Living Well on a Four Ton Carbon Budget

Environmentally minded Americans recognize that global climate change is the single most urgent ecological and political issue facing the planet.  If you are like me, you want to live consistently with your beliefs about climate change. We all know we need to reduce our carbon impacts. But we don’t know by how much, and most environmental organizations don’t give us a clue what a sustainable carbon footprint would look like.  The rate of global carbon emissions overwhelms us, and makes individual action feel futile.  Giving up carbon emissions entirely seems inconsistent with a contemporary, comfortable lifestyle in the developed world.

But most people share the basic ethical sense that it is wrong to make lifestyle choices that cause harm to other people.  And we know that climate change will cause grievous harm to millions of people around the globe.  It’s easy to blame capitalism and large, impersonal oil and coal companies for climate change, but we can’t ignore our own complicity in the fossil fuel economy when we burn gas to get to work, jet fuel to go on vacation, natural gas to heat and cook, and coal generated electricity to light and cool our houses.  As cartoonist Walt Kelly put it forty years ago, “We have met the enemy, and he is us!”

This is a blog about living a good life with a sustainable individual carbon footprint of about four tons CO2 equivalent per year. The dual, mildly contradictory premises of this blog are that 1) we all share an ethical responsibility to live right now with a carbon footprint that will not cause catastrophic climate impacts to other people, and 2) life should be fun.

I think that an individual direct footprint of four tons per year is defensible as sustainable for a middle class citizen of a developed nation during the phaseout of all fossil fuels over the next few decades.  Some might argue that this is unjustifiably high (it is much higher than a per capita global allocation of the remaining carbon emissions budget), some might argue that it is impossibly low (few people in the US get by on a four ton carbon budget).  I will explain this in greater detail elsewhere.

 

I plan to use this blog to share my thoughts about the meaning of carbon sustainability, and to share my experiences with lowering my footprint for getting to work and heating and lighting my house, while saving some of my carbon budget for fun!

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Yesterday You Voted For Climate . . . So Now do Something That Will Actually Decrease Global Carbon Emissions

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Photo by Element5 Digital on Pexels.com

So you voted for climate yesterday. Congratulations! You helped flip control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats. It is great that the party of climate denial no longer controls both houses of Congress.  This is a necessary condition for effective climate policy. By “effective,” I mean climate policy that has some hope of achieving the sorts of reductions in the US (45% reduction by 2030) that IPCC SR15 says are necessary to avoid more than 1.5 degrees C of warming.

But a Democratic House, while necessary, is not sufficient to achieve effective climate policy. The House will be a check on President Trump’s worst instincts, but it can’t stop the Trump administration from withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and dismantling the Clean Power Plan. And the Paris Agreement and the Clean Power Plan were not enough, by themselves, to meet the GHG reductions described by IPCC SR15. To establish affirmative climate policy, the House would have to adopt new legislation – which in can only do with the concurrence of the Senate and the President. So flipping the House to the Democrats is really unlikely to lead to any measurable decrease in GHG emissions in the United States.

So as long as a climate denier occupies the White House and the party of climate deniers control the Senate, effective climate policy is impossible in the United States. Democratic control of the Senate and the White House are thus also necessary conditions for effective climate policy (or at least a veto-proof majority in the Senate). That can’t happen until 2020, at the soonest.

But even Democratic control of government, while necessary, is not sufficient for effective climate policy. We had Democratic control of the executive and legislative branches in 2009, and no climate legislation resulted.  And while the Obama administration and EPA was the most climate progressive ever seen, it still did not take every possible climate mitigation measure in their power. Take a look at Clean Air Act section 211(c)(1) – it authorizes EPA to ban fossil fuels in transport any time it wants,  based on the same endangerment finding that underlies EPA mileage standards and the Clean Power Plan.

Why isn’t Democratic control sufficient for effective climate policy? Because until politicians hear that climate is the number one issue for their base voters, it’s not going to make it to the top of the agenda.  And climate is still far from the top issue for democratic voters.

