The facts about low carbon wellbeing

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Life should be rich, enjoyable and fulfilling. Many people think that reducing our carbon footprint also means reducing our quality of life, but the facts do not support this. While some compromises may be required, overall we can lower our emissions while maintaining or even enhancing our wellbeing.

This section explains how. Whether we’re talking about the health benefits of ‘active transport’, the cost savings and increased comfort of a low-energy home, the vibrancy of a low carbon precinct, or absorbing activities and community-building in the ‘sharing economy’, we can have a great life that’s also a low carbon one. Let’s look at some examples.


Active transport

‘Active transport’ refers to walking, cycling and public transport. (How, you might ask, is public transport ‘active’? Well, the average train, tram or bus commuter walks 30 mins a day getting to and from their stops or stations.)

Active transport has many benefits:

  • The exercise involved reduces or prevents cardio-vascular disease, diabetes, obesity, lung disease, breast cancer, sleep disorders, dementia and many other conditions, and it improves bone strength, joint flexibility, balance and endurance.
  • It also makes you feel good, releasing endorphins and reducing anxiety and depression.
  • Getting exercise from your daily travel saves you the time and expense of separate sport or exercise programs, and makes it more likely that you actually get your necessary 30 minutes a day, as you are doing it for another purpose.
  • By reducing car use, active transport reduces the risk of death and injury from road accidents.
  • It also reduces pollution. Pollution from fossil fuelled vehicles costs Australia around $3.3 billion a year, and air pollution from vehicles and other sources (for example coal mining and coal-fired power generation) claims more lives each year than road accidents do.
  • Reduced traffic means not only less danger and pollution, but also less noise, less of the visual impact of traffic, and less tendency for traffic to act as a physical barrier within localities. So neighbourhoods become more pleasant places to be and more people get out and about in them. Research confirms that in communities where fewer people drive neighbours have more contact with each other as they walk or cycle around, and greater community contact is yet another factor that has been demonstrated to improve mental and physical health.
  • Non-car transport is much cheaper on average than car transport when you factor in all costs, including buying, insuring, maintaining, running and parking cars.
  • Public transport, walking and cycling are also much more efficient ways to transport people, taking up less land, costing less public money, and generating less congestion. As more people drive, traffic slows; as more people take public transport, the increased fare revenue is available to improve the quality and frequency of services.

More efficient homes, other buildings and appliances

Thermally efficient homes, offices and other buildings – which keep the heat out in summer and in in winter – mean that more comfort can be achieved for less cost, and this is particularly important for those who have lower incomes or more fragile health.

Water and energy efficient appliances, efficient lights, and water and energy saving practices in the home or workplace also generate significant cost savings.


Renewable energy

This has lower running costs over time as the wind and sunshine are free. Initial higher costs have been largely due to development costs and small production runs, but as sales increase prices drop dramatically.

It is pollution free (unlike fossil fuels) and does not involve the dangers and waste storage problems of nuclear power.

While there are substantial detrimental effects on health from coal and petrol, there are none from renewables. Claimed ill-effects of wind generators on health have been extensively researched and found to be baseless.


More compact cities

Australian cities, like those in North America, have low population densities when compared, say, to European cities. The ‘quarter acre block’ has been much valued in Australian society, and the densification of our cities has often been controversial.

Denser cities tend to have smaller carbon emissions per capita, for several reasons. Distances travelled (by all modes of transport) tend to be less. Density also encourages active transport, as the shorter travelling distances allow walking and cycling, and greater population density means public transport systems have more patrons in a given area and can thus use the additional revenue to improve services and in turn attract even more customers as a result. Mixed use zoning also helps because it means that shops, workplaces and entertainment are within easier reach. In compact cities the overall lengths of roads, paths, rails, and utility pipes and wires per capita are also correspondingly less. Compact urban houses and apartments also have fewer external walls, floors and ceilings (thus saving energy) and they also tend to be smaller. For all these reasons New York, for example, has only a third the per capita carbon footprint of the US as a whole.

But how do denser cities affect wellbeing?

