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What can you and I do to lower our carbon footprint?

A conversation with Thad Curtz

[Ed note: As Thad Curtz writes, it’s morally good to reduce your carbon footprint. But don’t let that deflect attention from the international corporations that brought us to this pass. As Thad notes in closing, climate change is a problem governments will solve, not individuals. Only governments can compel international corporations; only they have the power to decree the systemic changes we must have to avoid a climate catastrophe.]

In The Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer writes about going to a big demonstration against the Vietnam War. He isn’t planning to go at all, but a friend calls him up about it. He feels as if he ought to go, though he doesn’t want to. Finally he goes. After that, he faces one choice after another—will he join the protestors on the Pentagon steps; will he stay there and get arrested; will he post bail or spend the night in jail… There’s always another rung on the moral ladder.

However much he decides to do, there’s always something else. Climate action is like that. Many things you could do might help slow it. Nothing any single person can do will slow it down a lot. There will always be something else you might do. (Though it does seem that doing what I can means I worry less about it.)

Food accounts for roughly 34% of Olympia’s carbon footprint

Changing how you eat is complicated. It arouses your memories and feelings in ways that your water heater doesn’t. When I was a kid, we had pie instead of cake, my mother didn’t make casseroles, and I never saw jello salad with stuff in it except at Cub Scout potlucks, when people in line ahead of us had already taken the chicken my mother brought. I’d feel differently now if I’d eaten differently then. Biological differences in how people smell and taste affect preferences too. The more people you’re cooking for, the harder it is to shift to something you’re sure all of them will like.

Changing foods can be hard because you make thousands of decisions about what to eat. You don’t have the time and energy to think about each one; it’s easier to buy and eat what you always do. However, this can also make shifting your diet easier, because you can do it a little at a time. You don’t have to become a vegan. Eating chicken or minestrone for dinner more often can reduce the footprint of your diet a lot.

The benefit of reducing your consumption varies depending on what kind of food. Fish comes below poultry, unless it’s fish flown in fresh from a distance, but most food–related emissions depend on how food was produced, not where. Washington apples stored for months in Controlled Atmosphere warehouses may have higher emissions than ones just picked and shipped from Chile. In terms of the emissions related to food, production accounts for about 80%, transportation accounts for about 4% and warehousing, wholesale and retail operations account for the remainder.

Beef is the worst food for the climate. Cattle create a lot of methane by digesting plants, and that traps about twenty–eight times as much heat in the atmosphere as the same amount of CO2. Cows are big animals; so a lot of their food energy goes to moving around and keeping warm rather than producing meat. Emissions from fertilizer, machinery and clearing land for their feed are part of beef’s carbon footprint. Fast food burgers account for about half the emissions, the rest from dairy cows. On the other hand, creating an “Impossible Burger” uses 96% less land than a typical beef burger, generates 89% lower emissions, and tastes an awful lot like hamburger.

Transportation accounts for about 34% of Olympia’s carbon footprints

Obviously, if you can walk or bicycle to get somewhere rather than driving, it reduces your carbon footprint. So does telecommuting, or using Zoom, instead of a dozen volunteers driving to a meeting. So does taking the bus. Adding transit routes in not very dense areas like ours is expensive. A new Intercity Transit bus route would need to average more than five passengers per trip to emit less than the individual drivers. It would only cost less per trip if the trips in their cars were over 41 miles.

Choosing a more efficient vehicle for your next purchase is one of the few things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint substantially and save money over time. (Selling your car and buying a more efficient used one will reduce your carbon footprint, but it won’t change the county’s, since both cars will still be on the road.)

Let’s go car shopping

Compare four similar subcompact SUVs using local values for costs and emissions and including available incentives. Over 12 years, a regular 2019 Kia Niro hybrid would cost $644 less than a conventional Hyundai Kona and reduce CO2 emissions by 18.97 metric tons. A Niro plug–in hybrid, which goes 26 miles on the battery, would save $2,481 and reduce emissions by 28.51 metric tons. An all–electric Niro, with a range of 239 miles, would cost $1,663 more over twelve years and reduce emissions by 37.06 metric tons. An all–electric Nissan LEAF would reduce emissions a hair less than the Niro all–electric but cost significantly less, saving $7,615 compared to the conventional car.

Lower estimated maintenance and repair costs would reduce the cost of the regular hybrid by $1,989 compared to a conventional car; and reduce the cost of the all–electrics by another $1,575 compared to the hybrid and make it another $3,564 cheaper than a conventional car. Since savings from a more efficient car come from its lower operating cost, people who drive a lot save more. Coltura, a non–profit focused on ending the use of gasoline, wants incentives for electric cars to go to the 10% of drivers who use 30% of the gas: we’d get much larger emissions reductions if they drove EVs.

Or just stay on the ground

Flying is a much smaller piece of most people’s carbon footprint than driving. Cars and pickups create 92% of personal transportation emissions; flying and other transportation create 8%. The 12% of Americans who take more than six round trips annually are responsible for two–thirds of all air travel.

If you do fly, though, you increase your carbon footprint very quickly. One round trip from the West to the East Coast produces the emissions of driving approximately 2,200 miles. Flying coach reduces your emissions, and flying non–stop may. The only practical way to avoid emissions from air trips is not taking them. My wife and I have given up flying except for weddings and funerals. Maybe that’s why I’m particularly bothered by friends who fly often for vacations, or the people at Sierra Club meetings chatting about the great trips they took to enjoy unspoiled nature in Costa Rica or the Galapagos.

