How You Can Go on a Carbon Diet

by Tony Sirna

Cutting carbon emissions is sort of like eating healthier. We all know we should be doing it, but it’s much easier said than done. Especially since being on a carbon diet in our current culture is like having to wade through a room full of potato chips to get to the healthy vegetables hidden beneath them.

Scientists say that the US needs to emit about 9 metric tons of CO2 equivalent (mtCO2eq) per person per year by 2030, with a further reduction to 4 metric tons per person per year by 2050[1] in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, yet Americans are currently consuming a gluttonous 20 metric tons per year.

What does it take to reach those goals?

At Dancing Rabbit, we’ve already cut our footprint in half. We’re hitting the 2030 target and are continuing to push towards the 2050 goals every year.

But what can you do if you don’t live in an ecovillage?

Breaking Down Your Carbon Footprint

Average American's Carbon Footprint

Average American’s Carbon Footprint

To cut your footprint you can make changes in a number of areas and at a number of different levels. There are a few things that make up the bulk of the typical person’s carbon footprint: local transport, travel, home energy use (electricity and gas), food, and goods and services.

In each of these areas we need action at four different levels in order to really lower our emissions and address climate change.

  • At the personal level we need to change our lifestyles and behavior, and make choices that are better for the climate.
  • At a community level, we need to support and encourage our friends and neighbors in reducing their emissions, and look for ways to cooperate and share, so we can have more by consuming less.
  • At an economic level we need to vote with our dollars and support businesses offering more sustainable options (while still consuming less overall).
  • And at a government level we need to push for stricter emissions standards, tougher building codes, and an end to subsidies for carbon polluters.

Let’s look at each of the main impact areas and see how a lot of what we do at Dancing Rabbit can apply outside the ecovillage.

Local Transportation

Urban BikingGetting around town accounts for about 14% of the average American’s carbon footprint. Ninety nine percent comes from driving cars and only 1% from public transit.[2]

What can you do to cut your emissions?

Of course, sharing rides and carpooling is also a great way to cut emissions, save money, and connect with people in your community. These days there are even online systems to help you arrange carpools and rideshares

The best thing you can do is drive a lot less by walking, biking, and taking public transit. Unfortunately, in many places this isn’t an easy option, so sometimes the most important choice can be deciding where to live. Luckily more and more people are moving to urban areas and more cities are putting in bike lanes and increasing transit offerings. City Car ShareSo consider a move to a walkable and transit-friendly locale, and lobby your local government to increase density and provide transit and bike lanes.

When you do drive, you can cut your emissions by getting a more fuel efficient vehicle. Switching from a small SUV to a hybrid or an electric vehicle could cut your emissions in half, and sends a message to car companies that there is demand for fuel efficient cars.

Travel

The average American emits another 2.9 metric tons of CO2eq each year on long distance travel.[3] About 45% of that comes from long distance car trips[4] and 55% from air travel (this includes a radiative forcing factor for air travel’s high altitude emissions).[5]

What can you do to reduce your travel impact?

Well, the obvious answer is to travel less– it may be that frequent high-speed travel and reducing emissions are just not easily compatible. For business trips, consider teleconferencing, or combining trips to minimize emissions. For personal trips, consider vacation destinations close to home and trying to live near family and friends.

When you do travel consider taking the train or bus, or get in a car full of people. A typical vehicle with 3 people in it has lower emissions per passenger mile than a train, and 5 people is almost as good as an inter-city bus.[6] And don’t forget to lobby for better trains!

Home Energy Use – Electricity

The average American home uses 10,836 kWh of electricity each year[7] which creates emissions of 2.9 metric tons of CO2eq. The main uses are space heating (33%), water heating (14%), air conditioning (12%), lighting (6%), refrigeration (8%), computers (6%), and clothes drying (5%).

This is an area where almost anyone can take the same steps we have at DR, since most of them are day-to-day choices we can make, or infrastructure you can easily change (e.g., lightbulbs or solar hot water).

The trickiest thing is home heating and cooling, which depends a lot on the design and efficiency of your home. We’ve designed and built our homes to be well insulated with passive solar design and good natural ventilation and daylighting. If you live in a home that is poorly insulated or overheats from the sun it can be hard to reduce your heating and cooling bills.

Once you’ve reduced your usage you can cut your electricity emissions further by putting solar panels on your roof and net metering with your local utility. Their are numerous businesses that can help you install a solar electric system, and sometimes they will even cover the upfront costs in exchange for a long term contract.