We love to visit cities like Paris, Rome, London, Amsterdam and Barcelona, which have urban densities between three and thirteen times Melbourne’s density, so you can clearly have density and quality of life at the same time. Much of this quality comes from the walkability of these cities and the exciting urban character brought about by many people living, working, shopping and amusing themselves in a fairly compact area. They hum with interest and life, with people sitting, walking, talking, looking, lots of pavement activity, greenery, buildings with ‘active facades’, and much more. Not all compact urban areas are like this, but they can be with effort and imagination.

The concept of ‘walkability’ is not just about the practicality of walking as a mode of transport in a given locality, but also about whether the surroundings make it a pleasurable experience. The appeal of this idea is growing worldwide, and a measure of this in Australia and North America is the emergence of the ‘walkscore’ for cities and suburbs there. This enables prospective residents to assess the walkability of an area when considering whether to move in.

Interestingly, the European cities just described are not known for their high-rise developments, as the density has mostly been achieved through medium rise buildings of around six storeys. The challenge, therefore, is to achieve more compact cities through good medium-rise design, the preservation of (low-rise) heritage neighbourhoods, the creation of great public spaces and the imaginative use of greenery (for example, through ‘green’ walls and roofs, nature-strip gardens, planter boxes, restored watercourses and ‘pocket’ parks.) As part of this, it’s important to restrict the amount of land given over to car parking and multi-lane roads.


Collaborative, local economies

The collaborative or sharing economy refers to economic activities that involve sharing, re-using, recycling, home or community production and the like. Examples include car share and tool share schemes, toy libraries, food co-ops, community gardens, home produce swaps, cooperative working-bees and ‘free-cycling’. Such arrangements reduce carbon in a number of ways:

  • They encourage sharing of vehicles and equipment, rather than everyone owning them, which means many fewer items in total and thus greatly reduced embodied emissions (and in the case of car sharing it also encourages people to think a moment before booking one).
  • They encourage re-use and recycling.
  • Home-based or local growing, production and use mean much less transport and packaging of products.
  • In the sharing economy it’s hard to draw a clear line between making and distributing goods or performing services on the one hand, and socialising, engaging in absorbing activities and getting exercise on the other. Work blends with community-building and leisure, so people have less need to travel out of the community to often high-carbon leisure and social activities.

The sharing economy also has great potential to enhance wellbeing, in that it encourages relationship and community building, contributions to others, interesting and challenging activities, and healthy exercise. It is about people doing things with and for each other, looking out for each other and acknowledging each other.

Beyond the sharing economy, it can be said that a localised conventional economy, with locally produced goods and people buying local, will tend to mean lower carbon products as a result of reduced freight and shopper transport, although it also depends very much on the modes of transport used and the environmental efficiency of production. Local economies also build local links, resilience and identity, thus enhancing the lives of individuals and strengthening the whole community.


The things that increase wellbeing

Wellbeing depends on people being able to meet their basic material needs – for food, clothing, housing, education, healthcare and employment – but once these are met extensive evidence shows that we don’t get significantly happier by acquiring more possessions. True, a new possession can momentarily boost our happiness, but it soon reverts to its previous level, and many of the things we buy can be seen as ‘positional goods’ – things that simply allow us to ‘keep up with the Jones’s’. So we may keep up, but neither we nor the Jones’s are any happier; we just have more stuff.

What has really been shown to increase happiness, however, are things like good relationships, contributing to others, absorbing activities and sound health. It’s not hard to see how all of the features of low carbon living described above can enhance these aspects of our lives in one way or another. Between them they build connections and relationships; they promote collaboration and contributions to others; they encourage a range of potentially satisfying activities; and they promote health through exercise, a cleaner environment, more comfortable homes and greater social connectedness.

So there’s no trade-off. We can have a low – and eventually zero – carbon life and have high wellbeing at the same time. In fact if we have the former we’re more likely to have the latter.

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Livewell started as an action research project funded by the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Low Carbon Living, delivered through Curtin University and supported by the City of Yarra and Yarra Energy Foundation. Further funding was then provided by the CRC to produce the online Guide to running a ‘Livewell Group’

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