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Portrait Project Looks at the Carbon Footprints of People Living Around the UK

NeilBaird-footprints-1

[17.2 tonnes CO2e]
Bev is an Environment Protection Officer with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA). He loves riding his motorcyles of which he has four. He lives alone.
“The ice caps have come and gone on a 180,000 year cycle but it is evident that they are now melting at a rate faster than they normally would. Human impacts have made a great contribution to some aspects of climate change, We are in a cycle and we can’t stop it. I honestly don’t know the answer. Maybe we can slow it down a bit, but I do think we’ll end up going back to water where we came from at some point.I am not very optimistic – I really do not know what we could do to make a difference. Personally I’m not surprised at the size of my carbon footprint, it does make me reflect on the sustainability of my current lifestyle. I live in an old stone building with very poor thermal properties.”

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[4.8 and 6.9 tonnes C02e]
Karen and Adam live and work in the woods in the south of England. They make charcoal and manage the woodland using traditional coppicing techniques.
“We think of this as a carbon neutral business. With the coppicing, we’re restoring old hazel. When we came here it was getting old and large, and starting to collapse. Old trees don’t consume as much carbon as a young tree. Where we’ve got the young stools coming up, they’re consuming much more carbon. So this woodland is now consuming more carbon than before we started managing it. Climate change is a big issue. Where possible I like to buy local, but it often comes down to money if I’m buying new. I drive a lot and I keep an old diesel vehicle on the road and I use recycled chip fat biofuel when I can. I don’t really think about climate change when I travel. If I have the funds and want or need to go somewhere, I go. While the elite are making money from war, I don’t feel me and my van will make a lot of difference when there are fighter jets burning more fuel on take off than me making a thousand mile journey.” The difference in their footprints is largely to do with the driving done by Adam.

We all know about climate change in a sweeping and abstract way; we understand that sea levels are rising, that coastlines are in danger, that animal populations are dwindling, and that we can no longer tame weather patterns and natural disasters. We recognize where our governments and global communities have failed, but for many of us, suggests photographer Neil Baird, our comprehension of climate change has one gaping blind spot: our own role in the problem. For Footprints, he documents and interviews people living around the United Kingdom about their thoughts on the significance of climate change and our uncertain future, all while calculating their individual carbon footprints.

Although an individual’s or an organization’s carbon footprint can be easily calculated online, Baird found that the majority of the people he approached for the project we unaware of their own personal greenhouse gas emissions, which include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and others known collectively as CO2 equivalent gases. His intention in photographing and releasing the footprint of each person or family, he stresses, isn’t to shame people over the number; instead, he hopes to draw attention to the ways in which all of us, regardless of our annual emissions, are contributing to the catastrophe.

It was likely his non-judgmental, open attitude, guesses the photographer, that encouraged people from all lifestyles to participate. He started with friends and friends of friends, expanding his network to include anyone with an interest in being involved. His subjects’ footprints range from four to fifty tons per year, and he too was not exempt from the process; throughout the series, he has continuously recorded his own emissions: “To date, the footprint of this project has been 907.18kg CO2e, mostly spent on travel in my small car, which averages 54.5 mpg,” explains Baird.

Those with higher footprints, admits the photographer, tended to be more surprised than those with lower rankings, who were generally more conscious about their lifestyles and impact. Although Baird’s subject matter is certainly a heavy one—and some of his subjects remain discouraged about our future—the photographer finds moments of hope, and Footprints is equally a tribute to our potential for change. Some steps towards repairing the earth are small ones, while some are more difficult, but Baird urges us to take some action, whether that be giving up or decreasing the amount of meat consumed, traveling by foot and bike rather than by car or plane, or switching to a 100% renewable energy tariff (Baird recommends Good Energy and Ecotricity).

Ultimately, Footprints has empowered the photographer to look inwards; “It’s enlightening and liberating when you understand that the way you live impacts your own carbon footprint, and that you can actually make a positive impact,” he says, adding that we “do indeed have choices, not always easy ones, but choices nonetheless.”

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[4 tonnes C02e]
Jo works at Edible Landscapes London, a sustainable communities lottery funded project helping to protect vulnerable people against the effects of climate change. She doesn’t own or drive a car.
“At Edible Landscapes London we do informal training on volunteer days, and formal training like Creating a Forest Garden, which is a new accredited course. It’s all to do with gardening with low maintenance, local food growing that makes the best use of gardening spaces. And it leads to all year round productivity as well not relying on a monoculture crop which leaves the land unproductive for the rest of the year. I have had to make a choice between global campaigning kind of stuff and localised tangible projects. I chose the latter. So at the moment I tend to have the higher level political stuff on my radar… so I will sign a petition, you know, to encourage a council to go down a divestment path and so on, but I won’t be actively campaigning in those areas just because I’m a mum, and I can’t do it all. My hunch about where we’re at, what’s going on in the atmosphere, is that its highly probable that we’ve gone past the point of no return. So what I’ve got to give is just planting more trees. Whatever happens, more greenery is always going to be a good thing. It may be that things turn out ok in which case its still good to have more trees. There’s no way that what I’m doing can do any harm. I simply want to focus on that. You know, just keep on going.”

