On Wednesday, February 16, the Kyoto Protocol will come into effect, mandating participating nations to reduce their emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases. Canada has ratified Kyoto. The United States has not.

Have you?

Not literally, of course. Individuals can’t sign international treaties. They can, however, pledge to match its goals (summarized by World Resources Institute): a reduction of emissions in the United States to 7 percent below-and in Canada to 6 percent below-the 1990 level by 2008-2012.

Fifteen Cascadian localities have signaled their intent to follow or approximate Kyoto, as you can see in this list maintained by the International Center for Local Environmental Initiatives. (Overall, unfortunately, Cascadia’s CO2 emissions have climbed by about 19 percent since 1990, as we documented in This Place on Earth 2002 (download the book, read pages 47-50).

Inspired by this leadership, I decided to make the pledge myself. A few days ago, I solemnly swore-OK, not so solemnly, but I did swear-I would reduce my family’s emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases by at least 7 percent below our 1990 level.

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  • Climate change is mostly a systems issue, not a personal one. I can’t change my utility’s power plant from coal to wind. I can’t install hybrid-electric engines in all the world’s new motor vehicles. I can’t enact a global cap-and-trade system or a national carbon tax. To see such systemic changes, we need business and government to develop policies and practice that will carry us to the Kyoto goal.

    But personal action is at least a small part of the puzzle. And aligning our lifestyles with our values is never a bad idea. So, yes, pledging Kyoto may be mostly symbolic, but so are wedding rings, battle flags, and flaming crosses. Symbols are powerful.

    The swearing was the fun part. It made me feel good. The hard part came next: figuring out how I was doing on my pledge. That part proved mind-boggling at first, but I hope it won’t be for you if you decide to follow suit.

    Among the half-dozen personal greenhouse-gas-emissions calculators available online (for example, Environment Canada’s list), the best seems to be Safe Climate, maintained by the World Resources Institute. It allowed me to make estimates of emissions from home energy use and car and airplane travel.

    But first, along the way, it raised lots of confusing and, in some cases, imponderable questions. How do you tally children? Since 1990, my wife Amy and I have adopted one and given birth to two. Should we count the aggregate emissions of the family? Or should we tally per-capita emissions, since the two births simply replace us? (I decided to make the challenge hard by tallying the entire family’s emissions: the two of us in 1990, the five of us today. So Kyoto’s 7 percent goal turns into a per-capita emissions reduction of 63 percent!)

    What about local climate? In 1990, we lived in Washington, DC, where the summer heat is intense and winters are moderately cold, requiring both air conditioning and a fair bit of heat. Now, we live in Seattle, where air conditioning is unnecessary and winters are mild. Do we get credit for the resulting energy savings or not? (I decided just to tally emissions resulting from our home energy use, regardless of climate. Doing otherwise would be too complicated. In fact, I probably couldn’t do the math.)

    And topography? The wet, mountainous Northwest is a natural for hydropower, and Seattle City Light is overwhelmingly a hydro utility—which gives our 2004 selves an advantage. But our utility in 1990 had, by virtue of topography and climate, virtually no access to hydro and relied instead on coal, nuclear, and natural gas plants. (Again, I decided just to tally household emissions from home energy use.)

    What about phase-of-life changes? In 1990, we lived comfortably in a 700 square foot apartment and drove a new-ish compact car that went 36 miles per gallon. Today, with three kids, we live in a four-bedroom, 1,700-square-foot house and drive an old station wagon that goes 25 miles per gallon. There’s no such thing as a four-bedroom apartment in the Seattle housing market, so we have to live in a single-family home-which means more energy use per square foot. Should we be penalized for being in the child-rearing phase of life? (I decided to penalize us. It may not be fair, but it makes the challenge real and keeps the calculations simple.)

    And what about work-related air travel? Include it or exclude it? In 1990, my work at Worldwatch Institute took me to England, Sweden, and Nigeria, plus a number of American cities. In 2004, my work keeps me within Cascadia and I rarely have to fly. (I decided to include work-related air travel. I had a lot of discretion over my travels in 1990, and Amy and I made a conscious decision to travel less and settle our lives down, as I detailed in This Place on Earth.)

    Based on these decisions (and some rough estimates of our energy use in 1990), here’s what Safe Climate told me. In 1990, we caused an amount of emissions in the average range for Americans: together, we released 48,500 pounds of carbon dioxide through our home energy use and travel. The overwhelming majority of these emissions were from transportation: more than half of the total came from airplane trips; more came from Amy’s commute to her suburban teaching job.

