Net Zero Walking?

I was lucky to be invited to spend a day walking in the Lake District recently.  This was a day in the Langdales with a scramble up Wetherlam from Fell Foot and Greenburn and then a more leisurely walk and another scramble to the top of Swirl How.  From Swirl How, we walked along West Side Edge before dropping down again to Greenburn Beck to complete the circular walk.  We were a party of four.  The weather was fine but with a bit of low cloud and occasional sunny spells.  There had been some rain in the week leading up to the walk.

Why am I giving this background information?

At ideostone we are currently working hard on developing some learning around the topic of net zero.  How can we, as a small business, move towards net zero greenhouse gas emissions and what are the impacts of each of the activities we undertake as a business?  And, using this information about our own transformation, how can we help others to work towards their own net zero goals?  It was from this perspective that I found myself spending some of the day thinking about the environmental impact of hill walking as an activity.

The first issue was the impact of even a small number of walkers on the landscape.  As there had been some rain in days before our walk, the soil was damp.  Because we began climbing quite steeply, many of our steps dragged at the grass cover and sometimes created divots.  Some of the stones we stepped on, we inadvertently dislodged, again revealing bare soil beneath.  Soil, without the stabilising effect of grass or the protective cover of stones and scree is potentially prone to erosion.

When you take a broader overview of this type of damage and look at some of the well-used paths in the hills, you realise the impact of multiple walkers.  Even in a small group, we each took a slightly different route, despite following the broad direction of the path.  When you look back at the paths down some of the slopes, they can be several metres wide and with erosion gullies caused by heavy rainfall.

I realise this is a significant issue for our National Parks and other protected landscapes.  The authorities in the Lake District, and closer to home in the Yorkshire Dales, are working hard to balance the need for access with the damage caused by this access.

We came across an example of this where about half a dozen people were working on repairing a piece of badly eroded path at Swirl Hawse, between Wetherlam and Swirl How.  They were excavating by hand and placing stones to stabilise the path.  The stones were being carried up the slope from a large pile that had been deposited for the purpose.  This all raises several questions:

  • how was this stockpile of stone carried to the location?  Helicopter?
  • How did all the personnel travel to the site?  Hopefully they shared their road transport and walked from their parking space but they will have used fossil fuels in travelling from their base to the construction site
  • They were using plastic trugs to carry the material around the site
  • I am guessing they will have been provided with clothing and equipment by the National Park, all of which has an impact.

This relatively simple activity of repairing an eroded path contributes to climate breakdown.

Beyond the impact on the landscape, we were all well equipped for a day in the high hills with base layer, fleece or similar, a weatherproof outer layer, walking shorts or trousers, backpacks, walking socks and boots.  Most of my equipment is several years old but most of it is made from “technical fabrics”.  That is, they are manufactured fabrics made, for the most part, from fossil-fuel derivatives.  My base layer is polyester and was manufactured in Cambodia and my wind stopper jacket was made in China.  My boots have leather uppers but synthetic soles, also made from fossil-fuel derivatives.

Similar comments can be made about the other items of clothing, my backpack and water bottle.

I do not live in the Lake District and had to drive to our meeting point.  My journey was the shortest of the four walkers but even I had a 100 mile round trip.  My fellow walkers were having a longer stay in the area but their four day break accumulated something in excess of 1200 miles (2 cars, each with a 600 mile round trip)

Walking in the countryside is an important activity and we should all do more of it and encourage others to do it too!  But even this beneficial activity has significant environmental impacts and can lead to significant emissions of greenhouse gases.

What, then, could we do to reduce or, more importantly, eliminate these emissions.

Probably the best thing we could have done was to stay at home and walk from our respective front doors.  But had we done that, the Lake District would have foregone the tourist income derived from our visit.  My companions spent money at the local pub and in shops and cafes during their longer stay.  The Lake District and other destinations rely heavily on tourism to sustain the local economy and without it, we could argue that there would be even less employment and opportunity in these areas.  But that’s a discussion for another time.

Had we all stayed at home, we would also have missed out on the benefits of getting together and enjoying the experience collectively.  Another significant change we could have made to reduce the impact of our visit to the Lake District would have been to find alternative modes of transport with lower impacts.

But, as anyone who has tried to reach a remote destination using public transport will know, this is not easy.  Friends from London who stayed in Grasmere recently did manage to travel by train from Euston to Windermere via Oxenholme and then by bus from Windermere to Grasmere.  While the main line is electrified, the branches are not.  From last year, the train operator has been trialling hybrid trains with back-up batteries.  The buses still run on diesel.  So even the most committed users of public transport will still emit greenhouse gases in reaching their destination.

When thinking about replacing our clothing and other equipment, we need to consider its impact and to select items that are manufactured sustainably.  Perhaps we should choose manufacturers who will take back our used clothing and equipment for dismantling and remanufacture?

But even when we have done all these things, there will still be emissions of greenhouse gases associated with this simple act of walking in the hills.  When this experience is translated to the more complex activities that arise from running a business, you begin to realise how difficult it is going to be to reach zero emissions.

If you are interested in the concept of net zero and the challenges of achieving it as an individual or business, we have just launched a series of short videos on YouTube which will follow the path our micro-business takes as we work towards becoming net zero.

You may also have picked up that we are also working to develop and deliver a net zero course for decision-makers in small businesses.  The aim of the course is to provide background on reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases but to go beyond this to provide practical support as more of us make a commitment to net zero.  We will provide updates on this here as our ideas develop.

You can also be reassured that, despite this train of thought developing as I walked, we did have a good day!  And its clear from the way these ideas developed that, as @david hieatt keeps reminding us, taking time away from the screen and being involved in the natural world is really beneficial. 

Other days out are planned!