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[58.5 tonnes C02e]
Avia is a business woman and owner of a yacht club and marina on the south coast of England. Her carbon footprint is high, in part due to the transatlantic flights she has taken this year. “I have a flying habit,” she says. “Climate change is very scary. It is obviously happening and it’s going to have a massive impact on everybody. But we just seem to be ignoring it. It is natural to have cycles, but unfortunately I think we are close to tipping the balance of it not being natural anymore. I think we may have gone too far. Personally the way things are structured at the moment, the way everybody is behaving, I don’t think there is much hope. When the system breaks, it will break so quickly and the breakdown will be so dramatic, and there isn’t any backup plan. I think there is migration due to people not being able to survive, unable to grow things… I think that will get worse, obviously as more pressure is brought to bear by the earth and the climate changing. If areas start to flood, if we end up not being able to produce the food we need, and it’s all run by big corporations, individuals can’t survive if they’re not self-sufficient, and not in a stable environment. How are they going to survive? They’re going to migrate more. And everywhere becomes more and more pressurised. I think governments could do something, but we can’t. As an individual it’s very very difficult, and I’m not sure that a little bit of recycling is going to make that much difference. There needs to be a total change, a shift. I think the younger people are much more aware, conscious, green, and I don’t think they’ll put up with the political system we’ve got for very long. I think they’ll tip the balance… and hopefully we’ll have a sixties-style revolution.”

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[7.5 tonnes C02e]
Brother Hugh lives in a Franciscan community in the Dorset Countryside.
“What everyone knows about St. Francis is the ‘Brother Sun, Sister Moon’ stuff. The idea is that we do not have dominion over things, but that we are equal creatures with the things God has given us. Climate change is by far the biggest issue. Its not the end of the world – we have had six mass extinctions, and we’re going through the seventh – we’re going through the biggest extinction since the end of the dinosaurs. Maybe for the earth that’s good, there are some greens who might say that human beings are a scourge, and that we should go and that the earth would be better off without us and start all over again. As a Christian I think human beings are rather important, and I think while we are fellow creatures we have a responsibility. We are the first creatures who have knowingly almost destroyed themselves. Climate science can overwhelm us, or make us cynical, but there’s Christian hope. We have to be offering, not condemning people for what they’re doing but actually showing people that there is a different way, empowering people to live a different way. If you present everything in purely scientific ways people turn off with the figures, people know what we have to do, but actually there needs to be poetry, sport, music, worship. It needs to be culture that changes people’s lifestyles. Science is never going to do that. We know the science and we’re not doing anything. Unless living more simply makes us happy we’re never going to do it.”

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[9.1 tonnes C02e]
Mike is semi retired and works part-time as a gardener. He lives with his wife in an old house in a conservation area. They heat the house with oil, coal and wood. This accounts for a third of his footprint.
“I do know quite a bit about climate change, but the trouble is you’ve got the two camps, and one is saying one thing, and the other something else. You hear about the ice cap in the Antarctic and Greenland, they’re saying it’s been bigger than its ever been and it’s not melting. And then you see a documentary on the North Pole one where its pouring down and the glaciers are melting. You’re not sure what to believe. It depends which camp you’re in and what financial aspects there are to it. There are vested interests. This place that we’ve got here… it leaks. If you were to put a thermal camera around for the heat loss you’d see it’s a nightmare. We spend pounds on heating it. If you’ve got to do that we ought to start knocking all these listed buildings down. Back when I was a teenager, my father grew dahlias for showing, and I can remember that in April and into May there used to be frosts. March and April used to be wet, you could guarantee showers, May would turn out to be all thunderstorms. But since then, the frosts have lessened, and the rainfall has got more, things have changed.”

 

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[15.4 tonnes CO2e]
Alice is a curate in a rural English parish. She lives with her husband in an old rectory which is not insulated to modern standards.
“Climate change is a big and important issue that is not getting the action that it needs because the action probably comes at a cost that I suspect as a society we are not prepared to make. Our parishioners probably reflect the population in the area – there will be some on whose agendas the issue will be near the top, a few that would deny that this is an issue at all, and the majority who would think ‘yes this is something important’. But it’s not at the top of their agenda. And I think it is reasonable that the church should be doing something to actually pull it up people’s agendas. I think we have the capacity to take the actions we need to take. Whether we do or not is a different matter. I think we are right to be worried, and that’s maybe part of bringing people on board, but we need to have the possibility that we can do something that will make a difference. Can we do that? Of course we can for goodness sake, we’ve only got to stop being quite so greedy haven’t we! I think the Christian line is that at some point, at some time God will take the mess that we’ve made and bring about from it his recreation of planet earth. But taking the good efforts that we’ve made and that being a part of it. God won’t be limited by us, but playing our part is part of it. We do have a responsibility to play our part and to help in that process.”