    And in 2004? Surely, with five instead of two people, 2.5 times the living space, and a bigger car, our emissions must have soared. To my astonishment-and initial disbelief-Safe Climate calculates our 2004 emissions at 30,600 pounds, an overall reduction of 37 percent from 1990 and a per-capita reduction of a whopping 75 percent. Our per-person emissions are now about one third of the US average and roughly equal to the European average.

    I found this heartening but also, oddly, a bit of a letdown. Where’s the thrill in making an ambitious pledge only to discover you don’t have to do anything to fulfill it? Besides, I found myself wondering if there was some statistical fluke that gave us this victory for false reasons. So I triple checked the numbers, ran various alternative scenarios, and disaggregated them, as shown in this chart.

    I learned that simply by moving from coal-powered Washington, DC, to hydro-powered Seattle (where the public utility Seattle City Light has now committed to releasing zero net emissions of greenhouse gases), we trimmed 12,500 pounds of CO2 (one quarter of the total) from our tally. If we had lived the same lifestyle in 1990 but it had been in Seattle, our reduction over the period would have been 15 percent, not 37 percent.

    In addition to moving to a clean-power city, three steps brought our overall emissions down so much. First, we decided to travel the world less. Many years go by without getting on an airplane, although we are not doctrinaire about it. In 2004, we actually had a fairly heavy travel year: we logged some 25,000 air miles among the five of us-most of it on a trip to Boston to visit family and friends. In 1990, in contrast, the two of us clocked some 42,000 miles in flight, which was not a big number for those years.

    Second, we chose our home based on its proximity to schools, shops, work, and transit lines. Amy works literally
    across the stre
    et from our house, at the same school that two of our kids attend. This move has cut our annual driving from 12,000 miles in 1990 to 8,000 miles today-almost low enough that we could make do with FlexCar alone.

    Third, in 2001, we completed a comprehensive green remodel of our house. (You can see pictures and read about it on Sightline supporter and architect Rob Harrison’s site [click “Projects,” then “Thein Durning home”].) It’s now very frugal in its use of energy, with lots of insulation, heat-trapping windows, a superefficient heat/hot-water system, compact fluorescents in almost every socket, and other features about which I tend to wax poetic. (My wife warns visitors against expressing any interest in the GFX waste-heat recovery system on our main sewer line unless they have a lot of time on their hands.)

    Before 2001, our home energy use was substantially higher. We now average 14 kilowatt-hours of electricity and 1.7 therms of natural gas per day. I’m proud of these numbers considering the fact that the house has people in it most of the time and that my kids have reached the age where they all enjoy hot showers.

    Now, the inevitable caveats. There are some quirks in counting greenhouse gas emissions that make counting emissions vexing.

    One example: Sometimes you have to spend carbon to save carbon. My family intentionally does all our heating-space, water, cooking, clothes dryer, everything but the oven and the microwave-with natural gas, even though burning it emits CO2 and heating with Seattle City Light (SCL) electricity would be climate neutral. But heating with electricity is thermodynamically inefficient (I know, Clark, except with a heat pump!) and every watt of SCL electricity that my family doesn’t use gets sold on the Western electricity grid, where it offsets production of other electricity from either coal or natural gas. So, by burning natural gas efficiently ourselves at home, we prevent a much larger release of greenhouse gases somewhere else. In that sense, our home energy emissions are an overstatement of our net effect on climate.

    Another example: about 60 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions come from things other than personal transportation and residential energy use. (Think of all those factories, farms, offices, stores, freight trucks, and military jets busily pumping out CO2.) So tallies of personal emissions from Safe Climate leave out more than they include. What I buy and do effects these other emissions, but there’s no practical way to count the effects. In some cases, pushing up your Safe Climate tally may even push down your true emissions total: for example, driving to a nearby store may generate fewer net emissions than ordering something for express delivery from a distant warehouse. But only emissions from the former option show up on your Safe Climate tab.

    My advice: keep such things in mind but never let the accounting get in the way of the goal. And don’t let personal action take precedence over systemic action which, ultimately, is the only sufficient response to climate change.

    For me, personally, I’m glad to know I’ve already met the Kyoto pledge. And I’m glad to know it was pretty easy to do, given a long period during which to shift into the big decisions like where to live. If it’s easy for me, it couldn’t be that hard for entire nations, given their vaster resources.

    And I’m pondering how to go farther. I know lots of additional steps I can take: little things like installing a “soap-up” valve in our second bathroom shower; mid-size things like replacing the four remaining single-pane windows in our house; and big things, like buying a hybrid car, once one comes along that’s big enough for a family of five.

    But, while I strive to keep trimming my emissions, for now, I’m content simply to be counted among those who have ratified Kyoto. When the protocol takes effect on February 16, it will cover nations that are home to 68 percent of the world’s people. That’s 4.4 billion out of 6.5 billion.

    With my family, make that 4.4 billion and five. Care to join us?