So voting for Democrats, while necessary, is not sufficient for effective climate action. Democratic control of the House will not reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the US.  Want to do something that will have a measurable impact on greenhouse gas emissions? Take a look in the mirror – the carbon mirror. Go to a greenhouse gas calculator that lets you plug in actual numbers for flights, natural gas, electricity, driving and diet, and see how your annual carbon footprint compares to the US average. Carbonfootprint.com and The Nature Conservancy have calculators that are pretty good for this (I have quibbles with both). Aim to reduce your emissions to below the US average this year – if you believe in climate action nationally, you should at least be able to get your own footprint below the average. Look at the four biggest items in your carbon tab (probably flying, driving, utilities, and diet), and aim to reduce each of those by at least 30% next year and 50% within three years.

But wait, IPCC SR15 gives the world 12 years to achieve a 45% reduction – why should anyone have to reduce now? The reason is that if you voted for climate, you are a climate leader (whether you think so or not) because most voters did not vote for climate. Being a leader means doing things first, setting an example that others can follow.

You will be able to measure your own footprint reduction immediately.  And that is a measurable reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, it is too small to affect global climate all by itself. But your vote was also too small to effect the result of any election all by itself and you did it anyway. And by leading a great life with a smaller carbon footprint you make your own climate message more powerful – studies have shown that climate action messages are more convincing when the messenger has made changes in their own life. Like voting for climate, it doesn’t make a difference if just one person does it – but if everyone who voted for climate yesterday cut their own fossil fuel emissions by 50% in three years, that would make a sizable dent in US emissions – and help overcome the political resistance to policies that reduce consumption.

Belated Slow Travel Report: Sailing North Last July to Beat the Heat

 July in New York came in hot and humid. You can rack up a big carbon tab flying to a more agreeable climate and culture. Or you can sail north, say to Newfoundland, where July temperatures are in the 60s and 70s and the French island of St Pierre offers a taste of a small provincial village.
  Robin and I set off down the Hudson River for the ocean the afternoon of July 1 – the hottest day of the summer so far. Relief was immediate with a cool breeze, even on the river. We anchored overnight north of the George Washington Bridge and slipped out through the Narrows on the early morning ebb tide. By seven am we shut off the engine, pointed our bow east for Nantucket Shoals, and set our sails.
Sail travel is true slow travel. The passage from New York to St Pierre took eight days. The ocean south of Long Island was littered with mylar balloon trash – if you think releasing a balloon is magic, think again. But pilot whales and a breaching humpback visited us anyway. We spent the next three days ghosting in light winds and fog, then the fog lifted off the continental shelf and the breeze filled in for three sparkling days and starry nights as we ran offshore of Nova Scotia.

  
We had to run the engine four hours to get out of the river in light winds, then needed to run the engine one hour when we were becalmed in the fog in the Boston shipping lanes. One more hour to get us into the harbor in St Pierre, where the baguettes and quiche at Josephine’s Salon de The are still marvelous. 

  
All tolled, that’s about five gallons of diesel to go 900 miles. My share of the carbon tab for the passage is 50 pounds CO2. Not bad

Fall Loca-Tourism – Why Travel to the Fjords of Newfoundland When There Are Mist Shrouded Cliffs in Your Own Backyard?

  We spent five weeks this summer sailing to Newfoundland and back. Vacation travel is all about finding a change of place, and occasionally some solitude and serenity. Newfoundland delivered with cool weather, fog shrouded cliffs and deserted fjords — a welcome break from July in the NY motor area. And getting there by sailboat was relatively low carbon (we still burned some fuel getting in and out of harbors, and when becalmed).
But one virtue of living in the Northeast is that a change of climate is never more than a month or two away. We returned to mist-shrouded cliffs and deserted wilderness the first weekend in October without burning any fuel and without traveling more than ten miles from our house. When the fog and drizzle rolled in a week ago Saturday, instead of holding up, we sailed north from Nyack with the flooding tide and a fair wind. Black Beach is one of those hidden gems of the Hudson – a small peninsula of black sand under the cliffs at the end of the Nyack Beach State Park bike trail. Eagles soar over these cliffs, foxes and deer come down to the waters edge at sunset, and coyotes howl at night. On a foggy evening in October, the woods are deserted and we might as well be in Newfoundland except for the occasional barge traffic to remind us we are on a commercial thoroughfare at the edge of the metropolis.

