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Editorial: Environmental Dilemmas

There are no easy answers

Should I have that baby? Petrol or Diesel? Should I give up meat? MBRB launches its Environment Issue

Today, only the extremely deluded can afford to be climate change deniers. Whether we like it or not, the planet is hurtling towards a disaster- and soon. And while it is easy to blame man and his inexorable march towards progress for most of the catastrophe, the answer really is a lot more complicated than that. How does one balance a developing nation’s immediate desire to be an economic superpower with its longer term ecological impact?  What will it take to produce a viable world wide clean energy resource that is also cost-efficient? And is that even possible?

Closer home, what can we as individuals do to live green? And how does this desire to protect our planet co-exist with a desire to live complete and fulfilled lives? While the notion of not making any compromises at all is admirable, what are the compromises that make a comparatively smaller impact on the environment than the others?

The answer may perhaps be different for all individuals. But we thought that there is no better way to launch our Environment Issue than by providing you with the arsenal of facts that will help you make more informed decisions.

Here are some of the small (and not-so-small) environmental dilemmas that many of us face, and the best answer that the MBRB team could find for them. We hope it helps!

Should I have a baby?

Of all the things that you do (and this includes flying around the world bazillion times) perhaps the highest environmental impact is that of the act of reproduction.

An Oregon State University study says that for each child that an American woman has, she increases her “legacy” carbon emissions by 9,441 metric tonnes! It has to be said though that the number is much smaller for a child born in India  at 171 metric tonnes(this is both because the average life expectancy of an Indian child is lower, and because the carbon foot print of an Indian is about 1/20th that of an American.)

Neither the professors who conducted this study, or MBRB, suggest not bringing those babies into the world. But it would be useful to remember the impact of some of the life decisions we make, and to try and counter them in other ways to reduce our overall carbon footprint.

Should I switch off electrical switches?

When you look at the numbers above, the worries about whether or not you unplugged your laptop or telephone from the electrical outlet seem a little silly, right? However the key difference here is that switching off the electrical switch, or unplugging that electrical outlet, is easier to do. Also, when you take into account the hundreds of millions of electrical outlets draining out excess vampire energy at a time, it adds up.  Globally, standby power accounts for 1% of overall CO2 emissions, and while that doesn’t seem like much, it is also a 1% that can be easily eliminated. (The less child friendly among our readers would remind us of the excess parental energy that can be saved by not having those children, but we maintain that the two are different.)

For a handy guide to understand how much power you waste by leaving things plugged on consult this chart. Put simply:

  • You are better off leaving a charged device hanging to a plugged in switch than leaving a charged device plugged on

  • The one significant change you can make is switching off your plasma (especially) or LCD television from the plug every time that’s not in use.

Should I turn vegetarian?

…This may surprise you, because it surprised me when I found out, but the single biggest thing that an individual can do to combat climate change is to stop eating animals. Because of the huge, huge carbon footprint of animal agriculture. I was shocked to find out that animal agriculture directly or indirectly accounts for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions, compared to all transportation – every ship, car, truck, plane on the planet only accounts for 13%. Less than animal agriculture. So most people think that buying a Prius is the answer, and it’s certainly not wrong, but it’s not the biggest agent of climate change.

-James Cameron

James Cameron is not wrong! Studies by different groups estimate the total greenhouse emissions caused by livestock farming to be anywhere between 14.5% to as high as 51%! A study by Dutch scientists Elke Stehfest and his team in 2009 contended that not only will a worldwide move to vegetarianism reduce methane emissions by 24%, but also open up 2700 MHa of pastures for increased vegetation and a better overall carbon uptake.

Not to mention the disturbing videos of overfishing and industrial poultry farming that you’ve already seen and heard about. As omnivores it hurts us to say this, but a gradual move towards vegetarianism may just be the one thing that you can do and that will make a significant impact on the planet.

What do I do about the Air Conditioning in Summers?

One of the issues we faced while putting this piece together is the absence of easily available research about many of these questions from an Indian perspective. A lot of the worldwide studies include central heating and central cooling as part of the overall calculations of domestic energy consumption, phenomenon that are still accessible to only a few of us. As of 2007, 2% of Indian households had Air Conditioning as opposed to 87% of American households, and this number has been increasing by about 10% a year over the last 10 years

While we can’t advocate getting rid of air conditioning entirely, and are cognisant of the fact that Air Conditioning use in the country will only go up in the coming years, here are things that you can do to ensure that the AC’s you use are as energy efficient as possible.

  • The government of India has a rather nifty little calculator that can act as an interesting indicator to check whether your house or office is over-airconditioned.
  • The Bureau of Energy Efficiency is also working very hard to make Energy Stars mandatory based on the overall energy efficiency of the machines – any unit sold after 2012 should have at least one star, and five star indicates the highest level of energy efficiency.
  • A key environmental challenge with Air Conditioning is the disposal of the unit with HCFC gases in it. Many of the new manufacturers include clean disposal as part of their service guarantee. Ensure you avail of that instead of selling your old Air Conditioner to the friendly kabaadiwaala

Should I take that bus?

Surprisingly, the opinions around this issue are a lot more complicated than we’d assume. The simple answer of course is that where possible take public transport, if that’s not possible then your energy efficient car (Car-pooled) and if that doesn’t work, then your car alone.

But the overall environmental cost of driving or using public transport is not only that of the petrol or gas emitted, but also includes the costs related to the building of infrastructure around it (the road networks), the manufacturing of the actual vehicle, and its eventual dismantlement and disposal. And when you keep all of those in account the results may surprise you.

1. For instance, did you know that per mile, the cost of travelling in an aeroplane is significantly lower than than of the travelling by car? And so, our solution for reducing our travel foot print may not be so much to travel by other means of transport, but simply to travel lesser? And while travelling lesser seems an easy lifestyle change for most, how do you account for those who stay away from their families?

2. Similarly, while public transport is more energy-efficient, an off peak bus actually emits more emissions than your car. Therefore, while it is essential that planning departments build public transportation infrastructures, route planning and ensuring their adoption is as important as just building this infrastructure. (On the basis of this study, the smoke emitting Blue Line DTC bus may just be more efficient than the Air Conditioned Volvo’s simply because MORE people are being transported by it)

3. On the diesel vs petrol debate, the general consensus is that while diesel is more cost-efficient and generates less CO2 than Petrol, it also emits significantly more NO2, and when you take into account the cost of meeting excess diesel demand, and the resultant black soot emissions, then the positive environmental impact is effectively negated.

The truth is that environmental dilemmas are complicated. They all mean serious compromises for (comparatively) few returns. But if we are serious about reducing our carbon footprint, then it is essential that we make the kind of life choices that make a serious impact instead of opting for the populist ultimately low-impact initiatives like The Earth Hour.

The only solution of course is for the Governments and Private Enterprises to invest in the research for a viable clean energy source, but is that really so easy to co-opt  when we as individuals find it so difficult to travel lesser, turn vegetarian, or switch off the Air Conditioning?

Over the course of this Environment Issue we’d love to engage with our readers to find out what their views about the whole issue are, and the measures that they’ve adopted to make this planet greener.

Write to us at, or tell us in the comments below.

Some older articles you may enjoy:

My Big Red Bag brings original content inspired by life’s joys and passions. Check out other articles from our Environment Issue, and stay tuned to our latest content by following us on Twitter and FB. See you on the other side!

Photo Credit: henrikj via Compfight cc

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