Tbilisi, Georgia
Thomson Reuters Foundation

My 2021 started with a surprising piece of news: I am a big polluter. And by 'big' I mean among the worst 10 per cent in the world.

That's the first thing I learned as I signed up for an online app helping people cut their planet-warming emissions.

The second, which took a few weeks to figure, was that green living isn't a walk in the park (although taking one helps).

Umberto Bacchi

Thomson Reuters Foundation reporter Umberto Bacchi enjoys a bowl of salad.

I wrote about the app, Giki Zero, in a December article about a United Nations-backed campaign urging people to cut a tonne off their carbon footprint as a New Year's resolution - and decided to give it a try for a month.

As many New Year's resolutions go, mine got off to a rocky start - as in, I didn't start until 4th January, when I finally mustered courage to see the scale of my impact on the planet.

"At almost 20 tonnes, my annual carbon footprint was about four times the global average and more than twice that of the average Briton."

Giki Zero gives users an estimate of their emissions based on questions about lifestyle - how much they travel, what they eat, heat, wear and much more.

Ticking clock
The result wasn't flattering.

At almost 20 tonnes, my annual carbon footprint was about four times the global average and more than twice that of the average Briton.

"If everyone lived like you - two years and two months until the Global Carbon Budget runs out," said the app's 'Climate Clock'.

The clock calculates how much time is left before the atmosphere is filled with so much C02 that it becomes impossible to reach the more ambitious goal set by the Paris accord - limiting planet warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

At current emission rates, the world has about seven years left

A breakdown showed why I fared so poorly - air travel alone made up 70 per cent of my emissions. 

Between work and family - mine is scattered across Canada, Italy and Georgia - I normally fly a lot. This has not been a normal year for frequent flyers, but more of that later.

Giki Zero, a free online tool, offers more than 130 steps people can take to cut their footprint, ranging from "easy peasy" to "hardcore".

"It is about finding out what fits with your lifestyle and your budget," said Jo Hand, co-founder of Giki, the British-based social enterprise behind the app.

A quick scan revealed many of the options were no use to me.

In my current home city of Tbilisi, for example, there is no comprehensive recycling system, so its advice to 'recycle everything you can' was a non-starter.

'Go car free' was also out of the question as public transport was supsended in January because of lockdown and cycling in Georgian traffic is only for thrill seekers.    

Themostat wars
I signed up to about 20 steps i could do and got stuck in.

Easiest first - 'Turn your thermostat down'.

I like it to be brisk at home in winter - my wife really doesn't, though, so thermostat wars are routine.

Now I had a good excuse to claim the moral high ground, and turned down all the radiators.

We lasted about 10 days before risking divorce proceedings - and benefitted from a bout of unseasonal warm weather, too.

Step one had saved my family 70 kilograms in combined emissions, according to the app. Yet my personal footprint had only dropped 10 kilograms, leaving another 1,976 to lose.

The second challenge was to 'go vegetarian'.

I managed a few days before swiping my daughter's leftovers, lured by a puddle of chicken soup and a lukewarm fish finger.

Mindful of Hand's words about finding things that suited me, I downgraded to 'go red meat free', added 'No food waste for a week' to the goal list and scooped up my two-year-old's supper.

The new goals proved doable - but offered mixed rewards.

Ditching meat cut 649 kilograms off my footprint, bringing the first tonne within sight.

Eschewing food waste did not change my overall output - I mustn't have wasted much already so i could only take solace in the fact that I had tried.

No true planet saver
The duly app rewarded me by boosting my Giki score, which measures effort regardless of gain.

I had started at 300 points and was slowly climbing. A score of 500 is deemed good, 1,000 makes you a "true planet saver".

A few more steps, including 'Buy sustainable sourced fish', 'Switch to a reusable cup of coffee', and 'Take a walk in nature', boosted my Giki score but did not dent my footprint.

Others simply went down as a failure.

'Boil only the water you need' proved surprisingly tricky - I simply drank way more tea. 

"I ended with a score of 359 for effort and a carbon footprint of 14,506 kilograms - much better than my start point - and a sense that sustainable living requires way more effort than I had ever imagined. Without much time to achieve it, either."

'Use lids when cooking', 'put a stop to junk mail', 'pack a healthy snack' and 'take a shorter shower' similarly achieved nothing - largely down to user error. Mine.

By the end of January, I felt pretty sheepish at my dismal acheivements - with little to show in my experiment were it not for COVID-19.

Like most people, I have not boarded a plane in months, so could list 'Take a break from all flying' as a done deal.

This single-handedly reduced my carbon footprint by almost five tonnes and comfortably over the finish line.

Yet, victory tasted sour: it was neither of my doing nor sustainable as I am bound to resume flying post-pandemic.

So I did what people who feel guilty often do - I put my hand in my pocket and made a donation to a green charity.

I ended with a score of 359 for effort and a carbon footprint of 14,506 kilograms - much better than my start point - and a sense that sustainable living requires way more effort than I had ever imagined. Without much time to achieve it, either.

"Three years until the Global Carbon Budget runs out" was my final 'Climate Clock' reading.