  
Locatourism generally beats locavorism as a way to cut your personal carbon footprint. Face it, it takes more energy to move your butt a hundred miles than to move a head of lettuce a thousand miles. Seek out that local change of scene! 

Going Fossil Free for Earth Week Helped Keep my April Carbon Tab Low

  
This was the fifth year I went fossil free for Earth Week – making a vow not to buy or burn any fossil fuels, nor to ride on any fossil fuel powered transportation. The first year I went fossil free for Earth Week was 2013, and I have gotten by for one week without fossil fuels every year since except for 2013 when I was sailing my boat in the Bahamas with my brothers and nephew. I could not get around burning a little diesel to get in and out of harbors and a little propane to cook with that year.

 

So my fossil free week has become both routine an a ritual – I shut off the gas to the house, and dig out the electric induction stovetop. I hope for good enough weather to ride my e-moto and do my bike and kayak commute for the week, with my little Smart EV as backup for rainy days. Even riding a bus or Metro North commuter rail would be using fossil-fueled transport – public transportation is not emissions free, not yet. Robin goes along with this particular climate devotional eccentricity of mine, and we both trade hot showers for hot sponge baths for the week.
Not that fossil free week year didn’t have its challenges- our son’s girlfriend ran the Boston Marathon on the Monday of my Earth Week, and they were stopping over on their way back to Pennsylvania, and she specifically requested one of my homemade pizzas for dinner. Which I usually make in the gas oven. Lucky for me, a couple of years back I impulse purchased this gizmo that turns your charcoal grill into a pizza oven! So Danielle got her homemade pizza without busting my fossil free vow!

  
Yeah, I know, charcoal is processed with fossil fuels – but the heat energy from burning charcoal is biomass based, theoretically renewable, so it passes my fossil free test.
We capped off the week with a neighborhood paella party with a wood fire cooked paella – with windfall wood from our backyard.

  
Totaling up my carbon bill for April, my direct carbon impacts (gas, gasoline, meat eating, electricity) was 214 pounds, or about one tenth of a ton. That’s about as low as it gets. I am well on track for my four ton annual budget. Did shutting off the gas for one quarter of the month reduce my gas footprint? Well, we used 19 ccf of gas during March (870 heating degree days) but only 13 ccf of gas during April (603 heating degree days).

Easter Weekend in the Mountains and Montreal for Under 200 Pounds CO2E

We spent a long Easter Weekend traveling to our off-grid mountain retreat and visiting our kids in Montreal. Two or more people in a hybrid Prius is still close to being the most carbon efficient means to travel – at least until we get 100% renewable energy charging stations for EVs. A 50 mpg hybrid gets 100 passenger miles per gallon with two people in it, or about .2 pounds CO2 per passenger miles.  This is much better than Amtrak (.37 lbs CO2/pm) and comparable to an intercity bus. So the 800 mile round trip only worked out to about 160 pounds CO2 per person for the travel.

We were already planning to drive to our cabin for the weekend, and when we figured out that both our son and daughter would be in Montreal (she is studying physics at McGill, he was visiting from Pennsylvania), we couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a family reunion – the first time the four of us were going to be in the same place since November.

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IMG_3007The drive from North River to Montreal passes right by the Adirondack high peaks. It has been years since Robin and I have skied the spectacular Avalanche Pass trail together. You never know when you might be missing your last chance. Robin’s ankle has been bothering her, but we had Nara the ski-joring Samoyed with us to help her with the ascent and the 12 mile round trip. Though the conditions were a little sketchy – hard packed boot-holed snow in the shade, slow slush in the sun – the climb was worth it, as always, and the ski back down and out went fast.

