Could you live a carbon neutral life?

Amanda Riley-Jones

Public concern about the environment has reached a record high but what can we do as individuals? We meet four inspiring people who have successfully reduced their carbon footprint

Hamish McKenzie, 63 lives with his psychologist wife, Sarah, in Shoreham-on-Sea, Sussex. Almost everything he owns is recycled—including his floating home.

“In times of yore, there’d be ringing of the church bells during a national emergency. They should be ringing now. Climate change is the biggest danger we face,” says Hamish McKenzie—a bell-ringer, boat-builder, extreme recycler and climate change activist.

He’s been living in a community of houseboats for the last 33 years and says “The Greenland ice cap is melting even faster than predicted. My biggest personal fear is that we can’t keep building our way out of what's coming,” he sips his tea and gestures over to the wall defence just feet from his boat.

"Everyone can take action locally and do their bit"

“In 100 years' time, maybe less, it will be unviable for people to live here because of rising water levels and the likelihood of hurricanes.”

After training in civil engineering and carpentry, Hamish volunteered in Fiji, building community halls from timber. At 48, he enrolled at art school where he learned welding and fibre-glassing skills.

Hamish boathouse

Now 63, he’s turned recycling into an art form and has created eclectic, eccentric houseboats out of old vehicles and bits and pieces he retrieves from junkyards and farms.

He and his wife live on Verda—an amalgam of an old Bedford coach and eight boats, built on the hull of a 1928 Portsmouth-Gosport ferry, which Hamish rescued from the tidal mudflats. He lists another houseboat, named Dodge, on Airbnb to fund his lifestyle.

Onboard Verda, underneath a striking ceiling incorporating second-hand aircraft wings, the spacious main room is currently home to a banner Hamish has made in support of Extinction Rebellion, the international climate change protest movement.

“Western democracy is based on consumerism but we have to find a new way of living so we have a smaller impact on the planet. I have a lovely life and a lot of fun without buying a lot of c**p and flying all over the planet,” declares.

Verda has mains electricity and water, two electric showers and three storage heaters to provide background heat. Down in the cosy kitchen Hamish built himself, there’s a washing machine, fridge-freezer and cooker fuelled with bottled gas.

Apart from his laptop and piano, almost everything seems to have been recycled—from the microwave letterbox to a speedboat turned into a bookcase and gigantic tractor tyre window frames, looking out over the coffee-coloured River Adur estuary.

His ethos of treading lightly on the planet extends into every area of life. “I buy my clothes from charity shops and regard meat as a treat. We’re living off vast amounts of courgettes, broad beans and spinach from our allotment and I try to buy seasonal, local veg from small shops.”

“Sadly, there are no grocers left in Shoreham. Our infrastructure has been decimated by cars and out-of-town supermarkets. I hate the fact that the end of my road has a 30,000-cars-a-day habit. An average car weighs around 1.2 tonnes, how much does a passenger weigh? Petrol engines are only 30 per cent efficient. It’s a profligate waste.”

Hamish gets around by bicycle (“a wonderful bit of kit”) and adds, “I’ve just cancelled a trip to Madrid because I won’t fly again. Flying is one of the most polluting things we can do. Planes expel gasses such as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere where the damage is magnified. If we can decrease air travel by ten per cent there will be no need for an extra runway at Heathrow.”

A question about whether there’s anything he misses is met with a cheerfully emphatic “No!” And he’s committed to encouraging others to adapt their lifestyles.

“Many people feel powerless about what is happening all over the world and even stop watching the news. But we have to think what we can do for the UK community. Everyone can take action locally and do their bit.”

 

Harriet and Chris Martin, 75 and 76 from Bournville, Birmingham have halved their carbon footprint by making changes in their home and their habits. Harriet is a retired archaeology tutor; Chris used to work in manufacturing and at a local university.

“I feel guilty about what people of my generation have done. I don’t want to leave behind a damaged world for my four grandchildren,” says Harriet.

“The climate change and plastic pollution generated by humans is causing a crash in biodiversity and the sixth great extinction in our earth’s long history. Over-use of nitrogen fertilisers has created “dead zones” in the oceans. These things threaten the beauty of our world—and the ability of today’s children to feed their children in 30 years' time.”

"It's been an enjoyable challenge"

Chris and Harriet are Quakers and their commitment to the environment goes hand-in-hand with their faith. In 2011, Quakers in Britain committed collectively to becoming a low-carbon community. “Quakers have always stood for peace and equality—this means living simply and minimising our impact on the planet’s resources,” explains Chris.

“The wealthy few are responsible for most carbon emissions and pollution worldwide and are destroying the livelihoods of subsistence farmers who need predictable rain and sun. For the people left hungry and thirsty by climate change, it's a potent source of conflict and stress.”

