Posted by: Michelle on April 23rd, 2009
With every breath, we release CO2 into the atmosphere as we exhale. If that were the extent of human-made carbon emissions – carbon being a necessary part of our and our planet’s existence - then global warming wouldn’t be the specter that it is today. As we all know, though, that simply isn’t the case. Living in an industrialized society attaches a certain amount of carbon to almost every facet of our lives, from the everyday items we own, wear, or use to the built environments we occupy over the course of our days. Human beings’ aggregate carbon emissions long ago reached the point of being environmentally sustainable, causing the trend of global warming that is now throwing off the balance of natural systems on which we and all other living things reply.
Where we can make a difference and help stem global warming is by living in a way that minimizes the amount of carbon we’re responsible for producing. So for this year’s Earth Day, I set out to become more aware of how the choices I make each day effect the size of my carbon footprint. I did so by attempting to keep that footprint as small as possible with every decision I made and to then neutralize the carbon I couldn’t help by planting seeds destine to grow into carbon consuming, carbon storing trees. As I quickly learned, it’s not easy to understand how every little choice impacts your personal carbon output, so this was a way for me to educate myself and hopefully, by chronicling and quantifying my efforts here and on Twitter, educate others about what all of us can do to live more sustainably.
Disclaimer: the following calculations of my carbon footprint from yesterday are going to be unavoidably imperfect. For example, the fabrication of my solar panels, house, and all the items I have inside it resulted in significant carbon emissions, but unfortunately it’s just beyond my ability to discern what those emissions total. They may not be incalculable for those of you with Ph.D.s from MIT (like my friend Saul, who has given the question a lot of thought), but for the purposes of this little experiment, we’re just going to have to work around it.
That said, my “carbon neutral” day was off to a very good start considering the fact that my house actually nets negative carbon by producing more electricity than we use thanks to our solar panels. The excess energy feds back into the grid where it helps reduce other households’ carbon emissions.
I charged up my laptop, back-up pack, and cell phone at home before leaving for the office so I wouldn’t need to plug-in there. I love the idea of using my house as “power pack” for work, but it would even better if our office was also powered by clean, renewable energy In fact, it would make good financial sense to install solar panels on our office roof because if we took advantage of one of the new solar leasing programs it would most likely not cost us more than what we pay now for electricity each month. Mental note: add that to our business plan for 2010.
Carbon for electricity for laptop and phone for the day:
I drove my Prius (a hybrid) and gave Scott Landry, MKD’s Director of Architecture, a ride to and from work. Although that may have seemed like just a nice gesture on my part, it was also so I could give him half my carbon footprint from the driving for the day (which benefited his footprint, too, since otherwise he would have just taken his non-hybrid car to work). So I got to divide my transportation-related Carbon emissions in half.
Carbon for transportation:
0.01 tons/2 = 0.005 tons or 11 lbs
( I get 48 mpg if I drive at a constant 65 mph. I can’t wait for the 2010 Prius to come out because it’s supposed to average 50 mpg and has an solar roof option for powering accessories and thereby boosting mileage. Kevin is pushing for the PHEV upgrade (adds a battery you can plug-in and recharge at night) so we can get 100mpg.)
- Toast (bread from local bakery); organic pear from farmers market (luckily Kevin, my green gorilla husband, is a fanatic about buying organic produce. Sometimes I catch myself being lazy and going for whatever is most convenient. The good news is that organic produce is becoming convenient almost everywhere!)
- I meant to make coffee at home, but was running late to meet Scott, and went to Starbucks (but with my reusable cup ). So I had to ask the barista: how much CO2 is associated with this latte? She looks at me like I am from Mars, surely questioning her decision to work at a Starbucks in Marin County. I will have to research the answer myself.
An aside: My latte quandary brings up an important issue. I really wish that restaurants and retail stores would list the carbon footprint of each item they sell. Food products list the nutrition, calories, protein, carbohydrates, etc. Clothing tags tell you what materials your clothes are made out of and where they’re made. Adding information about the carbon emissions attached to a product would help people understand the environmental impact of their purchases and make better choices.
To calculate the carbon footprint of my meals I used this very handy Carbon Calculator from EatLowCarbon.org. It gives you “carbon points”. One point equals one gram (g), or .035 ox of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions (CO2 e) of greenhouse gases. A 2000 point meal item, then, equals 4.4 pounds (lbs) of CO2e. Unfortunately the calculator doesn’t go into detail on local, organic, etc. which means we need even better tools than this – but it’s a good start!
Carbon for breakfast:
Drank tap water filtered through a Brita put of my Sigg bottle all day.
Carbon for water that is filtered from tap water:
When I got to work, I opened up my blinds and windows in the morning, so I didn’t use any electricity for lights or heating/cooling in my office for the morning.