Home Energy Use – Natural Gas, Propane, and Firewood

On top of electricity, Americans use a lot of natural gas and propane to heat their homes and heat water.[8] When you add in cooking and clothes drying this leads to emissions of 2.2 metric tons of CO2eq.[9]

The best way to reduce natural gas usage is to build our homes to be more efficient in the first place. Standards like Passive House, through super insulation and air tightness, can give an 80% reductions in home energy use compared to current codes, so it’s important for us to be supporting green building and stricter energy codes.

But what can you do if you live in a typical house?

Energy RetrofitThere are many ways you can cut your energy bills in your current home. The easiest is to set your thermostat to a lower temperature in winter, and a higher temperature in summer. You can also do an energy retrofit, improving the insulation in your home and sealing around doors and windows. You can also look into thermal curtains for windows to keep heat in at night and keep the hot sun out during the summer. You might also be able to save by upgrading your heating system to something more efficient, like an air-source or ground-source heat pump.

Possibly the best thing you can do is to live in a smaller house. Energy use is pretty closely based on square footage, so a smaller home or apartment can save energy, reduce emissions, and save money. If moving is not an option you can close off unused rooms during the winter and not heat them, or you can rent out extra space in your home and spread your footprint over more people, not to mention helping create community.

For water heating you can do a lot by using less. Low flow faucets and shower heads can make a big difference, and washing clothes in cold water helps. You can also look into upgrading your water heater to a heat pump water heater (sometimes called a hybrid water heater) or an on-demand unit that doesn’t waste energy storing hot water.

You can also save a lot of energy by using clotheslines and indoor drying racks to dry your clothes. It takes longer but the energy use is zero. For cooking you can see big savings by using hay boxes, pressure cookers, and solar cookers.

Food

By some measures our food systems account for almost 25% of our carbon emissions,[10] including agriculture, farming based deforestation, processing, and transport.

Farmer's MarketYour food choices can make a big difference, and one of the biggest factors is how much meat you eat. You can cut your footprint by 30% with a vegetarian diet and 40% with a vegan diet.[11] But you don’t have to be a purist to get those savings — any reduction in meat, especially red meat, will reduce your carbon footprint.

Another big factor is food waste. American families throw out approximately 25% of the food and beverages they buy, and when you include other losses in our food system the total is 40%.[12]

Buying local can also cut your food impact, but not by as much as you might think. Food transport only accounts for 11% of emissions from food. As one study said, ‘dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food-related climate footprint than ‘buying local.'”[13] Of course buying local also supports your local community and economy, and can shift how food is grown (often to smaller scale) and how much is wasted, so it’s not only about transportation costs.

Goods and Services

A significant part of the emissions related to our lives happen not in our homes but in businesses and commercial facilities around the country and the world. But these businesses do not operate just for fun! They are there to provide goods and services that people consume (and to make a profit generally). So, at some level the responsibility for their emissions rests finally on individuals and the purchases they make.

For goods such as appliances, furniture, clothing, electronics, toys, paper, office supplies, and medical supplies the average American has a footprint of 2.3 metric tons of CO2eq per year.

An additional 2.5 tons of CO2eq comes from the services that we consume such as healthcare (38%), education (16%), entertainment (14%), telecommunications (5%), and other businesses, from hair salons to tax preparers.[14]

What can you do to reduce your emissions from goods and services?

You can reduce your impact from services just by reducing your consumption, or by choosing companies that have lower impact options (e.g., eco dry cleaning, organic yard care, or bicycle delivery services).

For goods, it’s as simple as reduce, repair, reuse, and recycle. You can buy much of what you need used, fix or patch things when they need it, pass things on to others when you are done with them, and recycle whatever has reached the end of its useful life.

Conclusion

Just like going on a diet, cutting your carbon emissions is not always easy, but it’s not all about sacrifice.

At Dancing Rabbit, a lot of our cuts have come through sharing and cooperation, which cuts emissions but also creates community. And simplifying your life by doing more with less can often lead to a more rewarding life, with less focus on having to make money and more time spent with people and doing activities we love.

But cutting carbon emissions is not just about personal choices. Making changes in your life can make a big difference, but to fully address climate change we need to continue to put pressure on government and corporations to change from business as usual. There are a lot of powerful people with a vested interest in preventing change, and unless we stand up and demand change, it’s unlikely that change will come. But as they say, “if the people lead, the leaders will follow,” and now is certainly a time for leadership.

Tony Sirna is a founder of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, and has had a hand in almost all aspects of visioning, designing, and manifesting our sustainable village. He’s built two strawbale homes, designed and installed Dancing Rabbit’s village-wide renewable-energy micro-grid, and served on the village’s Land Use Planning committee as well as the nonprofit’s Board. He’s also a highly-skilled facilitator, mediator, blues dancer and Ultimate Frisbee player.


Footnotes

[14] http://www.deq.state.or.us/ (divided by 2.5 persons per household)