I’m just a normal guy, feeling a normal amount of existential dread about the future of planet Earth.
I hear a lot of people say that, as individuals, there’s not much we can do about climate change. It’s a problem with capitalism; it’s a problem with other people in other countries; it’s a problem for national governments to solve. And maybe that’s true.
But for the sake of my own sanity, over the past several years, I’ve been trying to do what I can to reduce my individual impact on the ecosystem. Each season (fall, winter, spring, summer), I try to find one new way to reduce my carbon footprint, even if it’s only a minor change. This calms me. And I can’t quite shake the hope that maybe, if all of us make a few little changes, together we can make great changes.
This winter, I decided to start a blog to catalog these little lifestyle changes that I’ve tried. Maybe one of them will inspire you.
One strategy to combat climate change is to convince other people to reduce their carbon footprints. You are thinking, no doubt, that this is unrealistic. But what if I told you that there is a beautifully simple way that we could motivate everyone in the U.S. to care about their carbon footprint?
Everyone—even the staunchest of climate change deniers—cares about price. Make an activity more expensive, and people will do it less often. Ergo, reducing carbon emissions is very simple: tax them.
Concretely, such a tax could be implemented by collecting payments from oil refineries and coal mines based on how much fuel they produce. These costs would permeate the economy through a combination of changing wages and prices until ultimately the label price of all goods and services reflected the true social and environmental cost of their production.
Obviously, there are many details involved in crafting a good carbon tax (see Metcalf’s book), but here are the main talking points:
It can, and should, be designed to be revenue neutral. If it doesn’t increase or decrease government spending, nobody can object based on arguments about “big government”.
It is market-based, so the federal government is barely involved. In fact, once a carbon tax is in place, we can safely roll back a lot of government environmental regulations.
It can, and should, be designed so that it’s not a regressive tax. The revenues can be paid back as equal “carbon dividends” for everyone, such that the overall tax rate decreases for nearly everyone below 70th percentile income.
The vast majority of economists (conservative and otherwise) agree that it, or a very similar technique called cap and trade, is the most economically efficient way to address greenhouse gas emissions.
What excites me the most about a carbon tax is that it is both (1) effective at reducing emissions, and (2) economically beneficial to most people in the U.S. It seems to me that if every voter in the U.S. understood the four talking points above, then eighty percent of them would support it and Congress would pass a carbon tax within six months.
This TED talk by Ted Halstead is another nice summary. I love this video for a few reasons, but primarily because it’s unabashedly conservative. If adopting an economically conservative approach to climate change brings more Republicans on board, then I think we should all be in favor.
To help enact a carbon tax, here are two things you can do.
Talk to your friends about a carbon tax. Encourage them to talk to their friends. Again, the more people that understand this, the sooner it becomes law. In particular, share Ted Halstead’s talk with anyone you think might lean Republican.
Find out where your representative and your senators stand on a carbon tax. If they support it, write a note to thank them. If they don’t, let them know that this is an issue that you care about. You can browse current bills in U.S. Congress here. In particular, there are thesetwo Senate bills and thesetwo House bills. The latter was introduced by a Republican representative!
Wouldn’t it be so much simpler if the cheapest option was always the best one for society?
Here are some argumentsagainst a carbon tax. Perhaps the most serious objection is that it will have to be very expensive, on the order of $5 per gallon of gas, in order to meet emissions reduction targets. (Most carbon tax plans start at a relatively low price and gradually increase it over time.)
Eating from sustainable food sources doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing decision.
It seems to me that people often think of vegetarianism in black and white. You either eat meat or you don’t. Same for veganism: you either eat animal products or you don’t. Hank Green of the Vlogbrothers often talks about “going veg” as an event. But from an environmental perspective, this just doesn’t make sense.
The atmosphere doesn’t care whether one person cuts out beef completely, or whether two people cut their beef consumption in half. Every bit helps, even something as simple as observing meatless Monday or buying soy milk instead of cow milk. I describe myself as “vegetarian” most of the time, but I sometimes buy tuna sandwiches at Subway.