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[4.6-6.9* tonnes C02e]
David has spent the past two years building their new zero carbon home. Lindsay is a consultant who works for the public sector and for charities. They spent two years living in a portacabin during the building of the house. “Climate change is theoretically the most important issue. It’s the fundamentals of it all. In reality it comes and goes in its importance in our life. But on big decisions it certainly plays a part. Often you kind of forget about it and get on with life, especially with little ones. But it definitely matters in terms of how we’ve structured our lives, we may just not necessarily think about it every day. We purposefully live in a area where we can walk to shops and we can walk to our friends, but on a day-to-day basis we just walk without thinking about the fact that we’re not driving there or that we’re helping to combat climate change. When we built the house, our vision was to live almost carbon neutral. And we knew that we could never do that with retro-fitting an old house and also creating a really nice space for the family, a space where we knew we could host people and live. We wanted to contribute to the community, or the sense of community – for people to come and spend time here – we like to open up to people and try to be there for people when they need it. The idea is about hosting and being an open place.” *6.9 tonnes CO2e based on the year spent living in a portacabin *4.6 tonnes CO2e based on available data to date living in the new house

NeilBaird-footprints-10

[5.5 tonnes C02e]
Alex runs a small business making raw vegan snacks which she sells at local markets. She lives with her mum and brother and the various friends who seem to frequent the house.
“I know that climate change has been happening for years now, and everybody knows about it, but there’s no big change. We’re not looking after how beautiful this planet is. And we’re not getting together and saying ‘let’s live a lifestyle that is sustainable. People could eat a lot less meat – diet is really important. And I don’t see why they need to drive so much, and not shop more local. Why do you need to buy things that come from so far away. I don’t understand why people don’t think about it – it just seems obvious. It should be socially unacceptable to not think about what we consume in all sorts of ways. Actually sometimes we all get caught up in a consumer lifestyle and you have to say ‘hold on, what are you doing?’ and you have to wake up to it. I don’t watch TV but I see just from the people around me that there is so much pressure in the culture to have more stuff. When you go shopping you see things and think what is all this about? I am fairly immune from the pressure but I see it just from talking to other people. I just hope there will be more and more people whose eyes are opening. I have loads of friends who have never voted but are now voting green, because they see that this is the only way we’ll get something done here. So I’m hoping that in a few years time we can get some more influence in the country and that the government starts to create incentives for living more sustainable lifestyles. We should be rewarded for doing the good things. There’s a lot of room for more legislation to encourage people.”

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[4.2 tonnes C02e]
Roger is a long term resident of the Findhorn Community, an ecovillage in the north of Scotland. He lives in a self-built house made from a whiskey barrel.
“When I came here in 1974 ecological awareness was virtually nil. Most of us lived in caravans and thought little of it. In building this house I imagined I could do it for £3000. I ended up spending £10,000 but for that I built it and furnished it, and did so with support from the community, in the form of an architect and a joiner, and lots of help from guests. It’s a nice cosy little nest. We have just had the twentieth anniversary celebration of Global Eco-Village Network event here last year. We had representatives from about three hundred eco-villages all over the world. There are now several thousand eco-villages in that network and they seem to be going from strength to strength. There’s going to be a delegation at the UN climate change talks in Paris presenting themselves as being a positive response and a mitigating factor in the whole climate change issue by virtue of learning to live both sustainably, and with a heightened quality of life. Eco-villages are basically positive alternatives to what is, in terms of consumption oriented lifestyles, the driving force of our global system at the moment. By using our available resources more sustainably, we are essentially modeling the way that we believe the rest of the world has to change in order to make human life on this planet sustainable. I fear that it’s going to take mother nature, Gaia herself, shall we say, to demonstrate who’s in charge. And maybe eventually we’ll get the message. Gaia will survive humanity, but if humanity will survive on Gaia remains to be seen. It’s about making the adjustments required to enable humanity to become a viable long-term species. Our downside here at Findhorn is that we’re a guest economy, we are a tourism economy. We depend on people coming to us, travelling, usually flying. That’s our tragic flaw. Our Achilles heel.”

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[7.8 tonnes C02e]
Richard works as a security consultant. He has had earlier careers as an army officer and a police officer. He is currently doing an MSc in Sustainability.
“We have to accept that in the last forty thousand years we have transformed planet earth, but that for the most part was in balance for nearly all that time. There was space for humankind to survive in civilized societies that were functioning in harmony with nature to a greater or lesser degree. But you can’t say that now. That is the challenge we have – a challenge we have created in a very short space of time. I think we have a responsibility to live on this one planet in a sustainable fashion. That means that we have to recognize that we have to change the way we do things. How we change is the challenge because it is a global problem that requires a global solution, and that makes it really difficult. No longer can you act as a kind of nation state or a small community and create the kind of change that is required to put the whole planet back into balance. That’s the real challenge and why it seems so difficult for people to feel that they can contribute to that process. There is a perverse argument that ‘yes we know what is happening but there are so many things involved and there’s nothing we can do’, but as we know, that’s just a line that’s been fed, to make people keep on consuming, to keep the economy going. I don’t like all the way that capitalism operates at the moment because I think it’s a corruption of the way that it was intended to operate. I’m not ideologically against it. I think it has some real benefits and opportunities for people, but I am not comfortable with the way that it’s gone over the last thirty years. Democracy has to either get capitalism back under control or replace it with something else.”

All images © Neil Baird

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