Now that global warming is a common household term, let’s leap forward! Let’s give ourselves permission to move along from a place of defining the issue to figuring out what we each might do about solving the problem. Let’s examine our individual habits and see how we might live in a more planet friendly, life enhancing way.
In a previous column, we mentioned determining our ecological footprint, the land area that would be required to provide the resources (grain, feed, wood, fish, and urban land, etc.) and absorb the emissions (carbon dioxide, etc.) of our ways of life.
Let’s now focus on the carbon dioxide our activities generate. CO2 is a major contributor to global warming. It is emitted into our atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels – gasoline, coal, oil and natural gas. We use these fuels to power our cars and homes, to mine and harvest resources, manufacture the goods we consume and to grow, process and transport the food we eat.
A typical household in the United States generates 55,000 pounds of carbon dioxide annually. By contrast, a typical German household contributes 27,000 pounds to the atmosphere each year and an average Swedish household only 15,000. We in the US definitely have some room for improvement. If the bad news is that our individual North American households are a considerable part of the problem, the good news is that we also can be a major part of the solution by making specific changes.
We can figure a portion of our CO2 output fairly accurately by considering our monthly utility bills and our driving and travel patterns. The following information, provided by the Rocky Mountain Institute and the US Department of Energy, Transportation Statistics and the EPA, provides a base for our calculations:
CO2 OUTPUT IN POUNDS:
- GALLON OF GAS= 19.36 LBS
- GALLON OF FUEL OIL OR DIESEL=22.38 LBS
- KILOWATT HOUR OF ELECTRICITY=1.43 (national average)
- GALLON OF PROPANE= 12.67
- AIRPLANE MILE= 1.28 LBS
- TRAIN MILE= .42
- ELECTRIC BIKE MILE= .02
Nonetheless, the CO2 produced during the manufacturing process of the things we buy is not included above; nor is that emitted by the production, processing and transportation of our food.
The first is sometimes figured by using national averages or, in part, by calculating the amount of our weekly trash. This process is a bit vague, particularly if we aren’t “average”, and is somewhat subject to error. But it does provide hints for us. In essence, a good rule of thumb is “the less we buy, the lower our CO2 output will be”. Looking directly at our trash, statistics show us the average household in the US generates about 4.5 pounds of solid waste each day. One third of this is packaging.
Producing this “stuff” (including the packaging) requires energy for extraction of the raw materials the “stuff” is made of, the manufacturing processes used to make the various finished goods and the transportation used throughout the whole performance. In addition, every pound of solid waste that enters a landfill generates 2 pounds of greenhouse gases. These come from the transportation involved with collecting and dumping the waste material, maintaining the landfill area and from the natural anaerobic decomposition of the “stuff” we have thrown away.
Food is a complex issue. In a nutshell, local, organic, vegetarian food is the best choice whenever possible. Locally produced food has not been transported far and thus lacks the CO2 produced during shipping. Organic food has been raised without petro-chemical fertilizers or pesticides and thus lacks the carbon dioxide loads carried by those substances. Vegetarian food requires far less energy to produce than does the raising and processing of meat.
The following websites offer online CO2 calculators: http://www.safeclimate.net/calculator/; www.carbonfund.org; www.carboncounter.org and www.b-e-f.org. We checked out our own stats and got a range of results due to slight variations in the calculating processes used, but the figures were similar enough to give us a good idea of our output. Give it a try and see what you get for your own household.
Output figured our next step is to take action to lower our numbers. The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices, Practical Advice from The Union of Concerned Scientists by Michael Brower, Ph.D. and Warren Leon, Ph.D. suggests three major categories we can consider; transportation, food and household operations. Eleven actions are recommended:
- Choose a place to live that reduces the need to drive.
- Think twice before buying another car.
- Choose a fuel-efficient, low polluting car.
- Set concrete goals for reducing travel.
- Whenever practical, walk, bicycle or use public transportation
- Eat less meat.
- Buy certified organic produce (raised locally if possible).
- Choose homes carefully.
- Reduce the environmental costs of heating and hot water.
- Install efficient lighting and appliances.
- Choose an electricity supplier offering renewable energy (which is also ecologically sustainable).
If we were to actually do these eleven things, we could make a big difference.
Not all of us are in the market for new houses and cars just now, but there are things each one of us can do. David Gershon’s book Low Carbon Diet, A 30 Day Program to Lose 5000 Pounds is an excellent place to begin. Clear and straightforward, it outlines easy steps we all can take to reduce our CO2 emissions. Gershon’s approach focuses on:
- Personal Habits
- Household Systems; heating, cooling, electrical and automotive
- Empowering Others; at work, in schools, in the community
The book also offers a CO2 reduction action plan and various support materials. The fun part is seeing how much CO2 we can eliminate by taking certain pretty simple actions.
Looking just at our personal habits, we can recycle more, reduce trash, use less hot water, turn down our thermostats in winter and turn up our air conditioner (if we have them) settings a bit in summer. We can travel less, drive less, car pool and do all that good stuff. We can better insulate our houses, change our light bulbs to compact fluorescents. We can eat less meat and more local food, particularly organic food. We can cut back on the amount of “stuff” we purchase. We can live more simply so others can simply live.
Let’s just do it! Our planet is counting on us.
Copyright Pat Foley, 2008 / Photos from freephoto.com.