Getting Serious About My Carbon Footprint

I’m becoming more and more energized by the climate debate every year. At the same time I don’t do anything practical about it at any point either. Do I reduce my consumption habits? No. Do I adjust my diet to make it more carbon friendly? As a side effect of eating more whole food plant based I do but it’s not the direct target. Do I do some kind of offsetting? No. So as much as I lament our global lack of action on climate change I fall into the same boat as everyone else. Just like everything in life I suppose I want it to be something automatic. I didn’t actively stop using CFCs to help fix the ozone layer but I did do it because the government banned CFCs. Hypothetically the same sorts of environmental policies could be underway for the past 20 years to help mitigate climate change. None of that has happened. So what can I do to do proactively address this problem? Actually the real question is what am I going to do to mitigate that? I’m going to take the same quantification and tracking approach that I use for everything else in my life.

How does one lose body fat and get in shape? Do we stare at pictures or videos and hope magically the fat disappears, the muscles bulge, and our internal organs get into a healthier state? No. Do we take a pill and the next day have everything be fixed? No. We make a decision to effectively change our behaviors and do things which incrementally improve our health every day. For most people it’s a temporary thing and we go from fit to fat phases. That’s been the story of my life. However some of us can make it a totally ingrained lifestyle change. Either way, even if it’s just a 30/70 split it’s better than a continually progressive down hill path. The same is going to be true here. I could say that I’m going to eat a localvore whole food vegan diet, never travel more than 20 miles again, sell everything to downsize to a small living space that is totally powered off of locally generated renewable energy, walk everywhere, and plant trees to further offset my historical carbon emissions. I could also easily say that I’m going to totally change my career, become a serial ultra-marathoner and Iron Man athlete who will walk the earth like a Bodhisattva. Neither of those two things are actually going to happen. I could also say I’m going to address it by finding some website that sells supposed energy credits so I don’t have to change any behaviors either. I could also say that I found a pill and a magic charm bracelet that will magically make me totally healthy and so I never have to work out or eat healthy ever again. All of that is just self delisional BS. So what am I *actually going to do?

First, we have quantification. While the governments of the world have done next to nothing to work on climate change, and my government is regressing us on this topic, they have put a lot of resources in quantifying the carbon footprints of lots of activities. I can therefore use one of the high resolution calculators to actually compute my carbon footprint every month. I’m applying a Pareto principle solution here. The biggest drivers of my carbon footprint is my travel, my home energy use, and my food consumption habits. I have secondary effects that can be approximated for all our other consumption as well. I do a lot of traveling by air and sea and have a lot of it already planned through 2021. That puts my carbon footprint from those items 3x an average westerner’s. My energy use is pretty sky high as well. These were just crude estimates from general information but it pointed out the best places for me to start trying to address my carbon footprint. I’ve found a couple of tools that look pretty solid and with the datasets behind them available to do a higher fidelity calculation. One is at the UK Carbon Footprint Calculator the other is the US EPA Carbon Footprint Calculator. The differences in these are primarily from the average effective carbon footprint per kWHr used. The UK one though provides much better fidelity for the secondary effects and it posts the table for the actual carbon load for energy production by state not just by country here. Using these tools and looking at my actual spending every month I’ll be able to estimate an approximate carbon load per month.

The second step is reduction. By quantifying where my carbon footprint is largest I can look at where to cut it the most. This is like the financial analogy of people who need to get their finances in order so decide to stop buying a bag of pretzels every time they fill up for gas. Yes, saving the ten bucks a month is better than nothing but when it turns out over half of your income is going towards your mortgage you aren’t addressing the fundamental problem in your financial equation. The same is true here. I’ve already identified my biggest contributors so what is the point of taking it further? Well, partially it allows me to target how to do reductions too. How many trips can I convert from flights to train or driving? How many trips could I totally eliminate? How much is the change from making adjustments to which devices stay powered on all the time, etc. The calculators provide some estimates for some of these things but if I’ve properly wired in my energy use, actual vehicle use etc, I can actually quantify these things pretty easily. By doing that I can then start looking at practical ways to change my consumption behaviors.

The third step is offsetting. I want real offsetting not greenwashing to make me feel better. “These chips are ‘lower in fat’” therefore they are healthier or something. Oh, read the label and they changed the serving size so the total grams of fat on the package went down but the number of grams of fat per gram of serving is the exact same. That stuff ticks me off. Sadly, there is a lot of fraud in the offsetting market. There are lots of stories about people trying to do the right thing and then finding out they were sending money to have nothing done. I’ve found what I can surmise is a good place to actually buy offsets called Gold Standard. The projects they support are not just about planting trees or paying people to not cut them down, one of the standard ways to hypothetically offset carbon. These are about local projects which not only reduce carbon but also provied other societal needs. These are things like projects to provide clean cooking stoves for under developed countries in the world or local renewable power generation projects. Doing these things hypothetically help these under served societies while also helping to reduce carbon emissions. I still need to do some more research for this company and a few others I have found. Once I have calculated my carbon footprint each month I’ll be able to offset that by purchasing these credits.

So what is the overall goal of this personal project? I want to be a net zero carbon emitter just like Microsoft has pledged by 2030. I want to do this by a combination of reducing my footprint and by offsetting that. I want to do that in a way that can make this process reproducible for myself and other people. If I had full faith in the offset projects I’d start with my current crude estimate and start buying the offsets immediately. I don’t want to greenwash myself and encourage fraud so I’ll just keep the tally until I’m ready to commit to that while I’m coming up with my quantification methods.



Picture of Me (Hank)

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