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Provide greenery, harden your garden as little as possible and use rainwater or rinse water from the vegetables to water the plants. © iStock
‘Disruption to the climate is the greatest challenge the world currently faces,’ said UN Secretary-General António Guterres in 2019. But despite clear signals – such as the forest fires in Australia, high temperatures at the North Pole and extreme droughts – taking real action has still been difficult.
Some people think individual actions amount to nothing more than a drop in the ocean – but that's not true. Naturally, companies should be adjusting their energy-guzzling production processes and ensuring that their products are easy to recycle. Scientists should keep searching for decent alternatives to fossil fuels. Banks should only be investing in sustainable initiatives, and we should expect national and international authorities to take the necessary measures. But none of this means that individual citizens don't have an essential role to play too.
The EU has already shown its ambition. It wants to be fully climate neutral by 2050 with its Green Deal. This will take a considerable turnaround, but the necessary changes in behaviour are never extreme. The only condition is that we all take part: companies, authorities, banks and individual citizens.
The choices we make as citizens really do have an impact. And this doesn't just mean using less energy, for example. No, our choices have the “power” to influence companies and authorities and change their course. If the market dries up for petrol-guzzling SUVs – all-terrain vehicles – then the manufacturers will have to switch to lighter cars. If you consistently ask for palm oil-free alternatives, the companies will gradually need to go along with this. The list goes on.
That's why we'd like to offer you a few tips. In practice, it comes down to (1) reducing net greenhouse gas emissions – mainly carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane – and ultimately eliminating them and (2) supporting (natural) carbon storage – forests, oceans, soil, etc.
The list of tips is a guide from which you can choose what suits you best, step by step. Some tips are simple and can even save money, while others require an investment.
The suggested adjustments to your lifestyle certainly don't have to mean a reduced quality of life. Quite the reverse. You can actually lead a less stressful and more healthy, sociable, harmonious and interesting life this way. We hope the list will inspire you.
1. Live in a (more) energy-efficient home
Living at home takes quite a lot of energy. That's why it's a good idea for your house to be well-insulated. Definitely your roof, and possibly also your walls and the floor. And, of course, you should fit low-emission glass in your windows. Natural renewable materials such as hemp, wood fibre and flax should be your preference. You can find some inspiration at cluster éco-construction.
You can find out which subsidies you're eligible for from your municipality or regional authorities. Most banks offer cheaper green loans. Consider that insulating your house will make you money over time – definitely a good deal more than your savings account will!
With new builds, you can choose an almost energy-neutral home or a passive house. On the other hand, renovating an existing home is more beneficial in terms of CO2 emissions than a new build. You can also choose an apartment or co-housing.
By insulating your house, you can save a lot of energy. © Shutterstock
2. Choose renewable energy where possible
Heating your house without fossil fuels remains no easy task. Gas in particular will remain unavoidable for some while yet. But at the very least, you can choose an economical condensation boiler. You can also choose a green energy supplier.
Where possible, you can fit solar panels or install a solar boiler. A heat pump might be appropriate sometimes too. These are decent investments, for both your wallet and the planet. Some municipalities and provincial authorities will give you free advice.
3. Energy-efficient living
There are countless ways to save energy without losing out on quality of life. These might be: not leaving devices such as a computer or TV on standby, drying your clothes on the washing line, replacing your lamps with LED lamps by preference, only switching the lights on in rooms you're in, setting the heating one degree lower, and so on. And, of course, only buying the most energy-efficient household devices (A++ or A+++). Energievreters.be will show you the way.
Ideally, don't install an air conditioner. In warm weather, you can keep your house cool with suitable sunblinds, by opening the windows when it's coolest outside and by cooking less. A well-insulated home will keep the heat out better, at any rate.
By bike or on foot, where possible... © iStock
4. Make your daily journeys as sustainable as possible
Naturally you can't avoid a car sometimes. But, distance permitting, you could walk, cycle or go by scooter. For longer distances, public transport, car-pooling or a shared car could be a perfectly reasonable alternative. If you live closer to your workplace, that alone means a lot less need for transport.