The couple learned all about energy efficiency when they were involved with retrofitting a local meeting house. Then, in 2009, they downsized from their family home to a 1930s semi-detached property with an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating of just E [the minimum standard that landlords in the UK must reach to avoid a £4,000 fine].

“We chose a house where we could make as big an improvement as possible,” explains Chris. “Fortunately, we were able to work on the house for six months before moving in.” They insulated the wall cavities, loft and under the floors, dry-lined the insides of the exterior walls, installed a new, efficient condenser boiler and replaced single- with high performance double-glazing. They also added a conservatory which captures any heat lost from the house. Chris adds “In the spring and autumn, its sun-warmed air heats the entire house.”

Solar thermal panels installed on the roof provide nearly all their hot water April-September and they pre-warm their water the rest of the year. They also built a pergola in the garden with ten solar photovoltaic (PV) panels which generate as much electricity as they use. “After all our improvements, I calculate that our home’s carbon emissions have been reduced by about 85 per cent,” says Chris.

While they’re understandably proud of what they’ve achieved, Harriet makes the point that “Carbon dioxide emissions from heating and electricity make up only a fraction of the average UK carbon footprint. Food, all the stuff we buy, and our travel choices are equally important factors.”

Raising animals to eat requires vast amounts of land, food and energy and livestock grazing is a leading cause of pollution. The Martins are already vegetarians and shifting towards a vegan diet.

They also minimise what they buy new. “We mend our clothes, and try to get things from charity shops, online sites such as Freecycle or Freegle or borrow from a neighbour,” explains Harriet.

They rarely use their car and walk or take the bus instead. “We avoid flying and have travelled by train to Rome, Madrid, Barcelona and St Petersburg,” continues Harriet. The hardest thing to give up has been regular flights to America to visit her sister, cousins, nephews and nieces. “But we Skype,” she says of her pragmatism.

“Educating ourselves and adapting our lifestyle has been an enjoyable challenge,” reflects Harriet. “The main point,” adds Chris “is that we don’t want to be personally responsible for depleting the world of resources.”

 

Catrina Davies, 40 lives in an 18x6ft corrugated iron and wood shed in west Cornwall. She earns her living by writing, gardening, working in a cafe and cleaning holiday cottages.

Nine years ago, the Cambridge graduate was living in a houseshare in Bristol, teaching the cello and writing for websites. Constant worrying about paying the rent was making her ill with stress and she longed to get back to the Cornwall’s Penwith peninsula where she grew up.

Priced out of the housing market, she took the radical decision to whittle down her belongings and go to live in a dilapidated, stand-alone shed which her father once used as his office.

"Making sacrifices now could make humans happier in the long run"

“It was full of mice and spiders and there was no electricity, toilet, heating or shower,” Catrina remembers. “The nearest public toilets were on the cricket field. I read by candlelight and washed under the outside tap. If it was really cold, I boiled water and washed inside.”

“It was full of mice and spiders and there was no electricity, toilet, heating or shower,” Catrina remembers. “The nearest public toilets were on the cricket field. I read by candlelight and washed under the outside tap. If it was really cold, I boiled water and washed inside.”

She survived the first year without electricity and still only uses ten pounds-worth a month. “I can now read without straining my eyes and type words on my laptop, instead of scrawling them in the half-dark with a pencil,” she says happily.

Over the years, Catrina has upgraded her modest abode with second-hand windows and doors and had a wood burner installed. She collects gorse from the cliff tops and wood from skips and clients’ gardens and reports, that, “When it’s on, the shed is toasty!”

Her oven is a camping stove outdoors and she does without a fridge (“I don’t eat meat which makes it easier”) by keeping perishables outside in a Tupperware box. She buys milk from a local farm to make yogurt and grows fresh herbs, salad and vegetables.

She needs her old Berlingo van to move gardening equipment and bags of laundry, but otherwise gets around on her second-hand touring bike.

“After an early morning swim with seals nearby, I love coming round the bend on my bike and catching sight of my shed,” she explains.

Having such an outdoor lifestyle, she’s painfully aware of climate change. “I've noticed fewer songbirds and owls, and scarce, less varied wildflowers. Winters are warmer and weather patterns seem to be disrupted. The fishermen say there are fewer mackerel too.”

“Plastic pollution in the sea fills me with grief and rage,” she continues. “And the Amazon rainforest is being burned to the ground because of our desire for an endless supply of cheap burgers and cheap leather. Our ecology and housing crises are both symptoms of human greed.”

“To save the planet, we all need to radically change the way we live. Although giving up meat, lots of cheap goods, driving and flying may seem like a sacrifice, it could actually make us all a lot happier in the long run. Many studies show that materialistic tendencies are linked to decreased life satisfaction. When I first moved here, it was only meant to be a stopgap. Six years later, I can’t imagine living any other way.”

Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed by Catrina Davies is a hardback, published by Riverrun at £16.99


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