Tidying up after himself

2009-03-05 00:00

As a young boy, Richard Gunton’s mum taught him to keep things tidy. And he still does. His hair is always neatly parted, his shirt stays tucked in throughout the day and his carbon footprints get mopped up nicely after every international flight. Although, being a scientist and British, he would not exaggerate. He says: “I have paid about R4 300 to offset the carbon emissions created by the 15 trips I’ve made by plane so far in my life.”

In the past four years, while busy with post-doctoral research in plant ecology, Gunton has had to, and has wanted to, travel. His destinations have ranged from Europe to America, India to Australia and South Africa to New Zealand.

“A few years ago, I realised that flying was my biggest contributor to global warming. Aeroplanes emit more CO2 per kilometre than any other means of transport — even when you divide it up between the number of passengers. Then, while booking a flight from Australia to New Zealand, I noticed that there was an additional box that you could tick to offset your carbon emissions. So I ticked it. The carbon emission tax cost less than 10% of the air ticket.”

A few months later, Gunton went on to the Climate Stewards website to offset the CO2 released by the rest of his flights. “On the website I had to enter the origin and destination of all my flights. The website then estimated how many kilograms of CO2 my share of the flights had produced. Using this, it calculated a price that I could pay. I paid this money and it’ll be used to fund projects like tree planting, that will eventually absorb my share of CO2 emissions.”

My three-year-old and I are looking at Gunton with the same expression. So he slows right down and walks us through it. When we burn fuel, like jet fuel, we release CO2 into the atmosphere. This CO2 thickens the atmospheric blanket around the Earth, keeping the sun’s heat in. The Earth gets warmer. This is not good. So, we need to make a plan to get the CO2 from our flights out of the atmosphere. We plant trees. The trees suck in the CO2. They keep the carbon and spit out the oxygen. The CO2 is gone and the Earth won’t get as hot. This is good.

I got it. Although my three-year-old may not have.

But what I don’t get is what moved Gunton from the pleasant quicksands of enviro-guilt to the uncomfortable rockies of enviro- responsibility. “My parents helped me realise I was accountable before God for everything I did. I’m very aware of my responsibility as a steward of God’s creation. I don’t want to see the creation damaged by global warming. It could cause a lot of plants and animals to become extinct. And I’m an ecologist. I should be one of the first people to be concerned about global climate change and the unrecoverable losses that could come with it.”

But, what if man’s contribution to global warming turns out to be a big hype about nothing? (I am thinking of the recent article in the United Kingdom’s Telegraph: “2008 — The year man-made global warming was disproved.”) How would you feel about giving up your hard-earned cash just to fund some hysteria?

“Well, I do believe that there are a few wrong ways of thinking about global warming. One is to think of humans as a species out of control, a blemish on the world. That their very presence causes problems. Another is to think that we can solve all the world’s problems by combating climate change. But I find it hard to believe that the majority of the climate scientists could be wrong about man being at least partly responsible for global change.

“The risk of being wrong seems so small, that I think it’s worth the cost.”

Gunton helps clear away the lunch plates. Then, he declines a lift home: “Thanks, but it’s so close, and after this, I think I really should walk.”

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