In Montreal, we took a walk through the old city. The Old World architecture transported me halfway to France, but the North American road hog automobiled kept my spirit from getting the rest of the way there – the Montreal streets just feel too American that way.

A little over ten years ago the four of us sailed our little boat to the Continent, and spent the winter holiday in Val d’Isere, where we discovered traditional raclette cheese cuisine – melted cheese on thinly sliced meats, potatoes, and vegetables. So naturally, we all went to the Restaurant La Raclette for dinner to reminisce. Though they did not roll out an entire wheel of raclette cheese for the table like they did in the French Alps, there was still a lot of cheese for each person! Since cheese has a pretty high carbon footprint (about 13.5 lbs CO2 per lb of cheese, one half that of beef), the meal was a not insignificant part of the carbon footprint for the trip.

Sunday we took a walk to the top of Mont Royal, then drive back to our cabin in time to make a not-very-traditional open fire Easter Egg paella for our North River friends.

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After another Spring backcountry ski adventure on Monday, we drove home early Tuesday morning. We spent a total of 13 hours of the weekend driving – more than I like, but a Quebec murder mystery by Louise Penney made the hours spin by. If you add the two hours of airport travel and connections, we did not spend that much more time traveling by car than our son did traveling by plane to get to Montreal for the weekend!

When we got home, I added up my carbon footprint for March – 356 pounds CO2E for the month, mostly for natural gas (114 lbs) and gas for our drives up north. This brings my total for the first three months of the year to 1240 lbs – well on track for my four ton budget with plenty to spare.  Especially since the winter months are the biggest gas CO2 bill! 

 

 

A Mediterranean Diet Approach to a Low Carbon Footprint

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About fifteen years ago I had a really high cholesterol and triglycerides count at my annual checkup. I had never really paid much attention to my diet before that, since I was one of those blessed people who could eat pretty much anything without gaining much weight. Three cheeseburgers for lunch? Why not?

Back then, my GP automatically prescribed statin drugs for every patient with high cholesterol. I resisted. I was too young to have to take meds every day for the rest of my life. But to me, food is one of the essential pleasures in life, and I didn’t want to swear off meat, or any other food group, completely. Robin handed me Nancy Harmon Jenkins’s Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, which was already sitting on our shelf, and it pointed to a way out of my predicament.: A book full of delicious sounding food, all somehow associated with very low incidence of heart disease.

Jenkins quotes this description of the Mediterranean diet from a 1993 Harvard Medical School conference:

Plentiful fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains; olive oil as the principle fat; lean red meat consumed only a few times a month or somewhat more often in very small portions; low to moderate consumption of other foods from animal sources such as dairy products (especially cheese and yogurt), fish, and poultry; and moderate consumption of wine (primarily at meals).

Sounds good to me! As Jenkins puts it “A diet of Mediterranean dishes . . . will be healthful and satisfying but never austere.” Best of all, the med diet didn’t require me to totally give up meat or carbs or fats or anything else – just moderate my consumption of some foods. As an article on the NIH website puts it,

In a somewhat reductionist approach, the traditional Mediterranean diet can be considered as a mainly, but not dogmatically, exclusive plant-based dietary pattern.

Not dogmatically vegetarian! The Mediterranean diet, where red meat is either a garnish in small quantities or a rare treat at a celebration, is pretty good for the climate too, since beef and lamb have about the highest climate footprint among food choices (unfortunately, dairy products have big footprints, too). But part the Mediterranean diet and culture also includes “feast days” – usually religious celebrations, where people indulge in the rich food that is not part of their daily fare, so you can still enjoy these rich foods as a treat.