I suspect the tendency to black-and-white thinking stems from moralistic arguments about vegetarianism. If eating animals is “bad,” then a meat-eater has no incentive to reduce their consumption of meat unless they completely eliminate it—which is such an enormous step that of course nobody takes it. Instead, let’s talk about reducetarianism. Try to substitute protein from plant sources in whatever way seems best to you. It’s okay, you don’t have to give up bacon!
I like to travel. This is going to be a long post, because the carbon footprint of airplanes is a complicated subject.
Compared to cars, airplanes are actually surprisingly fuel-efficient. Depending on the plane capacity and distance traveled, each individual passenger moves about 100 miles per gallon of fuel. That’s about the same as a car carrying three people. Shorter flights with fewer seats are less efficient, but even a 300-mile flight with 20 passengers gets about 40 passenger-miles per gallon. Not bad!
First, cars are not a strong baseline to compare against. It’s hard to get solid numbers to compare modes of transportation, because unfortunately (1) they depend on ridership and on production and maintenance costs, which are hard to account for, and (2) most of the relevant articles found on Google are sponsored by one or another politically or economically motivated association. But for the sake of having at least one strong baseline, this paper mentions that the French TGV Dasye high-speed train uses 20 kWh/km. It has 508 seats. Elecricity currently costs about one pound of carbon dioxide per kWh, compared to 20 pounds per gallon of gas. This means that at full capacity, TGV travels the equivalent of 318 passenger-miles per gallon.
Second, airplanes cannot yet be powered by renewable energy. A person can cross the Atlantic with roughly 100 kilograms of jet fuel, but to get an equivalent amount of energy, they would need 4500 kilograms of batteries. Of course, to transport that much extra weight, they’d need way more energy. The technology for long-haul electric flight is at least 50 years away.
Finally, the problem is not with airplanes per se—it’s with traveling long distances. Even if you could somehow cross the Atlantic (3500 miles) on a fully loaded high-speed electric rail, the round trip would still release 200 kilograms of carbon dioxide (given current sources of electricity). That’s how much the average Tanzanian produces in an entire year. For reference, flying would release 636 kilograms. (That’s according to my calculations. By contrast, this Guardian article calculates that it would release 1,972 kg, which is almost half of the global per capita annual emissions. This is what I mean about the difficulty of obtaining solid numbers.)
So what’s the solution? It seems cruel to demand that everyone stop traveling. Many people live very far from their loved ones. International travel builds valuable global awareness. But taking even one fewer trip per year has an enormous impact on carbon emissions, so here are some ideas.
Reduce discretionary travel. A good rule of thumb might be to limit non-local vacations to once per year, even if you have the economic means to travel more frequently.
Avoid putting yourself in situations that require you to travel. Unfortunately, opportunities to do this are rare and usually coincide with major life decisions. For instance, you could choose to move nearer to your relatives. You might also consider avoiding long-distance relationships, or choosing a job that does not require business trips.
Unlike my previous posts, I have not yet implemented these ideas in my own life. To my chagrin, I’ve already taken six flights in the last six months. Comment below if you have other ideas that might help, and we’ll work on this together.
Here are twosources that compare transportation energy efficiency in the U.S. They seem objective, but they’re a bit hard to interpret.
In addition to electric flight, this article discusses a few other options for climate-friendly airplanes, including biofuels and electrofuels.
This long report reviews many arguments for and against high-speed trains in the U.S. Here’s a similarly long report from the other side of the argument. Also see the International Energy Agency report on rail transportation.
I reckon most people have heard of composting. Let’s review why it’s a good idea, as well as some tips and tricks for doing it properly.
Composting is “controlled decomposition.” Food and yard waste decompose whether they’re in a landfill or a compost pile. However, there are several advantages to composting:
The products of decomposition are useful to gardeners and farmers, but not if they’re mixed with other (non-organic or toxic) kinds of household waste.
