The first 'R' of sustainability

Or, why I run a ten-year-old Diesel car

As an architect, I need to travel about quite a bit to provide a useful service to my clients. I’d love to be able to use public transport 100% of the time, but unfortunately, there are times when I need to use my car. Since I’m an architect that puts sustainability right at the top of my list of priorities, you could be easily forgiven for thinking I would insist on driving an electric car, a hybrid or at the very least, an ultra-low-emission car.

But, you’d be wrong. I don’t. My car is nearly ten years old. It has a Diesel engine, and by most modern standards it's probably considered quite inefficient.

If you’re more familiar with my take on sustainability, you’ll know that a big part of my approach is to reduce unnecessary consumption. But in a society based on consumerism, we’re constantly bombarded with messages about how we need to upgrade to the latest and greatest. If we don’t, we’re labelled as a failure. This, of course, has a massive impact on the environment.

So, I’m advocating a different approach; one where we think twice about upgrading, including when it's sold to us as a sustainable alternative. That's why I’ve decided to keep my car, even though you wouldn't ordinarily label it “the sustainable option”. Here are some of my reasons:

Carbon footprint

Building a new car has a big carbon footprint. As for the actual amount per car, this is a bit of minefield and figures quoted vary massively depending on the source. The SMTT’s ‘2018 Sustainability Report’ claims that for every new car, 500kg of carbon dioxide is produced. However, that seems extremely optimistic to me, and I suspect it isn’t the whole story. I doubt it includes the full impact of everything that happened upstream of the production plant, like the extraction of raw materials, refinement, and production of individual components. I could be wrong, but clearly, the SMTT has a vested interest in the continuing production of cars, so I think it’s reasonable to want to scrutinise its figures.

In his book ‘How Bad are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything’, Mike Berners-Lee suggests a figure of 720kg per £1000 spent (although we can probably safely assume this figure has decreased somewhat since publication due to improved production methods).

Let’s go with the middle-ground and assume a new, modest-sized car would have a carbon footprint of ten tonnes of carbon dioxide if we consider every stage of its production. I’m also going to round up the carbon emissions of running my car to 220g/km. I estimate I’ll do no more than 6000 miles per year, which equates to roughly two tonnes, or 20% of the carbon footprint of a new car.

That’s five years of driving my current car before I generate an equivalent carbon footprint to manufacturing a new one.

The recycling myth

Carbon emissions aren’t the only environmental impact. Many parts can be and are recycled, a lot of the time, but most materials cannot be recycled infinitely. Each cycle reduces a material's usefulness until the point where it ends up a waste product. It isn’t possible to recycle ourselves out of this problem. Ultimately, much of it will end up in landfill. Plus there’s the fact that the process of recycling consumes lots of energy.

Alternative sustainable transport

There’s one simple thing I can do to reduce the impact of my car; don’t use it! I don’t always need to. If I’m working more locally, I can use a bicycle to get around. If my destination is served by public transport, I can use that. It’s frustrating that compared to public transport, my car is frequently a more convenient, less costly alternative. But creating meaningful change is always going to come with a certain amount of inconvenience.

Carbon offsetting

It's relatively affordable for me to offset my remaining emissions. Through websites such as goldstandard.org, I can invest in projects that are doing good elsewhere in the word, and offset my carbon emissions in one fell swoop. At the moment, it costs about £10 to offset one tonne. So, I can offset my carbon emissions each year for just £20. I don’t need to buy a new car.

Now, I admit carbon offsetting isn’t perfect. It’s certainly not a long-term solution. However, as long as it makes sense to keep my car, in my opinion, it’s the best option.

Consumerism isn’t the answer

So, they are my reasons. At the moment, I’m not convinced that a new car is a sustainable option. When it’s no longer feasible to run my car, I will, of course, reconsider my options.

It’s all too easy to get caught up in the hype of the latest and greatest, especially when it’s touted as being a more sustainable alternative. But in the end, we can’t consume our way out of a problem that was caused by consumerism in the first place. It’s like fighting fire with fire. Hence, the first ‘R’ of sustainability is to reduce.