Carbon for electricity for lights + air-conditioning for morning:
Ok, mail is a tough one. Some of what comes in is important, but a lot of it is just junk. Mass mailings, credit card offers, people trying to sell you crap that really isn’t sustainable no matter how many times they say the word “green” on their literature – who needs any of it? A more important question for my purposes: Whose responsibility are the carbon emissions produced by all that mail? I am absolutely willing to absorb the carbon into my footprint for the necessary mail, but not for the junk. So I put the junk mail into our recycling bin, and will use later for making new (usable!) plantable paper.
Carbon for mail that is actually important mail (for transportation and paper):
We had a management meeting in the morning for 2 hours. We kept the lights off, which made for an interesting management meeting with a more casual flavor, which was actually really nice. No lights meant no carbon for electricity for meeting, although there was still a lot of “hot air” in the room, as there always is in these management meetings. Still, I will go with:
Carbon for electricity for lights + air-conditioning for midday:
I walked to Caffe 817 – a local café that serves entrees made from local, organic ingredients. I choose a yummy grilled eggplant sandwich with artichokes and feta cheese on a baguette with a side salad. Turns out that some of the tastiest entrees also have the least carbon attached.
Carbon for lunch:
In the afternoon, I closed my blinds a bit, shading the west-facing window to avoid the heat gain and glare from the low western sun. It was a warm day, so late in the afternoon I broke down and closed my window and turned on the air conditioning for 2 hours. That is all I needed to help cool the space. Luckily, the sun is setting late in the day now that it’s late April, so I never had to turn on my office lights before leaving for home at 7:30pm. Just before I left, I re-opened my office windows to allow in the cool evening air for tomorrow.
Carbon for electricity for lights + air-conditioning for late-afternoon/evening:
I was definitely in the mood for meat, which unfortunately has quite a bit more carbon associated with its production than produce and grains. But hey, I am from Iowa, so meat-cravings are a part of my make-up. However, I went with lower-carbon-footprint grilled chicken rather than higher-carbon-footprint beef. Crazy fact: beef creates more than twice the carbon as an equal amount of turkey! Also, farm-raised salmon (grilled) has 1203 CO2 points while wild regional salmon (also grilled) only has 75 Co2 points. What a HUGE difference between! I knew wild and regional salmon was better, but I had no idea it was 15 times better! Check out the EatLowCarbon.org calculator and play around with the different points for the different types of meat. You’ll be amazed!
It’s actually pretty interesting how so many of the more healthful foods also involve less carbon. Hmm. More healthful + less carbon. Ok, it’s definitely time to start making better choices.
Carbon for dinner:
Lights at home powered with solar; watching movie on TV powered with solar; cooking food on an electric stove powered with solar. And no AC needed thanks to the design of our Glidehouse!
Carbon for electricity for lights + air-conditioning for night:
I guess I could let this one slide, but I managed to find some pretty interesting info on it so what the heck! On average, we take 24,000 breaths a day, breathing in approximately 6g of CO2, but breathing out around 800g at the same time. So what if I could cut the amount of breaths I took? Probably not the smartest choice, but…
If we each merely cut out one breath in three, we could decrease the amount of CO2 entering the atmosphere each year by a staggering 0.63 gigatons. That’s 0.63 billion tons - the same effect as saving 5 million acres of land (an area the size of Wales) from deforestation, or recycling 192 million tons of waste instead of trashing it.
Carbon from respiration:
My grand total of carbon emitted on Earth Day 2009 was (drum roll please):
So based on Trees for the Future’s calculation that a tree will absorb an average of 50 lbs of carbon dioxide a year for over 40 years, my carbon footprint would require me to plant 0.09 trees to outset it. So since that’s physically impossible, I’m instead going to try to maintain my Earth Day lifestyle throughout the year so that I hopefully average about the same amount of carbon emissions on a day to day basis, and then plant enough trees to offset 365 days worth of that carbon output, or 6.5 (I’ll round up to 7, though ). Our annual Christmas Tree will be one of those (we plant ours every year instead of cutting one down), and for the others, I’ll plant fruit bearing trees – Meyer lemon, orange, avocado, apple, etc – to help me reduce my CO2 footprint in two ways: with carbon absorption and with homegrown food I don’t have to drive anywhere to enjoy!
The biggest lesson I learned yesterday was that it is not easy to access information in real time about the carbon footprint of everyday choices. Some things I know, like driving less is better, as is using solar power. But what about when you’re choosing between two different products at the store? A friend of mine who owns one of the largest chain stores in Belgium (think Costco but for our friends across the Atlantic) said they are starting to list CO2e right on their products. Of course, calculating that number for everything we buy and sell is complicated.
The topic of carbon footprints is a complicated one, and we are living in a sound-bite world. We need to find ways to make the information easier to calculate and easier to understand so that we can make our daily decisions choices accordingly.