Greta Thunberg is taking a year off from school in Sweden to speak at the United Nations in New York on the topic of climate change. Why does she need a year? Because she is traveling by sailboat.
For those of you who missed her on the cover of Time magazine, or missed her nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize, Greta is a 16-year-old who started striking from school on Fridays. Instead, she protested in front of the government building to call for more to be done to stop climate change.
Her protests have gathered the support of hundreds of thousands of students around the world. Swedes, in particular, have become more aware of their carbon footprint.
Taking an airplane, as it burns all that jet fuel, has appeared top of mind as a particularly wasteful way to destroy the planet. Many governments are adding an eco-tax to flights that depart from their countries. So, this summer, traveling by train, bike, scooter are all encouraged as environmentally friendly, while flying is shameful. Many Swedes who fly now apologize to each other when they talk about it.
And so, Greta and her father will sail to New York on a 60-foot boat, provided by a prince of Monaco (apparently the grandson of Grace Kelly). Meanwhile, many Swedes are trying to rise to her call to make a big difference. For the first time in years, fewer people are flying, especially on shorter domestic flights where trains exist as alternatives. There are also fewer cars in the big cities. Instead, they are overrun by electric-driven stand-up scooters.
It’s hard not to wonder, however, if some of these choices are really better for the environment. How can it be measured? We buy locally grown strawberries because we think they use less fuel to get to us, but what if they require using more energy to heat the greenhouse they grew in because it is colder here? Did they grow in compost? Were they treated with fertilizer made in China? Which berry has a smaller carbon footprint?
The makers of rentable electric scooters — Bird, Lime, Voi and other competitors — want us to believe we are producing less CO2 by using them. But a study done at North Carolina State says it isn’t that simple.
You need to look at the whole life of the product from production to disposal. It concluded that these scooters produce more greenhouse gas per mile and person than a diesel bus. Even electric mopeds and bicycles are better, the study said. Of course, walking, which many consumers would do if the dockless battery-pack scooters weren’t on every street corner, is best.
We consumers are going to have to get a lot smarter about measuring emissions before making assumptions. Getting on a bus that uses diesel is different from a bus that uses bio-ethanol, for example. Heck, these days I can take an electric-driven bus across town. But I have to look for it specifically. Does it matter, though, if I take the diesel bus? It is going to go anyway.
Trying to make the right choices is exhausting. Are the light bulbs LED? Is the coffee not in instant one-use pods? How far did the beans travel to get to me? Were they picked by children in forced labor? How many times do I have to reuse a plastic bag to make it a better choice than a paper bag that cost a tree its life? Was my fish dinner farmed? Are the new paper straws at McDonald’s really recycled or just thrown away with everything else?
It’s no wonder anxiety and stress levels are higher than ever in young adults. We just had the hottest July on record, and they are being bombarded with messaging that if they don’t think about this constantly, the world will crumble. And they will be left picking up the pieces because we’ll be dead by then.
We all face these issues even on a small scale everyday, including climate activist Greta. My friend who lives near where Greta held her Friday protests said the teenager and her friends were usually eating take-away lunches in single-use throw-away packaging. They left piles of garbage behind them at the end of the day. Greta’s big speeches are all good, but let’s not forget change starts at home with simple things like bringing your own containers to use for food, or bringing net bags to reuse in the produce section.
Most of us won’t get the opportunity to sail across the Atlantic, but we can start talking about the everyday things we can change that will make an impact.
Marybeth Sandell is a communications specialist from the Sandhills area and former UNC Pembroke professor currently living in Europe.