Climate change is one of the most important issues facing us today. Scientists have shown, starting with the industrial revolution, our increasing use of fossil fuels is increasing the warmth of planet earth. We are in fact pushing mother nature into new territory at a rate that she has likely never seen before. We need to change! “We” means everybody. As individuals, the most powerful weapon we have in this battle is the ability to control our own carbon footprint. Remember, as individuals we number in the billions.
Carbon Dioxide, Methane, and Nitrous Oxide
Our carbon footprint refers to the greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere because of what we do or buy. What are these greenhouse gases? Carbon Dioxide or CO2 is the most dominant of the greenhouse gases we produce. CO2 is emitted when we burn fossil fuel to heat a home, generate electricity, or drive to the store. The next most abundant gas is methane or CH4. It’s the main component of natural gas, but its also produced when organic matter decomposes in an absence of oxygen, which happens in flooded rice patties or in landfills. Animals like cows and sheep produce methane as a major product in their digestive tracks. It makes its way into the atmosphere via what you might call “the usual channels.” Then there’s nitrous oxide, N2O, also known as laughing gas. Nitrous Oxide is produced when bacteria breakdown the nitrogen compounds in soils and the oceans. The use of nitrogen fertilizers in farming is increasing the rate at which nitrous oxide is being added to the atmosphere.
Methane and Nitrous Oxide are emitted into the atmosphere in much smaller quantities than CO2 but they still have a significant effect on climate. When comparing the different impacts of these gases we usually refer to Carbon Dioxide Equivalents. This is a measure that is based on the potential the gas has to contribute to global warming.
This graph shows the equivalent amount of human induced global warming attributed to the different gases.
What Can We Do to Reduce Our Carbon Footprint?
So, we know humans are causing greenhouse gas concentrations to be increased and this in turn is contributing to planetary warming. But what can you and I do as individuals? How can we reduce our carbon footprint? First off, we need to understand how a carbon footprint is calculated. Lets look at sending a text message. Direct climate change impacts occur when we use a product, in this case my cell phone to write a text message and the recipients phone to read it. This requires the use of electricity. If that electricity was generated by burning coal or natural gas the text message has a carbon footprint. Indirect impacts occur during the production and distribution of the cell phones. For example, fossil fuels may have been used to supply power to the phone factory and then to transport the phone to the retailer and then if I drove out to the mall to buy it…well as you can imagine calculating the carbon footprint of an action can be challenging, but just being able to make informed decisions when choosing one activity over another is what’s really important.For example, I knew that sending a text message would be greener than driving across town to share my news. In British Columbia, households account for one third of greenhouse gas emissions.
Lets look at some of the choices we can make to reduce that carbon footprint. Food production and consumption are large contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. When shopping, consider these three factors:
Food: How was it produced? From where did it come? How did it get here?
The term “food miles” is often used to describe the potential greenhouse gas emission impact of agricultural products. Generally speaking, locally produced foods are associated with fewer “food miles.” Foods that arrive by air have a much higher carbon footprint than those that arrive by ship. Likewise, produce that has been grown in a heated greenhouse also has a high carbon footprint. Meat and dairy have high carbon footprints, because of the methane produced by cattle and there’s deforestation to provide grazing land. But surprisingly, the easiest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with our food supply isn’t watching what we consume. Instead its reducing what we don’t consume. According to the Food Waste in Canada study, an estimated 40% of food is wasted after leaving the farm. Methane may be emitted when waste food decays in the landfills.
So discarding food makes total emissions in the production and consumption cycle even worse. So, plant a garden, buy local, and eat your leftovers.
How to Reduce Your Transportation’s CO2 Footprint
Okay, so we know about the impact when food is flown to its destination. Well, we can be apart of that same problem. Tourism accounts for an estimated 5% of total greenhouse gas emissions, and air travel is the most significant contributor to that percentage. Taking off and landing uses the most fuel. So booking multiple hops will emit more greenhouse gases.
Based on average ridership, the train is usually the greenest mode of transportation, followed by an automobile caring multiple passengers. However, if we include emissions associated with building infrastructure like railroad lines and roads the actual carbon footprint of a vacation can increase significantly. Transporting a family across the country or across the world burns a lot of fossil fuel, and is expensive. Luckily for British Colombians, we live in one of the world’s top tourist destinations. So, think about pitching a tent in one of our great natural parks or take the time to re-explore your own city. Nothing beats staycations!
How to Reduce Your Car’s CO2 Footprint
The carbon footprint of driving is influenced by several factors. First, is the number of people in the car. Carpooling is an opportunity to save money and the planet. It even saves time when HOV lanes are available. Surprisingly, about 50% of the fuel consumed in city driving is used during acceleration. To reduce this, use the most efficient route, combine trips, and travel at off peak times. Reducing idling time is also important. Idling for 10 minutes a day can produce a quarter ton of CO2 emissions each year. Maintaining your vehicle and checking your tire pressure at least once a month can reduce fuel consumption by as much as 10%. When buying a car, consider its city and highway gas rating.
Smaller cars, eco, and hybrid versions or electric cars are now available from almost every manufacturer. Starting off on the right set of wheels can save you many hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year. Instead of just passing on the old jalopy to someone else, Scrap-it BC provides incentives to move older, higher polluting vehicles off the road. And finally, traveling by transit, bicycle or even walking, benefits more than just the earth’s atmosphere. It allows us to enjoy the added bonuses of physical activity and social interaction while saving money.
How to Reduce Your Home’s CO2 Footprint
Heating our homes is often our largest use of household energy. When our heating bills arrive each winter we are reminded of the amount of energy it takes to keep warm.
We are lucky in British Columbia that most of our electricity is generated by hydro. Heating from your electricity means your carbon footprint is low for now, but the demand for more electricity is creating the need for additional sources of energy. Homes that heat with oil or natural gas currently have a larger carbon footprint. Whatever your heating source it is beneficial to use less fuel. So before we go any further, lets put on a sweater and turn down the thermostat by one degree. When you go to bed at night or leave on vacation, turn it down another three or four degrees. Draft proofing by plugging air leaks is a cheap and effective way to reduce energy consumption and has a fast payback time. In cold weather, use ceiling fans to distribute heat that collects against the ceiling. This will create a more consistent temperature in the room. If your feet are cold your body will feel cold. By placing area rugs on cold floors, you may be less likely to crank up the thermostat.
Making informed choices about transportation, food, and energy use at home is one of the best opportunities we have as individuals to reduce our carbon footprint. Every little thing we can do to reduce our individual or household carbon footprint will help to combat global warming. And just imagine the impact if hundreds and millions of us, particularly the wealthy developed countries were to join that parade. YOU can make a difference!