Environment: treading lightly on the Earth
Environment: treading lightly on the Earth

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Environment: treading lightly on the Earth

2.3.6 Carbon footprint at home

The carbon footprint, as an indicator of how heavily people are ‘treading on the Earth’ and affecting the climate, is a rather abstract idea. Videos 2 and 3 are a collection of extracts from a BBC/OU TV programme, Can we save planet Earth?, which provides striking images of a household’s footprint as black blocks of carbon coming out of a house, car and power station. Although the programme was made in 2006, the issues it discusses are still relevant today, even though some of the information it presents has changed. For example, as you’ve seen, China has now overtaken the USA to become by far the world’s largest CO2 emitter. Video 2 examines the carbon emissions of a fictional average suburban family – the Carbons – who live in a rich country, like the USA.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 2
Skip transcript: Video 2 The Carbons

Transcript: Video 2 The Carbons

[MUSIC PLAYING]

SIR DAVID ATTENBOROUGH
We know that human activity on a large scale, massive deforestation, the near universal use of fossil fuels is changing the climate. But can anything that you or I do individually, can that have an effect? Well, over half the carbon dioxide produced by mankind comes from our domestic activities.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Meet the Carbons. They're a fictional family living somewhere in the Western world.
They occupy an average suburban house outside an average city.
The Carbons depend on an average amount of electric power, it comes to them by an energy grid powered primarily by fossil fuels, coal, oil, and natural gas.
The Carbons are not bad people.
MR CARBON
Girls, do you want coffee, pancakes?
SIR DAVID ATTENBOROUGH
But as Westerners, they have one of the most energy-hungry lifestyles on the planet.
MRS CARBON
Girls
EMILY CARBON
What's for breakfast?
FEMALE SPEAKER 1
Yeah.
MR CARBON
Pancakes. Dad cakes.
MRS CARBON
Pancakes. What you want, a pancake?
FEMALE SPEAKER 1
Yeah.
MRS CARBON
Here you go.
MR CARBON
I'll call you from the airport.
EMILY CARBON
Over
MR CARBON
Bye.
MRS CARBON
Bye.

[CAR STARTING]

SIR DAVID ATTENBOROUGH
Mr. Carbon's car, like most, spews out a lot of carbon dioxide.

[DOG BARKING]

And the Carbon family has two cars. Every year between them they pump a staggering 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Ten tonnes per car.
But it's not just the cars.
MRS CARBON
Emily.
SIR DAVID ATTENBOROUGH
Running the Carbon's family home, with all its comforts, uses almost as much energy as their vehicles do.

[ELECTRIC METER TURNING]

[KETTLE WHISTLING]

Every device, functional or fun, has a knock-on effect

[LOADING DISHWASHER]

at the power plant.
Scientists fear that at this rate these everyday emissions could, within 50 years, push our climate to a critical point where change is no longer gradual but sudden and extreme.
There's no threat of extinction in the Carbon's house. On the contrary, there is plenty of food here.
Often it will have crossed continents by the time it reaches their kitchen.
Transporting this food accounts for over a tenth of the carbons annual greenhouse emissions, and it doesn't end there.

[FILLING TRASHCAN]

More carbon dioxide is produced by the Carbon's rubbish.

[TAKING TRASH OUT]

[TRASH TRUCK PICKING UP TRASH]

Buried in a landfill, the rubbish heats up as it decomposes, releasing greenhouse gases into the air.
All the while, the carbon dioxide blanket surrounding the earth is getting thicker, pushing the planet's ecosystems closer to the point of no return.

[AIRPLANE FLYING]

Mr Carbon dreams of a tropical rainforest holiday, but today he's on a business trip.
When he flies, he's contributing to the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide.
Even with plans for more efficient engines, emissions from airplanes worldwide are set to double in the next 25 years.
End transcript: Video 2 The Carbons
Video 2 The Carbons
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Now watch Video 3 which looks at the Tans, a fictional and upwardly mobile couple who are about to move into a new apartment block in a suburb of a Chinese city, mainly fuelled by carbon-heavy electricity from China’s coal-fired power stations.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 3
Skip transcript: Video 3 The Tans

Transcript: Video 3 The Tans

[DRIVING IN CAR]

SIR DAVID ATTENBOROUGH
In cities all over the developed world, millions of ordinary households produce great quantities of carbon dioxide simply by going about their daily lives.
So far it's the Western world which has produced the majority of the greenhouse gases.

[RIDING BICYCLES]

But that is set to change.
Meet Mr and Mrs Tam.
They are a fictional couple living in an average Chinese suburb. At present, they use only a seventh of the energy consumed by the Carbon family.
But life for the Tams is changing fast.
And they, together with 1.3 billion Chinese, are heading for a more energy-intensive lifestyle.
Mr. Tam has got a new job, and it comes with a flat in the latest upmarket development, complete with state-of-the-art energy-hungry fittings.
To fuel their economic boom, China has one main cheap source of energy, coal.
Coal is the most carbon dioxide polluting source of energy we have.
Currently China is planning to build a large coal-fired power plant every week for the next seven years.
In as little as 20 years, China is likely to become the world's number one greenhouse gas emitter.
There is an explosion in energy consumption worldwide. And by 2050, we're on course to have doubled the amount we emit.
End transcript: Video 3 The Tans
Video 3 The Tans
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Activity 6 The Carbons and the Tans

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes
  • a.According to the video, what are the main sources of CO2 and other GHG emissions created by the Carbons’ and the Tans’ households?
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Answer

The Carbons’ main GHG emission sources shown on the video are: electricity for household electronics and appliances; their cars; food distribution and consumption; decomposing waste; and flights. The Tans’ main emission sources are not detailed, but focus on building construction and electricity from coal-fired power stations.

  • b.What major source of emissions does the video not mention explicitly?
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Answer

The direct emissions from the fuel (probably gas or oil) used for heating the Carbons’ house and providing hot water, and the indirect emissions from the production and consumption of the goods and services to support the Carbons’ and Tans’ lifestyles, are not explicitly mentioned.

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