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Ten steps to a sustainable Christmas

Wednesday, 19th December, 2018 5:02pm

With Ireland’s performance on climate action in response to global warming been ranked as the worst in the EU (48th out of 56 countries), according to the Climate Change Performance Index, and with David Attenborough recently describing climate change as the greatest threat in thousands of years, UCC academics list ten steps that we can follow to achieve a sustainable Christmas.


1. Turkey on your table…ammonia in the air

Ever since Ebenezer Scrooge woke up from his ghostly nightmare and bought his poorly-treated clerk, Bob Cratchit, a turkey, the bird has been a centrepiece of our Christmas dinner. To get there though requires a lot of plumping up with feed, and inescapable outcomes on the ground at the farm.

Those ‘outcomes’ release ammonia gas. The release of ammonia to the atmosphere harms our air quality by its reaction with sulfur compounds emitted by burning coal and from the fuel used in ships. The result is the formation of tiny particles that we can breathe in and can go on to kill us.

The global effect is not small. In fact, small particles are estimated to cause over three million deaths every year with more than half of the particles found in the eastern and central United States coming from farming. (We do not know the figures for Ireland).

However, we do know that about 20 per cent of the contribution from agriculture is due to poultry droppings. So, by all means, tuck into your turkey on the 25th but ask yourselves - are we really the ones who are voting for Christmas? - John Sodeau, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry

2. Santa Claus is coming to town…but how does he get here?

In a few days’ time, Santa Claus will be starting his mammoth 365,174km journey around the Earth to deliver gifts to all of us who have been good in 2018. We all think we know how Santa gets to all those chimneys, but do we really?

It all starts with the elves loading up the sled with goodies. Fortunately, they do not need to fill it up with petrol or diesel. If that was the way Santa’s journey was powered, then using either fuel, it would release between 45,000 to 50,000kg of carbon dioxide (CO2) gas into the air trapping heat over the next 100 years.

That is not good for our climate because a warmer planet would lead to floods, hurricanes, droughts and sea-level rises. The sled would also shed enormous but unquantifiable amounts of toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Also, the small particulate matter we call PM2.5 (made up of carcinogens, acids and heavy metals) that gets into our lungs, our arteries and our brains.

Santa, of course, knows that using fossil fuels for power would mean that in the next 50 years or so the place where he lives might be underwater and his annual visit to all of us would stop.

Instead, Santa invented a green technology called Antlaerodynamics. And that’s how Santa gets here. And why Santa is seriously thinking of going back to the green outfit rather than keeping the current red one. Ho, ho, ho! - John Sodeau, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry

3. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire are not good for your health

Getting a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking traditionally means that Santa Claus thinks you’ve been misbehaving. Ironically, if you’ve been burning coal, peat or wood in your living room fire, then you have been very naughty indeed.

Domestic solid fuel burning is one of the largest sources of air pollution in Ireland. Especially in small towns like Enniscorthy as the CRACLab SAPPHIRE project for the EPA showed. Your fire is not only harmful to you in your own house, but also to your neighbours, because 90 per cent of the smoke and chemical fumes end up next door.

Burning coal, wood and peat is especially harmful to asthmatics, the young, the old, people with existing heart conditions and the pregnant. To keep Santa (and us) healthy, wherever you live in Ireland, then put some solar panels on your roof, insulate your homes better and install a heat pump. - John Sodeau, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry


4. Chestnuts roasting by an open fire again - not so good for your health

Leave the door open for Santa! An open fireplace with a chimney is handy for Santa, but he can also choose to come in the door if you decide to install an efficient stove or upgrade your heating system. Burning a fuel like coal in your fireplace over the winter produces about one tonne of carbon dioxide (a heat-trapping gas).

This is similar to a person taking a return flight to New York. Heat-trapping gasses are causing our climate to change in ways that are not good, so trying to reduce our emissions is the perfect gift for the planet! - Dr Paul Deane, Energy Policy and Modelling Group, UCC


5. Talking climate turkey at Christmas

What are the main topics of conversation around your dinner table on Christmas Day? When you have exhausted the usual Christmas conversational menu, what could be more topical than introducing the topic of climate action to set sparks flying and pulses racing?