So that beautiful and savory minestrone soup in the picture above is good for my health and for the climate. But it’s not vegetarian – you start it by frying a little pancetta in the soup pot, and adding beef stock enriches the flavor. I am not dogmatic about vegetarianism. Or my climatarianism for that matter. When climate conscious friends chide me for eating some free range organic beef about once a month (13 lbs CO2 for an 8 oz portion), I just smile and resist comparing my meat eating to their jet travel (2000 lbs CO2 for a typical round trip flight). I might even get on a plane myself on occasion for a really good reason, as long as it fits in my carbon budget. We all deserve our occasional feast day.
After about three months of a Mediterranean diet, together with adding daily exercise to my routine, my cholesterol was back in the normal range.

February Temps Were High But at Least My Carbon Footprint for the Month Was Low

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Another month, another month of above normal temperatures globally.  And record highs for my home region in NY.

At least it meant that the backup nasty gas furnace in my house did not come on once all month (we heat with a woodstove fired with backyard deadwood, mostly). That’s a first for the thirty winters we have lived in this house. And we still managed to have a pretty good month for cross-country skiing – by making two trips in the Prius to our north woods cabin.

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My total carbon tab for the month came to 340 pounds, which is really low for a winter month. The largest part of this was the gasoline we burned making two round trips up north – that was about 200 pounds of CO2. Natural gas (the water heater still runs) added up to 114 pounds CO2. And I wasted 44 pounds of my carbon budget eating beef (part of this was ordering ribs at a restaurant and expecting pork ribs, but ending up with a beef rib).

With a modest carbon footprint for February, I can look forward to having some to spare later in the year when we make summer travel plans.  But I am still more likely to sail someplace interesting than to fly there.

 

What The Cold Snap Did to My Carbon Footprint . . .

  
Looks the Northeast is finally pulling out of the epic year end cold snap that started around Christmastime. Temperatures here in the NYC metro area plunged below zero, and NYC recorded its longest sub-freezing streak (14 days) since 1961.

What does this mean for my personal carbon budget? I spent most of the cold snap at our cabin in the Adirondack north woods, heated with wood, so you’d think I avoided the cold-snap carbon surcharge. But actually, it worked the other way around – not being home to feed the woodstove downstate meant that we had to burn more gas to keep the pipes from freezing in our (mostly empty) house.  Our new state-of-the-art internet connected thermostat only goes down to 50 degrees, so I played a little thermostats roulette, turning the heat off, and watching the temperature remotely to be sure to turn it back on if the house got below 40. We had a nervous stretch when the internet connection to the thermostat went down (turns out the power was out), but we got connected and turned the heat back on in time. We also left an electric space heater running in the cellar as extra insurance against frozen pipes.

I checked my gas meter today – looks like we have gone through 95 ccf of natural gas since my last meter reading on December 8.  This compares to 19 ccf we used in November for cooking and the water heater. So there’s an extra 70 ccf or so I can blame on the cold snap. At 12 pounds of CO2 per ccf natural gas, that works out to about 820 pounds of CO2. My personal share of that is 410 pounds – about five percent of my 4 ton personal carbon budget for the year. That 410 pounds is the GHG equivalent of 20 gallons of gasoline or 15 pounds of  beef.

  
Meanwhile, at our cabin upstate, we burned through our pile of hand split seasoned firewood much faster than I expected. It was . . . cold. Overnight lows outside were in the minus 20F range. Our little woodstove could not always keep up, and we started keeping track of how much impressively warmer it was inside than outside (seventy degrees!), rather than thinking  about the absolute temperature (don’t even think about it).

Apparently, other wood heated homes in the northeast were also burning through wood piles faster than expected. We are lucky though –  red pines surrounding our cabin include a number of snags – standing dead trees. Many of these have been drying out upright for years, and are dry enough to burn immediately after being cut down.  It is a little bit of a crapshoot though, since many of them are also rotten and waterlogged (actually ice-logged at those temperatures).

We have a tree corer at the cabin, and I had the idea of taking cores and thawing them out before choosing which deadwood to cut down.

