago and asked if she still wasn't recycling but she said she does, now.”

Alas, the emissions saved by Methot's time-consuming and community-minded efforts are vastly eclipsed by the flights that the family take each year to visit relatives, and the many flights taken by her husband in the course of his work.

The Millest family, London

Tom Millest is a chief inspector with the Metropolitan Police and Sally runs an arts organisation. They have two grown-up children: Alice, 24, and Adam, 21

Not so very long ago, Tom Millest signed up to get solar water-heaters installed on the roof of their home in west London. When his wife, Sally, found out, she was not impressed.

“He was horribly frustrated but I thought they weren't in keeping with the street,” she says.

“I can see his point, the motive was right. But I felt they would make the house less attractive.”

As it turned out, putting up panels in a conservation area would have required planning permission, and neighbours indicated that they would oppose it. Anyway, Millest concedes, the roof was not ideally aligned with the sun.

The Millests were keen to keep a diary, and to have their carbon footprint measured, because they would like very much to be told with certainty what would be the right thing to do. Millest has bought books about being green, and unlike some people he says he never switches off when the subject comes up in conversation. But he's still baffled.

“One thing that weakens my willingness to take action is that there seem to be so many unknowns in terms of the effect of what we do. When you wash your hands in a public convenience, what wastes more energy: the paper towels or the hand-dryer? Is a train better than a bus?

Should we buy local food or support farmers in the Third World?”

Sally, too, wants practical suggestions. “Nicholas Stern [a former Government adviser on climate change] seemed to say the other day that we should all stop eating meat. I don't regard that as a practical suggestion. I think the green argument has to be made in terms that people can engage with. Generally speaking, it doesn't do that particularly well, because people tend to take a very evangelical approach that doesn't engage with ordinary people.”

They both cycle more than they used to, have experimented with food-growing, and recycle conscientiously as required by the local council (“it's our duty to do our bit,” says Sally). But they are not green to the point of self-denial.

Not so long ago, the family flew to the south of France for a holiday. “We're aware that it would have been better to take a train than to fly,” says Sally, “but Alice and Adam said they would have hated being in the train.”

They both try to shop locally, and that means shopping in Norfolk where they have a second home. But there are limits to their green consumerism. “Sally does the vast majority of the shopping,” says Millest, “and when I shop I often buy fairtrade or organic. If I did the shopping all the time it would increase the food bill enormously.” Couldn't they afford that?

“We probably could afford it, but it would mean going to the theatre a bit less often.”

The Hill-Montgomery Family Near Huntly, Aberdeenshire

Fiona Hill works in publishing. Her husband, Hugh Montgomery, works for a company promoting renewable energy. They have nine-year-old twins, Angus and Elizabeth

When Fiona Hill is annoyed with her husband, Hugh Montgomery, she does something very particular to get back at him: she takes things out of the recycling box and puts them in the ordinary bin.

She's only done it a couple of times, but even once would be enough to demonstrate that couples, no matter how similar their general outlook, occasionally fall to battle over the half-inch of territory that divides them. And in the case of Hill and Montgomery, that battle rages over the recycling.

They're both conscientious about doing their bit for the environment, but it seems clear that, when it comes to the crunch, he cares a teeny bit more about recycling than she does.

They also have battles about going into the nearest town, five miles away. “I'll want to go for something, and Hugh says, ‘Leave it till the next time you're going in.' And he's always keen to cut down any journey by taking his bike in the car.”

Hill and Montgomery live on five acres of land with their twins. They grow food in their own polytunnel, and keep horses, dogs, and 10-year-old chickens that have mostly stopped laying eggs. “But I can't bump them off!” says Hill.

“I want to get some more, for the eggs.”

Food is one of the things that Hill cares very much about – particularly meat. “I never buy that from a supermarket. I want to know the animal's name, and everything about it – I buy from a local butcher.” For holidays, the family has an old VW camper van which they drive around the country rather than going overseas. They buy clothes from Howies, which is both ultra-trendy and ultra-green.

Hill runs a publishing business in a converted bothy, and their green credentials are all the greater because Montgomery works for a company promoting renewable energy; in particular, wood pellets. But the company is based in London, so Montgomery has to commute from Aberdeenshire every fortnight.

The Harland Family, Hampshire

Maddy and Tim Harland run a publishing business promoting practical steps to becoming more green. They live with their two daughters and one daughter's boyfriend

According to Maddy Harland, recycling only the things that your local council permits is passive and uninspiring. “You're still a consumer, ticking boxes,” she says. She tries to go beyond that. As well as ordinary recycling, the Harlands compost all organic food waste and use cardboard as a mulch. They re-use bottles and jars for juice, jams and chutneys made with their own home-grown fruit and vegetables.

The house is fully insulated and double-glazed, with one fireplace and a wood burner. This uses wood that is sourced locally, often from their own property, which was bare field in 1991 but has since been turned into a permaculture garden with raised vegetable beds, salad beds, a greenhouse, 62 fruit and nut trees, soft-fruit bushes and edible ground cover – all being organic – along with wildflower meadow and native hedges.