If you want your own car and an electric or hybrid vehicle is still too expensive, then you could choose a smaller car by preference (with relatively low CO2 emissions) instead of an all-terrain vehicle. If you always make sure your tyre pressure is correct and drive carefully, this alone will save on fuel. It's better to open a window in warm weather than to put the air conditioner on.
A vegetarian meal can also be very tasty! © Shutterstock
5. Eat local and seasonal food, with less meat
Ideally, eat local and seasonal food, and only buy the food you really need. You can find fruit and vegetable calendars on the Internet.
Eating less meat is definitely recommended too, and the vegetarian alternatives can be really tasty. On top of that, the savings on water usage and CO2 emissions are huge. A vegetarian diet leads to 63% fewer emissions, while a vegan diet amounts to 70%. If you eat meat, choose locally and sustainably produced meat of higher quality instead of imported meat wherever possible.
Agriculture that cares for the soil, uses compost and avoids pesticides and artificial fertilisers brings carbon back to the soil. This is the case for biological agriculture, but integrated agriculture also works in a similar way. The Flandria label, for example, indicates fruit and vegetables grown in line with the integrated approach. Are you getting lost in the jungle of labels? Labelinfo will show you the way.
Try to limit your waste. You could buy food that's unpackaged or in a larger size, or use a drink bottle and reusable straws.
By buying second-hand clothes, clothes last longer. © iStock
6. Wear elegant and environmentally friendly clothes
Synthetic or natural fibres are used to produce textiles. But ‘natural’ cotton fibres have an impact too: their cultivation requires a lot of pesticides and guzzles water. And that's before we think about the products used to dye the substances.
This is why you can decide in advance to use your clothes for as long as possible. Or you could swap them or give them away second-hand. There are also labels for ecological clothing and you can give preference to materials such as linen or hemp. For garments you'd rather not part with, you can just repair them or have them repaired.
Washing clothes has an impact as well, so choose ecological washing products and wear your clothes for as long as possible before washing them. Aside from that, washing your clothes at 30°C is enough.
7. Think green when you're shopping
Buying new things can be great. But do you really need them? Could you maybe find something just as good – or even in a more original version – at a second-hand store? Are they of good enough quality and will they last long enough? Are there any variants in natural materials that are easier to recycle? Can you avoid packaging? Would it not be more advantageous – economically and ecologically – to buy in bulk? It's also best to buy from local traders.
An example. You could buy brand-new furniture. But why not buy some nice second-hand furniture or pick up a lovely little cabinet from your aunt?
Always take your own bag with you when you go out shopping too – then you won't have to keep asking for a (plastic) bag. Be aware that your choice of purchases can encourage companies to manufacture more sustainably.
Ultimately, we'll need to evolve towards a “less material economy”: less focused on nick-nacks and more on immaterial matters, such as a creative hobby, experiences, greater care for family and friends, fun mealtimes, local holidays, etc.
If you travel by train, you emit a lot less CO2! © Shutterstock
8. Choose sustainable travel
Is sustainable travel really possible? Or should we mainly travel less often, not as far, more slowly and for longer? Whatever it may be, there are a great many possibilities for making your journey more sustainable. You can take the train for closer journeys.
You can also compensate your plane flight's CO2 emissions, including via CO2logic.be, Greentripper.org, Treecological.be, myclimate.org, etc. Apart from that, you're also free to compensate your daily journeys and the heating of your home this way too.
9. Communicate as ecologically as possible
What does ecological communication involve? We all use a smartphone, tablet, computer, etc. These contain a whole host of minerals that often originate from polluting mines. In order to limit this pollution, we can sell our electronic devices second-hand or choose sustainable brands such as the Fairphone.
