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Carbon Literacy – helping to close the intention to action gap

The 4th December 2023 is the third annual Climate Literacy Action Day - to mark this Jen Gale reflects on the Vet Sustain Carbon Literacy for Veterinary Professionals course and how Carbon Literacy is engaging and inspiring veterinary professionals to take action on climate change all over the world.

Jen Gale

Awareness of the climate and ecological emergencies facing humanity is perhaps the highest it’s ever been. The devastating extreme weather events of the last couple of years have highlighted how quickly climate change is accelerating and even if we don’t live in affected regions, the knock on impacts on food prices, health, and the cost of living are being felt by all. As a profession, we are also starting to see it’s impacts, whether that’s from the knock-on effects of the 2022 heatwave in the UK still being felt by farmers, or seeing more cases of heatstroke in our patients as the summers get hotter.

The climate and ecological crises are overwhelming and although polls and surveys consistently find that 70-80% of populations around the world report feeling concerned about them, climate action is still limited to a much smaller percentage of the population. This pattern is replicated within the veterinary profession, and it’s not difficult to understand why: the profession is facing a recruitment and retention crisis; stress and burnout are huge issues for many; practices are busy and often under-staffed, to name just a few of the day to day challenges. Finding the time, headspace, and energy to think about another thing is difficult, and when that other thing is also incredibly overwhelming and anxiety inducing, it’s perhaps no surprise that it’s not seen as a priority for some. This leaves us with what is sometimes termed an ‘intention to action gap’.

At the start of 2023 I approached Vet Sustain to see if we could collaborate on the development and delivery of a Carbon Literacy course for the Veterinary Profession. Having developed and delivered Carbon Literacy Training for ‘interested individuals’ the previous year, and sitting on the Vet Sustain Greener Veterinary Practice Working Group, I could see that there was a need for a course for the profession.
Carbon Literacy is described as “An awareness of the carbon dioxide costs and impacts of everyday activities, and the ability and motivation to reduce emissions, on an individual, community and organisational basis.” As a profession we have huge potential to take meaningful climate action to reduce the emissions associated not only with our own practices and workplaces, but to have a wider influence on animal agriculture, and equine and pet ownership, each of which carry their own carbon footprints and associated impacts. These actions will often also have positive benefits of animal health and welfare, and can also in many cases save businesses money.

Understanding where our emissions and impacts are coming from as practices, and where we can have agency in our own roles, is enormously important. This knowledge can help us to make better decisions, more of the time, and can help us to feel more confident in both those decisions and the conversations we’re having with colleagues and clients.

Since launching in March ’23, nearly 100 veterinary professionals have taken part in the course, and we have had participants from small, equine and farm animal practice; academia; pharmaceuticals and corporate. We’ve had clinic directors, sustainability leads, vets, RVNs and receptionists. And we’ve had people from all over the world including Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and mainland Europe. We set out to make the course accessible to anyone in the veterinary profession and it looks like we’re achieving that, which is amazing to see!

The course is 8 hours of online learning, delivered live, and while that can feel like a big chunk of time to try and find, the live element of the training is so important. So often, participants talk about being the only one at their practice who is trying to drive these very necessary changes, and how it can feel like a lonely and thankless task. Coming together in these sessions not only helps people become much more confident in their knowledge and in talking about climate change in the context of their practice, it also helps them to feel supported and to see that they are very much not the only one who cares and is trying to affect positive change.

In order to be certified as ‘Carbon Literate’ and join the 74,000+ people from different organisations and sectors around the world, participants need to create an ‘action plan’ at the end of the course. This action plan comprises two carbon reduction pledges – one that is something they can do on their own in their workplace to reduce emissions, and the other is something that they can do as part of a group.

Here are some examples of some of the pledges made as a result of the Vet Sustain Carbon Literacy course:

  • “I will collaborate with another staff member who also has completed their Carbon Literacy training to deliver Carbon Literacy training to staff and students at the university where I work.”
  • “Get four farm businesses to enrol in the New Zealand Farm Assurance Programme Plus standard in the next 18months. With the specific aim of increasing farmers awareness, knowledge and understanding of the sustainability standards and therefore remove the negative stigma of compliance and regulation often perceived.”
  • “Work to achieve the RCVS PSS Environmental Sustainability Award and Investors in the Environment (iiE) Bronze award.”

Whilst individual pledges and actions can often feel insignificant in the face of challenges like the climate and ecological crises, another advantage of the Carbon Literacy course is that it helps us to start to see the collective impact we can create. As a very rough estimate, the combined emissions reductions of the pledges made as a result of the training so far stand at 77,960kg CO2e. These numbers don’t mean much to most people, so put that into context it’s equivalent to 22 return flights from London to Hong Kong, or the same amount of carbon as nearly 8000 trees can absorb in a year. And that’s with just under a hundred people doing the course – imagine the impact of this training with more practices and organisations on board!

The Vet Sustain Carbon Literacy Course for the Veterinary Profession is back for 2024 – please find more details here.

Alternatively if you’re looking for bespoke dates for your practice or organisation, please get in touch and we would love to hear from you.

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