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.