Households helping to cut carbon emissions

Jennifer Shulzitski and Geoff Clarke with children (from left) Silas Clarke (4), Odin Higbee (7)...
Jennifer Shulzitski and Geoff Clarke with children (from left) Silas Clarke (4), Odin Higbee (7) and Violet Higbee (11) show off the solar panels at their Waitati home.
New Zealand’s image might be clean and green, but we are among the top countries in the world when it comes to producing greenhouse gases on a per capita basis, emitting around 17 tonnes per person every year. We have also committed to a goal of being carbon neutral by 2050, with the Zero Carbon Bill passing in Parliament last week— so what can we do to get there? Elena McPhee spoke to two families and a specialist in the field about what individuals and our society could do to cut down our carbon footprint.

Becoming eco-friendly is a work in progress for a Waitati family, who say going off the grid has helped both their carbon footprint and their bank account.

Jennifer Shulzitski said she and partner Geoff Clarke were not perfect - but were striving to cut down the amount of carbon their family of five generated as much as they could.

When Ms Shulzitski and Mr Clarke - who works at Orokonui Ecosanctuary- built their house in Waitati more than a year ago they knew they wanted to live off-grid.

"I have lived in Central America in the past; we have learned a lot about living not only off-grid but using very few resources," Ms Shulzitski, a trained wildlife biologist and educator, said.

The choice to install 2kW of solar panels on their 80sq m home at a cost of $15,000 had given them autonomy, as well as making them more aware of their power use.

"The future is having smaller grids that can stand alone, and trying to function as independently as possible."

The couple acknowledged they were in a "privileged position" to be able to afford to go off-grid in the first place, but estimated the entire solar panel system they had put in would pay for itself in about five years' time.

When she first came to New Zealand, Ms Shulzitski said she had an electric bike which she used to ride into Dunedin for the weekly Otago Farmers' Market at the railway station and to transport her older children Odin and Violet around.

Since 4-year-old Silas was born that was no longer practical, but the family still had the goal of carbon-free transport and were planning to save up and buy an electric vehicle in the next three years which would be big enough to transport everyone.

When it came to diet, Violet was gradually becoming a vegetarian - and the whole family were following her example and trying to cut down on their meat intake.

They also had a small orchard on their section to grow their own food.

New Zealanders still had a decade to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 under the Paris Agreement, which was welcome, she said - allowing for the ability to upscale or downscale a workplace, city or country.

"We've got 10 years to get there, like budgeting or any goal you have in your life."

She would like to see systems implemented encouraging New Zealanders to lower their carbon usage, such as free solar panels, schemes such as government subsidies for electric bikes, and changes to the building code.

In South Dunedin, another young family is also working towards a low-carbon goal. However, Michelle and John Gillanders said their main contribution had been embracing a vegan diet.

Avoiding meat and dairy products is one of the biggest ways to reduce your environmental impact - and the couple have eschewed animal products for about five years.

The diet had required careful planning when it came to their 2-year-old Clara-Jade getting all the nutrients she needed, but she had been vegan throughout her mother's pregnancy, while being breastfed, and now she was on solid foods.

"The transition part was the difficult part," Mr Gillanders said.

"Sometimes it's going to mean that there are very few options [when it comes to places to dine out]."

Mrs Gillanders said "just like any toddler" Clara-Jade was picky, but her parents "do our best to get the good stuff".

Some of the toddler's best-loved dishes were cashew cheese sauce on pasta, falafel, edamame and bliss balls.

While Mrs Gillanders was a staunch advocate of the health benefits of a vegan diet, which she described as the healthiest lifestyle to have, she said she did give Clara-Jade a Vitamin B12 spray "to be on the safe side".

Technically it should be possible to receive enough of the vitamin through a well-planned vegan diet, but that was "not really guaranteed nowadays with the way things are produced", she said.

She also gave Clara-Jade a multivitamin tablet and a fluffy drink containing calcium and magnesium, saying it was a precaution due to her daughter being fussy rather than a necessity.

Aside from veganism, the Gillanders also went to the Bin Inn to refill jars and other containers, to reduce the amount of waste that went to landfill, and also ensured they took cups whenever they went to get coffee.

"We went to a Dunedin City Council wastefree packaging workshop, which opened our eyes to how much waste generated from plastic happens.

"That's been quite a big one and can be a bit challenging at times."

Mrs Gillanders said the majority of the items they bought were secondhand, making their possessions "a wee bit more eclectic".

While they did own a car, Mr Gillanders cycled to work whenever he could - and although they were renting at the moment, when they bought a house they would start a vegetable garden.

Vegan family Michelle and John Gillanders with daughter  Clara-Jade Gillanders (2) are helping...
Vegan family Michelle and John Gillanders with daughter Clara-Jade Gillanders (2) are helping the environment by not consuming animal products. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
A low-carbon life

Every little change counts — here are some basic tips from the Ministry for the Environment on reducing your family’s carbon footprint.

• Plant trees
In New Zealand, forests offset nearly 30% of our greenhouse gas emissions. A
regenerating native forest can remove more than 8 tonnes of carbon dioxide per
hectare per year from the atmosphere over its first 50 years.

• Conserve water
Climate change is likely to have an impact on our water resources. Water supply
may be altered due to changes in temperature and rainfall patterns, and water
demand is likely to increase during the summer months as temperatures increase.

• Insulate your home
If you are building a house include balconies, shading and efficient cooling
systems such as natural ventilation. Use passive solar design and insulation —
this reduces the need for heating in winter and air-conditioning in summer.

• Buy local, organic food, and eat less meat
Red-meat production produces significantly more greenhouse gas emissions than
the production of chicken meat, fruit, vegetables and cereals, and it also requires
substantially more water.

