The U.S. emits five times more CO2 per capita than the rest of the world’s average. Lately, I’ve been feeling frustrated about my share in this heavyweight status. I don’t live in an urban location (Poulsbo, Washington, about a one-hour drive and ferry ride from Seattle), and since the bus stop (and the actual town) is still about 7 miles from my house, this forces me to drive almost daily. Leaving the car at home just isn’t a viable option.
So I was eager to read what writer (and former Tidepool publisher) Seth Zuckerman had to say in an article in this month’s Sierra Magazine about his effort to define and follow a “Low-Carbon Diet.” Here’s the question he raises:
…Morocco and Indonesia emit only as much carbon dioxide per capita as Earth can absorb—and they’re hardly known for their high standard of living. Is impoverishment the only way to bring our carbon bender under control?
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Actually, he goes on three different diets in a quest to explore the most effective ways for individuals to offset their emissions: a) that of the Typical American, at 65 pounds of CO2 emissions per day, b) the global average, 18 pounds, and c) just 5 pounds, which is the amount the Earth’s natural clean-up system—trees and plants—can remove in a day. (He only counts the emissions that individuals have control over, such as transportation and residential energy use.)
Zuckerman found the high-carbon diet tough to achieve because he had to work against his relatively fuel-efficient lifestyle—he lives in one of Seattle’s most compact neigbhorhoods, Capitol Hill.
I live in a city, so I don’t have to travel far for daily necessities. [In Seattle,] subfreezing weather is uncommon and mild summers make air-conditioning unnecessary. At the time of my experiment, I worked at home, so my commute was carbon free. To top it off, my wife, Jen, and I occupied an apartment in a 28-unit building, whose shared walls reduce the energy needed for wintertime heating.
His pre-diet daily emissions were already pretty low, about 15 lbs. a day. Even when he drove as much as possible, including renting an SUV, he could only get up to 33 lbs a week.
On the other hand, he found the medium-carbon diet tough (air travel is one of his vices), and the ultra low-carbon diet next to impossible. Even unplugging your fridge and moving to a yurt won’t necessarily help, as he found out when he visited an acquaintance who had done just that—but still had to drive to town.
Zuckerman end ups in terrain familiar to Sightline—that the individual can only do so much. The greatest obstacle to low-carbon living, he finds, is the lack of infrastructure and/or affordability for clean-energy choices.
Bringing my life into balance with the climate was clearly not a challenge I could solve all on my own. This was somewhat of a relief because my carbon dieting had grown tiresome. Almost everything I do involves emissions, even such subtle choices as buying local food or food that has to be hauled long distances to market.
A key focus then should be to develop policies to support the individual’s adoption of these alternatives, such as offering incentives for utilities to provide low-carbon electricity; raising efficiency standards; and incorporating the cost of carbon dioxide emissions into the price of gasoline so that they start telling the truth about carbon output.
Thankfully, some Northwest cities—such as Seattle and Portland–have been leaders in promoting climate-friendly policies. But all communities (including mine!) can do a better job of making it easier for residents to make low-carbon choices, without putting their bank accounts on a diet.
P.S.: You can calculate your own carbon emissions at SafeClimate or on ClimateCrisis.net, and then read about offsetting your personal footprint.
I’ve taken what some might consider drastic action to limit my carbon:1) chosen to live in an area where all electricity is carbon-free (thanks to hydro power),2) chosen a life-style such that I live simply but comfortably below the poverty level, thus limiting my involvement with the greater, carbon-producing economy,3) as part of that life-style, I work at home most of the time, and do not commute,4) chosen to live within walking or cycling distance of groceries and other essential goods and services, and5) make my own biofuel, for the times I find it necessary to drive.However, the “carbon footprint” calculators don’t work for me. They assume my driving contributes carbon, or my electricity uses carbon, or they penalize me for where I live and how many people live in my house, without regard to our life-style.Is there a decent “alternative life-style” carbon calculator available? (If not, would someone be interested in doing one?)
Great points, Jan. It sounds like you are taking some really significant steps toward a low-carbon lifestyle. The only place where I’d beg to differ is your first. If you get your electric power from the grid, every kilowatt-hour you conserve means one less kilowatt-hour that has to be generated from coal or natural gas. While the grid is partly fossil-fueled, all of us have some carbon dioxide implicit in our electricity.
I agree, Seth. Besides, even hydropower has quite a footprint. Mackenzie: There are more organizations that sell energy certificates – e.g. TerraPass or NativeEnergy. A good general explanation of Tradable Renewable Certificates can be found here. (BTW, this page also mentions that New England may be ahead of us in this regard.)Of course it is a good thing that so many people are voting with their wallets, gathering momentum to move us towards an energy certificate market. However, since we don’t have an effective comprehensive carbon market yet, it may feel like toy money. (The aforementioned post hints in this direction.) Since (notwithstanding CRS certifications) energy traders are not very forthcoming when it comes to explaining how they arrive at their prices, and how much of the money you pay they keep in their own pocket, it may make more sense to donate the money instead directly to a wind farm or any other environmental cause. Or am I overlooking something? Then again, maybe we don’t need to worry about the effectiveness of our money if we rely on market forces and trust that consumers compare prices, as for any other commodity. According to their websites, one US $ eliminates the following amounts of CO2: Carbon Fund: 360 lb = 160 kg Carbon Fund with Working Assets match: 460 lb = 210 kg TerraPass: 200 lb = 91 kg NativeEnergy (both WindBuilders and Remooable Energy (methane)): 167 lb = 76 kg