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Making personal choices can reduce carbon emissions

Marc Lefkowitz  |  03/18/16 @ 12:00pm  |  Posted in Clean energy, Reduce, Driving, Transportation

Last week, we wrote about the communities in Northeast Ohio that have the best and worst carbon footprints. It did reveal some notable trends like how income, density and distance from the central city determine how the region stacks (and pollutes) up.

Today, we look at what can be done about it. What are we as individuals capable of doing to reduce our carbon footprint?

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Life comes with a carbon footprint

Climate scientists couldn’t be more clear that carbon is a greenhouse gas with potent, life-altering force. It has been drilled into us. We know. We need to reduce our carbon footprint. Now.

Which leads to obvious questions—by how much do we need to reduce our carbon footprint? What are the most effective steps to take?

To answer the first, Shrink My Footprint notes that, in the U.S., the average carbon footprint is 20 tons per person in a year. To put that number in perspective, our global carbon budget, meaning, how much carbon the world collectively will be able to release in the atmosphere as calculated by a consensus of the world’s scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is 1 trillion tons. Any more and temperatures will rise above the 2 degrees Celsius. The IPCC report has linked that level of carbon in the atmosphere to serious, permanent damage to the life support systems of the planet. That might sound like a lot, but, we have already blown through 50% of that budget.

Break that down to the individual: We each have a carbon budget. Unfortunately, Americans have been exceeding their carbon budgets. To live sustainably without major disruption to planetary systems, will require a reduction in our carbon footprint to 4 tons per person by 2030 and 1.5 tons per person by 2050. Again, we will reduce the emissions of carbon if we plan to avoid the worst impacts of climate change (which we're already starting to see in melting polar ice, sea level rise, flooding, extreme weather, stressed ecosystems, and acidification of the oceans).

Where to begin?

We’ve found a good carbon footprint calculator to help connect the dots between the routine choices we make and the limits of carbon that our atmosphere, oceans, forests and cities can sustain. How much carbon is emitted from powering your home, your food production and transportation can be quickly calculated.

It’s important to remember, the number is a starting point. The idea of a carbon footprint calculator, like the scale in your bathroom, is a check in at an individual level.


While personal choices have some influence (such as creating a market for renewable energy vs. conventional fossil fuels), the best way to address climate change is to focus on big, systematic change, like, what is the source of our power. For example, we could support an important local project like the Lake Erie wind farm by agreeing to pay a little more on our utility bill so that the Cleveland area will build the first, fresh water off-shore turbines generating 20.7 megawatts of electricity -- enough clean energy to power 6,000 homes. That represents a carbon reduction of great significance.


Since we have less control over the creation of a wind farm, the reduction of demand for power in our buildings -- for example, through the replacement of energy intensive to energy efficient technology -- is a big area of personal-level decision making where reductions are possible. Switch old incandescent light bulbs to LEDs, for instance, to cut your carbon emissions by 1 percent. Consider having a professional energy rater conduct an energy audit and see if there is a good return on investment in insulation and air sealing (to reduce heat loss in the winter). With nearly two-thirds of the homes in Northeast Ohio built before 1950, older, uninsulated homes in Northeast Ohio represent a huge opportunity to reduce carbon emissions at an individual level (that will add up).


The second largest producer of carbon emissions in Northeast Ohio is from transportation. Transportation accounts for 27% of the region's carbon footprint. Reducing the consumption of gasoline starts at home: consider that proximity -- choosing to live closer to major employment centers and daily needs -- has great influence on driving and related carbon emissions. It is perhaps the single most important choice we can make at an individual level in reducing the need for driving. Having lots of access to daily needs can make switching to alternative modes such as walking, biking or taking public transit much more attractive.

Low or no-carbon forms of transportation have a small but meaningful reduction of carbon emissions. A study from University of Michigan found that replacing car trips with a bike produces in the range of a 2% carbon reduction. A growing number of people in Northeast Ohio are finding that biking and transit are their preferred mode.

Even if alternatives to driving are not an option for you today, changing driving behavior -- grouping trips, not topping off the tank, avoiding aggressive driving -- can reduce your carbon footprint by 1 ton, writes CityLab.

When shopping for a car, trading in a less fuel efficient car for a hybrid vehicle can reduce carbon emissions over the life of the vehicle by 10%. Start planning now for whether a hybrid or the most fuel efficient car is an option for you.

A cost-free idea to shed 1% from your carbon footprint: Combine car trips and bike to work a few times a week. Reducing car trips by 10% would lighten your footprint by 1.6 percent, the University of Michigan study discovered.

An app for that

In the future we be able to keep track, in real time, our yearly “not to exceed” carbon budget. In Sweden, an effort to frame this individual stake in global climate change is taking shape at The 2000 Watt Society. A group of scientists concerned that 80% of Sweden’s power is imported is pushing a big goal to bring per capita energy use down to 2,000 watts by 2050. By comparison, the U.S. averages 10,000 watts per person.

The difference can’t be explained by wealth alone. The U.S. ties its only real metric of progress, GDP, to consumption (rather unlike Bhutan, which was voted 8th “Happiest Country in the World.” The nation is measuring happiness and health using a Genuine Progress Indicator. Sweden was ranked 7th happiest country despite the harsh seasonality.

The U of M study compared steps to reduce our personal carbon footprint. Small actions help, and we should feel like they are worth taking for many reasons, but the really big reductions in carbon will come from system wide changes.

It will take a great deal of cooperation to switch to 100% renewables as a country. Our part to play is in making individual choices—to opt for green power if your utility offers it, to cut out red meat, and to try a bike commute a day or two each week. See what works for you, but get started even if it is baby steps at first.

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