   
There was one nice sized – and dry-to-the-core – pine right near the cabin. It was dry enough to hand cut (mostly) and yielded enough pine logs to heat the cabin for most of a week.

 
I am back downstate for Spring semester classes, and the temperature is supposed to get close to 50 degrees this weekend, so I think this cold snap is over, and I won’t have to freeze my carbon budget for the rest of the year!

Thanksgiving Warmth

  
I have always been a little skeptical about those claims that you can heat a super-insulated zero carbon house through body heat alone. I mean, your body heat might keep a sleeping bag warm, but your whole house?

But this thanksgiving gathering was a natural experiment. We haven’t turned the central heat on in our 1937 not particularly well insulated stone house yet. The sole wood stove usually struggleds to get the living room temperature into the 60s when ( like yesterday) the outside temperature is in the 30s.

But by the time we packed twelve family members and guests around the table, the thermostat was in the mid-70s even though the wood stove fire had dwindled to embers. People were stripping off their  fleece.

Apparently, each human body gives off about 100 watts. So our ten guests were the equivalent of a one kilowatt space heater in the middle of the living room. I had a warm and wonderful Thanksgiving! And the turkey in the oven didn’t hurt.

  

Counting the Carbs For Windfall Firewood and Shipwrecked Beef

IMG_2263Living on a carbon budget means coming up with an accounting system for carbon impacts where no accounting conventions exist . . . yet. Recently I dealt with two personal carbon accounting riddles.

Two weeks ago, my brother-in-law’s sailboat ran into rocks off Barnegat, New Jersey and started sinking (he was asleep and his friends were steering). Fortunately, the Coast Guard quickly came to the rescue, no-one was hurt much, and the boat can be repaired. But when my shipwrecked brother-in-law landed at our house for a few days he donated the contents of his boat fridge, including about three pounds of hamburger and kebobs to our home fridge. Also, last weekend, a neighbor offered about a cord of seasoned but unsplit white oak firewood from a tree that fell down a year ago on her property, and I couldn’t pass it up.

The beef represents about 75 pounds of CO2E (it was grass fed, but that doesn’t make much difference). I am very skeptical of the rationalization “that plane was flying anyway”or “that cow was already dead” for zero counting of carbon impacts, and I like to err on the side of inclusion rather than avoidance.  My general rule of thumb is that “if you pay for it, it’s yours” and “if you choose it when you had a choice, it’s yours” so that plane flight is always on my tab, and the methane laden beef farts are also on my tab when there is a choice of beef or chicken or tofu at the meeting room meal table. My other rule of thumb is “if they are not on someone else’s carbon tab, they are on yours.”

My brother-in-law doesn’t keep a carbon tab.  Actually I don’t know anyone personally besides myself who does.  If he did, he would probably beat my 4T/year budget, since he lives on a small sailboat year round and almost never flies (he was headed south for the winter when his boat hit the rocks). I didn’t choose to have my brother in law leave his spoilable provisions in my house (he has since rejoined his vessel in New Jersey). These cows have already farted their last, and unlike the act of burning fossil fuels to run a car, eating the beef doesn’t add any new emissions. It might even offset some anthropogenic methane emissions associated with an all-garbanzo bean diet. Since I limit the amount of meat I eat for health as well as environmental reasons, I will probably end up choosing or buying less beef on other occasions in the next month, so this shipwrecked beef minimally reduces overall demand for beef. I think I can eat the beef before it spoils as a carbon-free windfall.

Speaking of windfalls, the firewood is a simpler problem. I think it is fair to count small-scale biomass wood heat as carbon neutral, particularly when you are burning deadwood. Burning deadwood can’t exceed the natural regeneration (and carbon recycling) rate of the forest, and leaving the wood to rot instead means that at least some of the stored carbon would be emitted as methane gas. So my windfall wood heat also counts as a carbon freebie. But I am counting the two miles of driving the Prius to move the wood on my carbon budget — works out to less than a pound of CO2.