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Creating a Personal Plan for Confronting Climate Change: Part 3 – Crunching the Carbon Footprint Numbers

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Creating a Personal Plan for Confronting Climate Change: Part 1 argues that if people are serious about confronting climate change, they need to stop reading lists of tips on how to reduce their carbon footprint and gather a few reliable resources that will convey the magnitude of the problem. For reasons explained in a second article, Creating a Personal Plan for Confronting Climate Change: Part 2, an awareness of the scope of the climate problem will lead to the realization that it demands political action. According to the Princeton Carbon Mitigation Initiative, by mid-century, in order to compensate for increases in carbon caused by worldwide economic development and population growth, we need to implement changes in behavior that will reduce our carbon emissions by 8 billion tons annually. The problem is too big to fix through changes in personal habit alone.

Nonetheless, changes in personal consumption can help. Some of them help a great deal more than others. Let’s crunch a few carbon footprint numbers and make comparisons so that you get a sense of which of these “tips for reducing your carbon footprint” will make a meaningful difference.

Buying electricity from renewable sources is one of the most significant steps you can take. A family that consumes 14,000 kWh of electricity annually, and converts from coal-powered to renewable sources, will reduce its carbon footprint by around 13/2 tons. You can check with your utility company to see if they offer the option of purchasing power from renewable sources. For example, in the Seattle area, Puget Sound Energy offers a Green Power program; the cost of buying 100% renewable power through the program for 14,000kWh is surprisingly affordable - about $175 a year more than coal-powered electricity. Doubling gas mileage from 25 mpg to 50 mpg on an automobile that travels 10,000 miles per year reduces emissions by two tons. Driving half as much does the same. Recycling aluminum, plastics, glass, newspapers, and magazines reduces emissions by an average of around a ton per year for a family of four, as does switching out single-pane for Energy Star windows. An often overlooked significant step is eating less meat because meat creates not only more carbon than vegetarian produce, but also more methane and nitrous oxide, which are far more potent greenhouse gases. According to the Christian Science Monitor, a study done at The University of Chicago concluded that the average American diet creates the equivalent of about 1.5 tons more carbon emissions annually than a no-meat diet. There are, of course, many smaller steps we can take to reduce emissions. For example, using cold water to do five loads of laundry weekly saves around 260 lbs. of CO2, and switching out five incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescent bulbs saves an average of 370 lbs. per year.

But let’s not forget that this is a very big problem, requiring that we take the big steps. Running out to buy a composter without becoming politically involved on this issue is not a good plan. If a family followed all the suggestions on this page, they would reduce their carbon footprint by about 12 tons. Initially, that sounds pretty good. After all, there are around 111 million households in the U.S., and if we all achieved this level of reduction, we would reduce our collective C output by over 1.3 billion tons. The Princeton Carbon Mitigation Initiative says that we need to get to a reduction of 8 billion tons annually by mid-century. Sounds doable, right? But let’s not forget that most countries are going to have a much more difficult time finding ways to cut 1.3 billion tons of carbon because Americans are using far more carbon per capita than they are. The U.S. uses about five times as much carbon per capita as China and Russia, about 20 times as much per capita as India. We emit more than 20 times as much per capita as most African countries. Even if every American household took the above steps to reduce its carbon footprint, we remain 6.7 billion tons short in reductions annually, and cutting carbon will be far more difficult for poor or developing countries that are currently using far less per capita.

Do voluntary changes in consumption habits matter? Yes, or course, particularly the significant changes mentioned above. But they will not be sufficient to meet the challenge of climate change? This is why a realistic personal plan for dealing with the problem must include the kind of political action on climate change outlined in the second article in this series.

This article was originally published at the WeBuyItGreen Eco-Library and is reprinted here with permission of the author.

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