In a compost pile, organic waste undergoes aerobic decomposition, which produces fewer greenhouse gases than the anaerobic decomposition which happens in a landfill.
Unlike landfills, compost piles are easy to put near residential areas. This means less energy is spent transporting organic waste.
For those of us without a backyard garden or a farm, an important question arises: where can I find a compost pile near my house? Well, if you live in a city, there’s a good chance there’s a community garden nearby. Seattle has ninety. Alternatively, your community may organize curbside compost pickup along with trash and recycling. Many private companies provide compost pickup! Check out this list for options.
The next challenge that arises is knowing what to put in your compost bucket. It’s fairly straightforward—pretty much anything made of organic material is fine—but here are some interesting corner cases:
Coffee grounds and tea bags are compostable!
Dryer lint, vacuum lint, and hair are compostable!
Paper is compostable! This includes most kinds of cardboard. In particular, pizza boxes should be composted, because they are usually not recyclable.
Double check before composting meat, seafood, oil, and dairy. These take longer to decompose, and in the meantime they can attract pests, so many compost piles do not accept them.
The final potential challenge of composting is the odors, but (assuming no poop) these are easy to manage. My own compost bucket does not even have a lid. I take it out once a week and have never noticed any smells. If your bucket does have a lid, or if you take it out less frequently, then you may notice a temporary smell when you open it. Meats and dairy, excess nitrogen, or lack of oxygen may lead to stronger odors.
For more information:
A great page from the Environmental Protection Agency
Most people against climate change don’t have a lot of money. This is in contrast to the people who don’t care about climate change, who are generally rich old men with a vested interest in the fossil fuels industry.
This is an example of what economists call special interest politics. If a policy has a minor negative impact on many people, and a massive positive impact on a few other people, chances are the few people will get organized and the policy will pass. The rest of us just don’t have enough individual incentive to resist, even if the cumulative negative impact outweighs the positive effects.
Solving this problem in general would be worth a doctorate in both political science and economics at least. But one simple idea that might work in the meanwhile is to pool our resources. Money itself doesn’t solve problems, but climate-protection nonprofit groups can solve problems if they have enough money to pay employees, fund research, and distribute their findings to people who will listen.
Solving problems is hard, but donating money is easy. Once you’ve set up a monthly contribution, you never need to think about it again. Admittedly, choosing a nonprofit can be overwhelming—there are a lot of options. I myself donate to the Environmental Defense Fund, but I encourage you to take a look around Charity Navigator or the other resources mentioned in this New York Times article to find a good fit.
Again, most people reading this don’t have a lot of money. But against special interest politics, crowdfunding might be the only way. How much would you be willing to pay each month not to need to worry about climate change?
Back in 2017, this article from The Atlantic made quite an impression on me: If Everyone Ate Beans Instead of Beef. The upshot is that beef cultivation is so energy-inefficient that this single, small dietary change would reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by a tenth. Ten percent! Even if our transportation habits don’t change at all! Read the article; it’s a good one.
The reasons for this are the methane released by enteric fermentation and the fact that they’re just so darn big (exacerbating the inefficiencies inherent in growing food for livestock that could just as well be fed directly to humans). Hence, drinking cow milk has many of the same problems. In my humble opinion, soy and almond milk taste better anyway.
In future blog posts, I hope to talk about some easy ways of cooking and eating beans. My favorite legumes are lentils, chickpeas (which are easy to soak and cook in a rice cooker) and canned refried beans (which don’t need to be cooked at all).
Now that humanity has gone to the trouble of inventing washing machines and dishwashers, it can feel like we’re obligated to use them to the fullest-featured extent possible. But when you think about it, the drying cycle is completely superfluous.
