Our lifestyle habits that have the greatest effect on climate change are not the most visible ones. Our solar panels, wood stove and bicycles help spread the sustainability word, but when I researched and ranked our top ten energy practices in terms of climate impact, I was surprised to learn that these three weren’t among the most important ones.
The best response to the climate crisis is, of course, governmental action. But with politicians engaged in a bipartisan slumber party, and Tuesday’s election promising a deeper sleep, individual actions will have to suffice, along with local and state actions. “Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean,” in Goethe’s words.
When I look at this ranking of our household practices that minimize our contribution to climate change, I notice that eight of the 10 save money (all except 7 and 5). And four (8, 5, 4, 2) are easy things that anyone can do. The following ranking is based on guesswork as well as research, and I’m ready to change it if someone makes a compelling case for revision.
TOP TEN WAYS WE MINIMIZE CLIMATE IMPACT (in descending order)
10. Small house. Betsy and I live in about 900 square feet of space (820 in winter). This uses less heat and electricity than the average U.S. house, which was 2,392 square feet in 2010. While the average house has increased from 800 square feet in the 1940s, the average household size has declined from 3.6 people to 2.7 today. That’s a tripling of the square feet per person, from 312 in 1949 to 926 in 2005.
9. Solar hot water. We put solar panels on our roof 10 years ago. I read that the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that solar hot water avoids generating is the equivalent of not driving a car for four months. We would love to have solar electricity, but the configuration of our roof and nearby trees make that difficult.
8. Light bulbs. We’ve converted from incandescents to compact fluorescents (CFLs) and have started changing to light-emitting diodes (LEDs). CFLs generate one quarter the carbon dioxide as incandescents, and LEDs half that of CFLs. CFLs last six times longer than incandescents, and LEDs last 12 times as long as CFLs.
7. Green power. We get our electricity from Viridian, which promised that at least half of it comes from renewable sources. We just signed a three-year contract at 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, and if the electric company’s rates skyrocket next year, as expected, this option won’t cost us any extra money. Electricity accounts for 33 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
6. Wood and solar. We burn two cords of wood a year, half of which we buy for $175, and on most winter afternoons our south-facing windows and thermal air panels provide enough heat. We keep our thermostat low at night and burn about 150 gallons of heating oil a year. This saves not only money but the energy it takes to extract, refine, transport and defend the oil.
5. Local food. We patronize farmers’ markets, orchards, and Amherst’s All Things Local store. On average, supermarket food travels 1,750 miles in trucks that get 5.5 miles per gallon. Perhaps more important to carbon impact is that local food is more likely to be grown in sustainable ways. We are also backyard vegetable gardeners, which is the ultimate in local food.
4. Cars and bikes. We’ve driven our Prius an average of 482 miles a month recently, and at 45 miles a gallon, that means only one fill-up a month. I walk or use a bicycle for most trips around town. Transportation accounts for 28 percent of U.S. emissions, and with gas prices declining, sales of SUVs are going up. The average vehicle emits seven to 10 tons of carbon dioxide a year.
3. Children. The number of kids you have is “the ghost at the table” in climate change discussions, according to Jonathan Porritt, the U.K. government’s green adviser. World population is expected to rise from 6 billion to 9 billion by 2050, increasing demand for resources. We have two children, but one will not be having children of his own.
2. Meat. Eating a half-pound burger involves the generation of methane that’s the equivalent of driving a 3,000-pound car for 10 minutes. Seventy percent of agricultural land is used for animals, and meat is inefficient in converting plants to food. Meat production generates between 14 and 22 percent of all greenhouse gases, and developing nations are getting more of a taste for it. Betsy and I eat meat three or four times a week, and buy from local farms when we can.
1. Airplanes. I have flown only once in the last 32 years, and Betsy has flown not at all during that time. A round trip from the East Coast to Europe or California has the warming effect per person of two to three tons of carbon dioxide (the average American generates 19 a year, the average European 10). Although air travel contributes only 5 percent of total emissions, its popularity is increasing faster than its efficiency, and airplanes release their emissions at higher altitudes, increasing their impact.
For all that Betsy and I do to lower our carbon footprint, it’s still larger than most people around the world. And although the U.S. and Europe have contributed the most to the buildup of carbon dioxide, the poorer countries are likely to experience the effects of climate change first.