• Reduce your electricity use
Greenhouse gas emissions are produced when we use electricity and gas. New
Zealand has a high level of renewable electricity production, but this is still
supplemented by burning fossil fuels.

Average household carbon output

A New Zealand household with two adults and two children that spends about $60,000 annually produces about 19.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, according to research from Motu Economic and Public Policy Research Institute.

Statistics from the Ministry for the Environment for June 2019 showed household emissions of greenhouse gases increased 19.3% in the country from 2007 to 2017.

Although the ministry attributes that to an increase in transport use, Motu says food - from production to consumption and waste - is still the biggest creator of carbon.

"Approximately 57% of these emissions were from food purchases, whereas approximately 20% were from transport," research fellow Lynn Riggs said.

Not all foods are equal. Lamb, beef, cheese, pork, turkey and chicken were among the highest polluters. About half of all emissions from food purchases in New Zealand households could be attributed to meat, Ms Riggs said.

The institute used an input-output model that took into consideration production and processing.

International website Greeneatz provides details of the carbon footprint of different foodstuffs. It said lentils created 0.9kg of CO2 per kilo of food to produce, the equivalent of driving a car just over 3km.

By comparison, producing a kilogram of lamb, from raising the animal to packaging and processing it, created 39.2kg of CO2, the same as driving a car about 144km. Beef created 27kg of CO2 per kilo.

Of the remaining 23% of emissions an average Kiwi family produced, a great part could be attributed to utilities such as light, power and water - at 15% - and the remaining 8%, which could include general household rubbish, was classified as "other", Ms Riggs said.

Issues that need to be tackled as a society

New Zealand's gross greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 were 80.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Households accounted for 11% of that - but the bulk, the remaining 89%, was from industry.

Sheep, beef, cattle and grain farming accounted for 27.1% of total emissions in 2017, making it New Zealand's highest-emitting industry.

Between 2007 and 2017 emissions from all industries dropped by 2.9% - or 2217 kilotonnes. However, over the 27-year period from 1990 to 2017 the country's net emissions increased by 23.1 %.

University of Otago Centre for Sustainability director Associate Prof Janet Stephenson said the action that needed to be taken was wider than just addressing the issues facing agriculture, though major industry player Fonterra still burning coal to dry milk was an example of a problematic practice.

"We've got to replace coal, gas, petrol and diesel with other forms of energy," Prof Stephenson said.

"Reusable electricity is going to play a huge role, and reducing the use of petrol and diesel in cars. That still leaves some issues around things like freight.

"Freight is not necessarily going to be electrified."

Finding alternatives would require long-term investments, and among areas that could be investigated were hydrogen and biofuel vehicles, Prof Stephenson said.

Another area to be considered was providing incentives to investors to spend money on carbon credits, investing in New Zealand's low-carbon future via the Carbon Fund - New Zealand's first NZX-listed investment fund designed to trade in carbon credits.

Air travel within New Zealand and overseas had to be considered, as New Zealanders tended to use it a lot, and that trend was projected to continue.

"There's research and development going on around the electrification of short, local flights.

"We are going to have to really rethink whether we use flights in our everyday lives."

In Europe, it was "so easy" to move between different countries on the continent via electric trains, and investment in rail needed to be carefully thought about.

Bringing in the right infrastructure to encourage people to make green choices - including providing safer cycleways - was also important.

"That goes across all kinds of sectors and all sorts of different fields.

"Transport has to be addressed at different levels. I look at it as this cascading set of levels, and everyone's got a part to play."

Ideas for eco-warriors

  • Using a "mooncup" rather than sanitary items.
  • Buying secondhand clothes and other possessions wherever possible.
  • Getting on your bike, or use public transport rather than driving.
  • Buying quality items, rather than cheap ones you have to replace.

Tips for worm farming

A worm farm is a good way of reducing the carbon footprint of your business, if food waste is an issue. 

Central Otago REAP community sustainability facilitator Anna Robinson said while it was possible to buy purpose-made containers for worm farms, such as "Hungry Bins", for a smaller operation an old laundry tub from a demolition yard would work just as well.

"They are next to nothing, and then the set-up is really cost-effective as well." 

The worms used were usually tiger worms, which can be found in household compost heaps, but not in the soil.

Some places such as Central Wormworx, in Central Otago, sold tiger worms by the kilo, or they could be obtained from other worm farmers. 

The best way to start was to create a leafy bed, and then add some worms and a small amount of food — bearing in mind the worms cannot process meat or
dairy. 

Ms Robinson said it was important to offer tiger worms variety; grass clippings, dirt and leaves could be added into the mix. 

If a business had decided on the homemade option, it was also important to create a "nice cover" as the worms liked to work in the dark — for instance an old blanket, a piece of cardboard, or something else found around the home would do.

PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Pumpkin lasagne

One of Michelle’s favourite low-carbon recipes to create is pumpkin lasagne with cashew "cheese" sauce. —

Ingredients
tomato paste
sheets of instant lasagne
1/2 pumpkin, oven-cooked and mashed
1 jar of pasta sauce

Optional
spinach, mushrooms, black or white beans,
capsicum, courgette, corn

Cashew "cheese" sauce
cup raw cashews, pre-soaked and blended
1 cups water
tsp crushed garlic
tsp salt
2 Tbsp nutritional yeast
cup fresh basil or 2 tsp dried basil.

Method
Place all ingredients in a pot and heat until thick, stirring constantly. 

Layer instant lasagne sheets with some tomato paste spread on top, then a layer of cooked, mashed pumpkin, followed by layers of whatever else you like.

Another layer of pasta sheets can be added and layers repeated.

Put a final layer of pasta on top, and pour pasta sauce over. 

Cook at 180degC for 40-60 minutes, or until the pasta is soft. Pour over the cashew "cheese" sauce before serving.

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