Let’s talk about laundry first. It may seem like extra work to hang your clothes to air dry, but consider this: nicely hung clothes don’t need to be folded. Even if you do fold your T-shirts to save space, you’ll notice that folding a T-shirt from a drying rack is much faster than folding one from the tumble dryer, since it’s hung in basically the same shape as it will be when folded. Given that running the dryer takes about twice as long as running the washer, I’d say air-drying is more likely to save time than waste it. Not to mention that heated drying is actually bad for a lot of fabrics.
As for dishwashers, heated drying doesn’t work for plastic food containers anyway. Puddles. Puddles everywhere. Much easier just to open the machine after the rinse is done, dump out the puddles, and wait for evaporation to finish the job. It doesn’t take long.
How much energy does this actually save? Probably about 1-2% of your monthly electricity bill. Not earth-shaking, but given the lack of a downside, it seems like a no-brainer.
For those of us who rent or who don’t have ten thousand dollars lying around, installing solar panels at home may not be realistic.
However, you may be surprised to learn that many electric utility companies offer solar power options. One way to do this is to sign up with a renewable energy supplier such as CleanChoice Energy. The energy supplier will coordinate with your local utility company to ensure that for every kilowatt-hour of energy you use, an equivalent amount of power is purchased from a nearby renewable power plant. Of course, the individual electrons that power your refrigerator won’t all have come from solar panels, since everything gets mixed together in the grid. Nonetheless, this choice makes a difference, because now the money you pay on your electricity bill invests in solar power plants rather than coal.
Because of the dependence on local utility companies, CleanChoice Energy isn’t available everywhere. Instead, some utility companies offer solar power options directly to their customers. Georgia Power offers a Simple Solar option that charges one extra cent per kilowatt-hour and uses the money to fund solar power installations. They also offer a heftier Community Solar option.
All of this corporate name-dropping probably sounds like a sponsored ad, but I’m just trying to give concrete examples from places where I happen to have lived. Check with your local utility provider about options that are applicable to you. Renewable energy sources are getting cheaper every day, and it’s a one-time fix: once you’ve checked the proper boxes, you never have to think about it again!
Restaurants tend to hilariously overestimate the size of a human stomach.
All the arguments for bringing reusable bags to the grocery store apply to restaurants as well. When you inevitably can’t (or shouldn’t) finish your food, put it in the box you brought with you. As a bonus, you won’t have to wait to catch the waiter’s attention and then wait some more while they go fetch a disposable box for you.
Of course, prepared food tends to be a bit messier than groceries, so you’ll probably want something with a watertight lid. Containers with more dubious lids can be put in a plastic bag to catch potential spills.
Another difference from grocery shopping is that restaurant dining is often not premeditated. I tend to end up at restaurants having forgotten to pack an empty box when I left home that morning. One way to handle this would be to keep a box in your purse / backpack / car at all times, but I’m still on the lookout for other suggestions. If you have ideas, please comment below!
I was a frequent bike commuter in Chicago and Atlanta, and I’m excited to try biking in Seattle. Murdoch is right: bikes are the best way to get around urban areas.
First, they’re fast. In Chicago, I routinely overtook buses on my way to work. Bike lanes are never congested, so in moderate traffic, bikes are even faster than cars.
Second, they’re cheap. You can get a bike for less than one month’s payment of car insurance, and it only takes a few dollars a month to maintain. If you don’t want to buy a bike outright, some cities have bike share programs for about the same price ($100 for one year of membership). That’s even cheaper than public transit!
Third, they’re convenient. Parking is always free (if you can find a bike rack, which is usually not too difficult). You can work on your own schedule without worrying about missing the train. Bike share programs are especially convenient, because you don’t need to worry about bike maintenance or theft, and you don’t need to plan ahead to get your bike where you need it to be.
Fourth, they’re good exercise. Get your (low-impact) cardio while you get to work! (If your commute is longer than three miles, it helps to have showers at your destination.)
Finally, they’re good for the environment. Muscle power is a very renewable resource.
Making the transition to bicycle commuting isn’t entirely easy. It’s important to know how to be safe, and it’s useful to know basic bike maintenance. In future entries, I hope to talk more about some of these tips and tricks.