The Harlands decided nearly 20 years ago to lead greener lives after they went whale-watching in Baja, California, and then saw a film about permaculture – a system for creating abundance with minimal inputs. They gave up their jobs as writer and publisher and set up their own publishing business – turning the Permaculture Association newsletter into a magazine and printing dozens of upbeat, practical books.

“Permaculture is not about finger-wagging,” Maddy Harland insists. “It's the opposite. The way to make changes is to lead by example.”

This could sound awfully smug. “No, it's not about being holier than thou. It's about doing your best in your own circumstances.”

Even the Harlands have limits, though what they see as a failing might look barmily green to many. “There is still stuff to do. I find it frustrating that we don't manage as yet to store all our fruit. And we want to put a solar panel with a 12-volt pump on a rainwater butt and pump it up to a big tank in the veggie garden to store 200 litres, because drought is bound to be upon us sometime soon. The tank and the butt are in place – we just need advice on panels and pumps.”

The Harlands don't beat themselves up.

“I can't be niggled by the things I ‘ought' to do,” Maddy says. “I try not to use the word ‘ought'. You have to try to be satisfied, because nobody knows all the answers.”

Five years ago, Maddy and Tim Harland's daughters Hayley and Gail were unimpressed by their parents' drive to be ever more green.

“They used to be pissed off,” says Maddy, “because they wanted us to be normal parents and we wouldn't take them on a package holiday to Spain or Portugal, or to go shopping at Topshop. But now that they're 20 and 17, they've developed a different perspective.”

The method

We looked carefully at the lifestyles of these four ecologically aware families, assessing their energy use and the greenhouse-gas emissions embodied in what they purchased during October. Inevitably, the numbers cannot be precise, but they give a reasonable indication of the carbon footprint of each household.

We followed each family for a month, asking them to record their meter readings, mileage in their car and details of any flights that they took. If October was unusual in any way, the guinea pigs told us.

We also looked at what they bought, focusing on food, clothing and paper. These goods use large amounts of energy to make, or they add to emissions in other ways. The families sent us their supermarket receipts so we could assess their food consumption, and they gave us records of paper and other recycling, and any clothing purchases.

At the end of the month we gathered the data and calculated the total CO2 emissions from each household. The figure was subsequently divided by the number of people in the household. We could then compare the family with the average for the UK in each of the nine categories we looked at.

Including the CO2 produced when things are made, here or abroad, the average person has a carbon footprint of about 14 tons of greenhouse gases a year. Official figures show a lower amount, but they don't generally include the emissions from air travel or the greenhouse gases produced in the countries that manufacture our food and other goods. It was impossible to measure everything in this trial, but the things we did measure covered about 60% of the total, meaning if we did the same analysis for every person in the UK we'd see an average footprint of eight or nine tons. The scale of the challenge facing the UK and other countries is brought home by remembering that CO2 emissions per person need to fall to little more than two tons per person in about a generation.

The verdicts 
Compiled by Chris Goodall

The Michaud-Methot family
In this family's well-insulated new house, use of gas is much less than the UK average. Antoine drives 10 miles to work but the children walk to school. Books and clothes are second-hand, and fruit is bought at the nearby market; most other food is ordered online. Spread across five people, their footprint is 3 tons, less than half the UK average. However, with air travel (Antoine makes many flights), even spread across five, the total is 23.1 tons, almost three times the UK average of 8 tons for the things we measured.

The Millest family
Sally and Tim live in southwest London and commute to work in the centre. Tom sometimes cycles. They have a cottage in Norfolk, which they visit every three weeks or so. Active recyclers and public-transport users, their energy use, at 8.2 tons, is typical of the UK as a whole. Their car does average yearly mileage (9,000 miles) but has high emissions for each mile travelled. They took one return flight this year, but it was a short hop, giving them a small flying footprint. Their gas use was well above usual: Tom thought their thermostat was set high. Clothing purchases were minimal in October but paper use was twice the average: though they recycled, this made a big difference to their total emissions.

The Hill-Montgomery family
Analysis of this family's carbon footprint shows some of the difficulties of living an eco-life in the country. Their total footprint per person is about 6.7 tons across the nine categories, compared with a UK average of 8.2 tons. However, their rural location means it is pushed up by travel, such as the school run and Hugh's air travel between Aberdeen and London for work, as well as his train journeys to the capital. The family also runs a car in Scotland and London. They grow a lot of their own food, and buy little meat and processed food, giving them a below-average footprint from food. Their clothing and paper use is very low, about a quarter of the UK average. Carbon emissions from electricity use is low too, but CO2 from heating is high, as they are not on the gas grid and have to rely on oil.

The Harland family
Maddy and Tim's 1860s Hampshire cottage has lots of insulation and solar-powered water heating in summer from a wood-burning stove, they grow most of their food and bulk-buy dried wholefoods twice a year. Clothes and electronic goods are bought on eBay. Car use was half the typical figure, but public transport was high, as younger members travelled to college. Gas use was low, as it was warm for October; electricity use was average. Total carbon emissions per person were about 2.4 tons, less than one-third of the average UK figure.

2902 words. First published 29 November 2009. © Times Newspapers Ltd.