Your conversation should connect climate change with their everyday life and with what matters to them in an accessible language. Show them how effective climate action how can bring benefits such as better air quality, warmer homes, and better public transport. - Dr Paul Bolger, ERI Manager

6. Be a better consumer this Christmas

According to Retail Ireland, the average Irish family spent €2,654 on their festive shopping sprees last year. That is €870 more than any other month.

Luxurious foods; gallons of booze; coal for holiday fireplaces; naff Christmas jumpers; tacky decorations and, of course, an abundance of presents. These things could easily be made of renewable naturally derived materials, rather than oil-derived plastics.

Much of the precious minerals in their electrical components could be readily obtained from recycled sources. The industries making them could do so more efficiently. The wastes of their production, usage, and disposal could be better managed.

They could be manufactured to be readily repurposed, recycled, or rendered biodegradable. If consumers like you and I demand these changes, then the producers will follow suit. Demanding more sustainable stuff means buying more sustainable stuff. Don’t buy products that aren’t produced sustainably.

Sustainable alternatives do exist and are readily available. Apple has made efforts to produce ethically sourced devices; plastic bottles made from biodegradable plastics are available; jewellery that does not contain conflict diamonds are commonplace now; leather products can be made from mushrooms and pineapples; packaging foams made from mushrooms; clothing made from plant-based fibres; the list of sustainable and ethical products available today is virtually limitless.

If you buy these products, the demand for them will increase. Make this effort at Christmas – be a better consumer. - Dr Eoin Flynn, Sustainable Materials Laboratory

7. O Christmas Tree…

Buy a real Christmas tree! Given that it involves cutting down trees, this might at first sound counter-intuitive as a sustainability measure.

After all, you could re-use a fake tree year after year, sparing a tree every time. But that would be the wrong way to look at it, because your plastic tree will eventually end up in landfill, whereas if demand for real trees continues, then they will keep being replanted.

Real trees are a local economic product, supporting Irish farmers, as well as serving useful functions such as protecting against soil erosion. Once you've finished with your tree, the wood can be chopped up and used in your home fire, while the remainder is fully biodegradable.

This makes a real tree almost carbon neutral, and growing trees is more environmentally friendly than many alternative land uses. Most of all, a real tree just looks better, and you can use one without feeling any guilt. - Dr Markus Eichhorn, School of Biological, Ecological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, UCC


8. No more late night wrapping!

Repak has predicted that Ireland will generate 83,000 tonnes of packaging waste this Christmas. This is part of a broader national problem, however, as Irish citizens generate almost twice the per capita average annual plastic waste of European countries. We all have the power to make a direct, immediate, individual impact. 83,000 tonnes is not a target for Christmas, it could be viewed as a premonition from the Ghost of Christmas future of what will be if we don’t change our ways ( - Dr Niall O’Leary, School of Microbiology


9 Be a sustainable foodie

To ensure you’re ‘doing your bit’ this Christmas, try to support local farmers, producers, and food companies as much as you can. Not only does supporting local keep small businesses in business, it is good for the environment too - low air miles, organic food, and seasonal fruit and vegetables may seem like small deeds, but it all adds up.

Try to resist buying enough food to feed an army, as much of this will probably end up as waste – instead, try a ‘refuse, reuse, rot’ approach to your food shopping. Refuse to overbuy, reuse all leftovers and rot or compost what’s left.

Think about how much you need, the size of the turkey, ham, quantities of veg, and the number of deserts to have enough for the gang to really enjoy but not too much left over, and remember the shops are open again the next day!

You can be creative with your leftovers by using the turkey/goose bones and some vegetables to make noodle soup. Plan ahead by ordering your fruit and vegetables through a local box scheme, enjoy some social festivities and visit your local farmers market, or buy in bulk and batch cook so that you’ve more time to enjoy family traditions.

And if you don’t like the traditional Christmas dinner, create your own new tradition. - Dr Claire O’Neill and Professor Mary McCarthy, Management and Marketing

10. Plug in your heaphones!

We all love our families, we do, but sometimes over Christmas you need some time out. So what better way to get some down time and to learn more about sustainability than to listen to UCC’s Green Talk Podcast. In their first episode they look at air pollution in Cork.

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