The role of Christmas in accelerating climate change and plastic pollution.
The media usually portray Christmas as a fairytale-like scene. Together with family and friends, they gather around a beautifully decorated Christmas tree, exchange gifts, and enjoy a delicious meal. It’s sad though that the aftermath of these celebrations is rarely shown or mentioned anywhere – mountains of wrapping paper and packaging, food waste, and dried up Christmas trees. It’s undeniable that Christmas impacts the environment, and that needs to be recognized.
RELEVANT SUSTAINABLE GOALS
The Environmental Impact of Holiday Season
Over the last century, the nature of Christmas has changed. Originally a religious celebration of the birth of Jesus, it is now an important part of (western) consumer society, where materialistic things are often more important than anything else. Especially this materialistic side of Christmas harms the environment. The negative environmental impacts normally start two weeks before Christmas – Christmas Shopping.
With the Covid-19 Pandemic, online shopping has increased, leading to long supply chains becoming the norm for product distribution and, thus, an increase in consumer goods shipping that increased CO2 emissions. It continues with increased travel by public transport, private transport, or flying during the holiday season. Once everyone has bought their presents and reached their destinations, a Christmas tree is felled (or an artificial non-biodegradable Christmas tree is bought) and set up in the house. In addition, tremendous amounts of food are being cooked, and while there is limited research on how different cultural attributes affect food waste, research shows that significant food waste is generated during religious occasions, including Christmas. After exchanging gifts and the celebration ended, family and friends travel back to where they came from. Some gifts will be returned, and some end up directly in landfills; the Christmas tree is thrown out, and spoiled food ends up in the bin, together with packaging and wrapping paper, which often ends up in the environment.
Many of these problems could be discussed, especially how serious they are, what alternatives there are, etc. Several ecological blogs have already addressed some of these issues (here, here, and here). The question arises, however, how public international law (including EU Law) regulates some of these ecological issues. The Christmas season is not the main reason for the ecological problems that are the burden of our lifetime. Thus, it is no wonder that environmental laws do not specifically govern holidays. However, the Christmas season exacerbates problems that may already exist and is, in turn, governed by public international law. The holiday season reinforces two major environmental concerns: climate change and plastic pollution. The following part will deal first with regulating the transport sector under climate change law and second with regulating plastic waste, specifically single-use plastics, including packaging.
Transport and Climate Change
The legal instrument currently governing climate change law is the Paris Agreement (PA). The PA requires States to set nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and to pursue domestic mitigation measures to achieve the objective of the NDCs. These mitigation measures often entail emission reduction targets or limitation targets for specific economic sectors. While the PA does not mention transport, it is one of the major sources of greenhouse gases and, thus, one of the sectors regulated by most national mitigation measures. Transport accounts for 20% of global CO2 Emissions.
In 2018, road travel accounted for three-quarters of transport emissions (45.1% passengers, 29.4% freight), aviation for 11.6%, and shipping for 10.6%. At the same time, the demand for transport will increase over the next decades due to globalization and an increase in the global population. In the EU, transport accounts for nearly 25% of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions (including international aviation and excluding the international maritime sector) and is dependent on oil for more than 90% of its needs. Unsurprisingly, the transport sector plays an important part in the NDCs of the EU and its Member States. Moreover, during the holiday season, there is an additional spike in the transport sector. To lower the emissions of this sector, the EU has implemented a European strategy for low-emission mobility; in addition, the transport sector plays an important role in the European Green Deal.
The overall goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in transport by 90 % by 2050. There are three main objectives: first, sustainable mobility; second, smart mobility; and third, resilient mobility, which are important for reaching this goal. It is still too early to tell if the EU can reach these ambitious goals and how far they will impact our daily lives. So far, several proposals have been discussed by the European Commission to achieve a more efficient transport sector and make travel more sustainable (an overview of the newest proposals can be found here).
Packing and Pollution
Another pressing problem that generally exists but is accelerated at Christmas is the pollution of the environment due to packaging. Especially plastic packaging has a significant impact on our environment, particularly on the marine environment. Single-use or disposable plastic dominates the market, and about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste are generated each year, with about eight million tonnes of plastic ending up in the world’s oceans. This is particularly concerning as most forms of plastic are non-biodegradable, meaning that most items will never fully disappear but rather break down into smaller and smaller parts, leading to a related problem, that of microplastics. The sources of plastic are diverse and subject to regional differences; however, it is assumed that most plastic waste is land-based and carried into the ocean through rivers. While several international law regimes (e.g., UNCLOS, The London Convention & Protocol) come into play when regulating plastic pollution, most deal with ship-based pollution or entail only rather general obligations regarding land-based pollution (e.g., Art. 207 UNCLOS). Comparable to a lot of environmental treaties, the implementation of these obligations relies heavily on the willingness of States.
The EU has shown such willingness and has not taken the plastic pollution problem lightly. However, it has taken some important steps toward preventing plastic pollution and marine litter. Most notably, two directives in force currently deal with plastic pollution. The first is the Directive on plastic bags, and the second is the Directive on single-use plastics. The Directive on single-use plastic is particularly important because it bans certain types of plastics for good, meaning that the member States shall prohibit placing specific single-use plastic items on the market, such as straws and food packaging. Additionally, the EU is currently working to transition to a circular economy, which emphasizes reuse and recycling rather than a linear “take-make-use-dispose” approach. So, if you do your Christmas shopping, you most likely will not be carrying it home in a plastic bag, or if you burn your turkey/tofurky this Christmas and you try to get some takeaway, you won’t be getting it in food containers made of expanded polystyrene (EPS), nor will you get plastic cutlery or plastic straws to accompany your meal and drinks.
While there are no regulations under public international law that regulate how to celebrate Christmas best, and realistically the behavior of a single person will not have a measurable impact on climate change and appear to be a drop in the ocean, there are still some things one can do to make Christmas more environmentally friendly. When celebrating Christmas, that could be achieved by, e.g., shopping locally instead of using express deliveries for last-minute presents, preparing food that is in season and locally grown, and trying to estimate the amount that is being eaten (or even preparing a vegetarian or vegan meal). If you can (and Covid restrictions allow it), travel via public transport or carpool with Family and Friends. In light of the recent jurisprudence in climate change mitigation, the general message for States seems to be that every State must do “its part” to combat climate change, regardless of the actual impact one State might have in the fight against climate change. While this message again does not necessarily have any legal implications on the behavior of a single person, it can still be transferred on a moral level. The fact that a single person cannot halt climate change or stop environmental pollution as a whole is not an excuse for unsustainable behavior. Every person should do something (obviously within their possibilities) to make an (environmentally friendly) impact.