Using your devices for as long as possible helps too. Or getting them repaired – at a repair café, for example – instead of throwing them away at the slightest defect. If they genuinely are completely broken, then take them to a collection point.
The Internet also uses a lot of energy. That's why you can choose to compensate the CO2 emissions from your Internet activities. Google already uses 100% green energy, but did you know you can go one step further with ecological search engines like Ecosia and Lilo.org?
Streaming films and videos also takes a lot of energy. Where possible, it's best to download the film first before watching it. Sending e-mails with (large) attachments guzzles energy too. That's a good reason to limit the number of recipients for your e-mail and make your attachment as small as possible, for example by compressing it.
10. Be sparing with water
The production of tap water naturally takes energy. But water is also becoming a more and more precious resource as a result of climate change and the accompanying long periods of drought. The situation is getting quite critical, certainly in Flanders. So be sparing with water!
There are countless ways to do this: a separate button on the toilet for small flushes, ideally having a (short) shower or washing in the washbasin rather than having a bath, reusing the rinse water from your vegetables in the garden or elsewhere, drinking tap water – whether or not filtered – instead of bottled water, using rainwater to flush the toilet or to water your plants, etc. Check once in a while to make sure you don't have any leaks.
But your purchases also have a “water footprint”. Locally produced, seasonal and plant-based food has a conspicuously lower water footprint.
If you have a garden, then avoid paving the ground as far as possible. If you'd like a driveway, then choose a surface with good water porosity (gravel, grass paving, etc.) instead of asphalt or concrete. And why not build a "wadi": a shallow excavation with a layer of gravel and grass or flowering plants into which rainwater can infiltrate slowly. Certainly in Flanders, excessive paving can make it difficult for rainwater to seep into the soil and feed the groundwater.
When living in a city, you can always opt for a tiny house front garden. @ Chris Simoens
11. Create more green spaces and forests
If you have a garden, then try to steer clear of the classical lawn bordered by a garden fence. There is a simple way to create more variety, which also makes your garden a lot more pleasant to be in.
You can plant trees or bushes and choose native plant species, bee-friendly flowers and natural hedges instead of fencing. And why not let a corner of your garden go wild or mow part of your lawn less often, or not at all? This is a sure way to produce a magnificent display of natural flowers!
If your town house really doesn't provide many possibilities, then you can still choose a green roof or a house front garden. Even in an apartment, you can put flower boxes on the terrace. The greener, the merrier – and the more carbon storage too.
It might sound strange, but using wood for frame construction and in your interior is not harmful to forests, on the condition that the wood originates from trees that are sustainably grown and re-planted once felled. So always demand the FSC or PEFC label, which guarantees sustainable forest management.
Many forests are lost because the land is needed for the mass production of cheap meat and cattle feed. That means eating less meat helps protect our forests.
Also avoid products with palm oil such as chocolate spread, breakfast cereals, crisps and cosmetics. Palm oil-free alternatives do exist. Palm oil is responsible for mass deforestation.
But also chocolate, coffee and rubber can lead to quite some hidden deforestation. More info and tips can be found in Deforestation down to your daily shopping.
12. Make your money work for you sustainably
Choose a sustainable bank, or at least sustainable investment funds. Sustainable projects in which you can invest a large or small sum are regularly offered. This might be the production of biomethane, or the construction of a solar park or sustainable real estate. There are also development funds (Alterfin, Incofin, BRS Microfinance and Oikocredit Belgium) that invest in companies and organisations in developing countries. Naturally, making your home more energy-efficient is also a sustainable investment.
‘Humanity is an inextricable part of the rich tapestry of life on our planet,’ said UN Secretary-General Gutteres recently. ‘But it seems that humanity has forgotten just how much we need nature for our survival and well-being.’ Humanity must indeed become more aware of how interwoven it is with its natural environment. Technology cannot eliminate this dependence. The battle against climate change is also part of this need for “reconnection”. Then the economy will find routes for fitting within the planet's limits. As an individual citizen, you can contribute to this too.