Counting Carbs for a Year, Coming in Well Under Budget


Last academic year I kept detailed track of my carbon footprint, with an eye on my four ton annual carbon budget. Basically, I stuck to a diet and counted carbs on a daily basis — not on a food diet, but a climate diet. I set a personal goal: no more than four tons of direct CO2 impacts annually. And I set out to have a decent life, getting to work, traveling, weekends in the mountains, taking vacations. I am a little late in posting these results as of September, but here they are.

I kept track with a spreadsheet – how I get to work each day, when I eat greenhouse gas intensive foods, what my impacts are for weekend travel or vacations.  I signed up for a renewable energy contract for my home electricity, so the lights and fridge are greenhouse gas free. With renewable electricity, getting to work with my electric car or electric motorcycle is carb free.  I make a note when I take the bus to work instead, and keep track of my share of the gasoline we burn on weekend trips in our hybrid (20 pounds CO2 per gallon), or when I take the commuter train (.34 pounds CO2 per mile), or occasionally eat red meat (27 pounds CO2 per pound of meat). Paddling a kayak across the river and biking to work counts as a CO2 freebie. Once a month, I toted up my share of the natural gas we used in our house for cooking, water heating, and supplementing our wood stove heat (12 pounds CO2 per CCF of gas, total for the year:  1416 pounds). I do keep the house cool in the winter.

As a teacher, my academic year runs from September to September, so I started counting September 1, 2015. During the year, we made many weekend ski trips up to our off-the-grid cabin in the Adirondacks.  I attended several professional conferences, but mostly avoided air travel, taking Amtrak to North Carolina for one conference, and driving to the others.  I took one flight during the year, to return from North Carolina in time to teach a class (260 pounds CO2). For our vacation this year, we sailed our boat down to South Carolina and left it there for the winter (9 gallons of diesel for the auxiliary motor, my share is 90 pounds CO2), returning to New York via Amtrak.

Environmental organizations tell us we have to reduce our carbon footprint, but few organizations tell us how much we have to reduce it to.  An equal, global allocation of emissions consistent with keeping global warming to a two degree Celsius increase would be quite low, only about two tons per person. This is the figure that shows as their global goal.  A four-ton individual footprint is probably defensible in the developed world; this represents an 80% reduction from the average per capita U.S. footprint of about twenty tons.

When I totaled up the figures for the year, I found I wasn’t even close to my target – but in a good way.  I was directly responsible for 5200 pounds of CO2 emissions this past academic year – about 2.6 tons, well within my four-ton goal for the year.

Looks like next year, I can probably add a round trip flight to the Waterkeeper annual conference, and still stay under budget!


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