Home energy use accounts for roughly 26% of Olympia’s carbon footprint

“Appliances/other” is a roomy category that includes the washer and dryer (roughly 6%); the refrigerator (4%); electronics (4%); and all sorts of other stuff, from stoves to electric toothbrushes.

Let’s talk about electricity

We can use electricity instead of fossil fuels for transportation and in our homes. Doing some things with electricity uses far less energy. Electric vehicles go a given distance on less than a third of the energy gasoline and diesel cars use. 60% of their fuel energy is wasted as heat through the radiator and the tailpipe; it never gets to the wheels.

Electric heat pumps use a third of the energy to perform the same function as a gas furnace or water heater. A heat pump runs like a refrigerator in reverse, using energy to move heat from outside air into the house or a water heater. (They also condition air in the summer by moving heat from inside the house to outside.)

Electric induction stoves use about half the energy of gas, heating up only the metal of the pan, while lots of heat from gas burners goes up the side of the pan—creating air pollution at the same time. (If you want to try it, you can buy a countertop induction burner for $60.)

If we electrified everything, relying on coal generation, our emissions would still be high. Fortunately, a recent law requires Washington utilities to eliminate coal power by 2025. By 2030, the power they deliver has to be “greenhouse gas neutral.” 20% of it can come from gas plants, but the emissions from that are supposed to be offset by equivalent reductions. Switching from gas to electricity will reduce your emissions now, but it will reduce them more as we clean up the grid.

A word to the wise

We need to plan ahead to electrify. Many people end up replacing a failing water heater or furnace on an emergency basis, with whatever they can get. A water heater might last twelve to fifteen years; a furnace might last twenty. By making sure you have a 200–amp electrical panel or a smart panel for power, you can anticipate when a water heater or furnace is likely to fail and be ready to replace them with electric versions. (If an electrician’s running a circuit for a car charger, it might save money to add one for a future water heater too.) You can also pay for switching to electricity over time. PSE offers rebates for some investments in upgrades and efficiency, and there will be Federal incentives.

Advice from people with no vested interest

Unsurprisingly, gas utilities don’t want customers to switch to electricity. They’ve begun touting “renewable gas” made from biological sources like dairy manure. Unfortunately, there won’t be enough of that to replace the fossil gas we use. We’ll have other, more pressing uses for any biogas we produce, like making fuel for long distance aviation. (A recent State study compared reducing our 2050 emissions by 80% by electrification vs using renewable gas and hydrogen; it concluded electrification would cost about $6 billion less annually in current dollars.)

In theory, if our electricity after 2030 were “greenhouse gas neutral,” we could use as much as we like without affecting the climate. We wouldn’t need to think about efficiency. However, if we electrify everything we’d be using a lot more electricity. Increasing efficiency and using the freed up capacity will be the cheapest way to meet additional demand––even though prices for solar, wind power and batteries keep dropping. Some efficiency measures are simple, like switching to LEDs. Others (like electrifying everything) are more complicated.

I’d like to have an energy concierge service––people with no vested interest in selling me anything––who’d give me sophisticated advice about what to do and when to lower the carbon footprint of our house.

Goods and services account for about 26% of Olympia’s carbon footprint

“Goods and services” includes emissions by everything from clothing and furniture to all elements of health care, to movies and beyond. Individuals can’t do much to affect these.

With so many different things there’s not much general advice to offer. Buy less stuff; buy second–hand stuff; buy more expensive stuff that will last longer. Use less water—it takes a lot of energy to pump it around and to treat wastewater. Recycle—especially aluminum and paper. (Making recycled paper produces almost as many emissions as new paper, but leaves more trees standing.) It can be complicated to figure out what’s best for the climate—organic cotton or regular cotton; paper bags or plastic…or cotton?

But what you do about any of these won’t affect your emissions much. Do what you think is right. Don’t worry about small choices—with the exception of food. Put time and energy into changing things in your life that will have a greater impact on emissions.

Now for the rest of the story

Much of what can be done doesn’t involve your personal emissions, and isn’t local. Project Drawdown brought together seventy scientists from 22 countries to prioritize the hundred best ways to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. They created a book and evolving website with photos and a couple of pages about each action. [Find WIP’s Dec. 2017 review of Drawdown online at}

Number one item on the Project Drawdown list is emissions from refrigerants, with thousands of times the warming effect of CO2. Item six is girls’ education. 130 million girls around the world don’t get much education. If they stay in school, they have more options, including the knowledge to use birth control.

Item seven is family planning. 214 million women in lower–income countries want to choose whether and when to become pregnant but lack access to contraception. Drawdown estimates that funding high school education for girls, along with access to family planning for women around the world would reduce emissions by 30% more than dealing with refrigerants. (They’re also two of the cheapest options in Drawdown’s analysis.)

The site has a long list of other critical actions State and Federal governments need to take to address global warming. You could write letters, sign petitions, lobby local, State and Federal officials. Here in Washington, elected officials mostly vote right on climate bills, so maybe the best effort would be to try to elect more Democrats in other places. Plus, there are many organizations working on issues like these––you could find some you admire and contribute

Thad Curtz has been volunteering for local climate groups since retiring from the Evergreen faculty; his website about resources for acting on our climate mitigation plan is at Climate Toolbox.

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