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

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4.3 Lighter living costs and constraints

The costs of ‘light living’ actions need, of course, also to be considered. Some actions involve no cost or save money – for example, less flying, shopping or meat eating – or can even make money, such as letting out a spare room. Others are low cost with a rapid payback time. For example, replacing a halogen incandescent light bulb with a low-energy compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) or light emitting diode (LED) lamp should pay back the new lamp’s cost in lower electricity bills in about 6 to 12 months. Other measures may involve extra cost, for example taking the train instead of driving, or considerable investment, such as installing a rooftop solar photovoltaic system, which may take ten years to pay back. The big carbon-reduction benefits of such actions have to be weighed against affordability, cost and return.

Apart from cost, there are many other factors that may attract or deter you from acting. Travel behaviour is well known as one of the most difficult things to change. You may have little choice about using a car for commuting, shopping or ferrying children about. Looking forward to that foreign holiday may be the one thing that keeps you going.

As noted in Section 2, your needs, wants and social values are important too. For example, some people feel that travelling by bicycle or bus is only for people who can’t afford a car, and that flying to exotic destinations gives them social status. On the other hand, others find the idea of cutting their travel footprint in half, or making their home really ‘green’, exciting and challenging.

Most people’s lifestyles are only partly under their control or are what is considered ‘normal’ in society. So freedom to change is constrained by circumstances and the wider society. Even so, it’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that only making changes with minor environmental benefits is enough. As the former government chief scientific advisor, Professor David McKay, observed, ‘If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little’ (McKay, 2008, p. 3).