I’m a little embarrassed to be writing a blog about journeying towards net zero carbon emissions. I’m not anywhere close. According to one estimate, just by living in the US and using public/government services, I emit more carbon dioxide than the average person in the world, before even getting started with my personal choices (that study is from 2008, but things haven’t changed nearly enough since). And in terms of personal choices, I haven’t exactly left the grid or made any big personal sacrifices. My family lives in a 3000 square foot house. We order (more than) our share of Amazon packages. We keep bacon on hand for our picky kids. I have trouble making myself get out of the shower in less than ten or fifteen minutes. I’m not really the poster child for sustainable choices. But the scientists say (and with a 97% consensus among climate scientists, I’m inclined to believe them) that we have a worldwide climate emergency. They say we need to get off of fossil fuels and leave coal, oil, and natural gas in the ground. They say we need to leave forests intact, focus on righting inequalities more than on economic growth, and eat a plant-based diet while changing many things about our agricultural methods. Yikes. That’s a tall order. Our whole economy and “American dream” have been built on fossil fuels. From 1850-2011, our country was responsible for 27% of worldwide carbon emissions, even though we make up less than 5% of the world’s population (something to keep in mind if you’re thinking that India and China, with–spoiler alert–way lower emissions per capita than us, are the main problem here and that our country is doing “enough” to lower emissions). We’ve rapidly burned coal, oil, and gas, and rapidly became the wealthiest country in the world, and we’re addicted. Many say that we have made a suicide pact with fossil fuels. The UN projects roughly 200 million climate migrants by 2050 and that we face a future of “climate apartheid” with 120 million more people in poverty by 2030 and undoing 50 years of progress on global health, development, and poverty reduction. The rate of increase we’re already seeing, and will face more in the future if we continue with “business as usual,” in climate-related ecological disasters, sea level rise, biodiversity loss, food and water insecurity, and climate-related conflict and instability, are anything but sustainable if we want life and civilization as we know them to be stable and viable in the future. The US’s emissions actually went up by 3.4% from 2017 to 2018, and I’m a little encouraged that they went down by 2.1% from 2018 to 2019, but the whole world needs to be decreasing by 7.6% yearly to meet Paris targets and avoid catastrophe.
The book that really woke me up to the threat we’re facing was The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells, which I highly recommend, especially if you’re looking for a reason to not be able to sleep for a couple of weeks while reading it. After I caught my breath after reading it when it came out in early 2019, the only option other than despair was action. The main action I take is advocacy for systemic/policy changes, through a wonderful organization called Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Let me be clear: habit changes on the individual and family level are not enough to avert this crisis. The main focus of this blog is how to, within our flawed system and in the midst of our economy that is built on a dependence on fossil fuels, lower our carbon footprints as families and individuals. BUT, the last thing I want to do is give the impression that this is the key to solving the crisis. The author of this article makes a very strong case that the climate crisis will not be solved by personal sacrifice, when just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. I absolutely agree with her that our main goals should be to vote in climate-friendly leaders, change policies, and hold companies accountable. So, why am I even writing a blog about individual and family-sized carbon footprints? One reason is just that my husband Andrew and I have done a lot of research and legwork in our efforts to lower our energy and fossil fuel use, and it seemed like a natural, practical next step to share what we’ve learned in hopes of making it a little easier and less confusing for others to work towards similar goals. Also, I believe that systemic change and personal change work together synergistically, maybe at around a 75%/25% ratio. When we think about policies that will do the most to mitigate climate change, like carbon fee and dividend, ending subsidies for fossil fuels, and tax incentives for wind, solar, and other renewable energy, these policies work by influencing the actions of companies as well as those of individuals and families. Hard won policies like the federal solar tax credit (and tax credits for energy audits, installing geothermal HVAC systems, electric vehicles, etc.) only work if people use them. When petitions circulate urging powerful corporations to offer vegan options at their fast food franchises, those vegan options better sell. When a friend and I met with our city’s deputy administrator (who coordinates sustainability efforts), he said that the Solarize Roswell campaign has attracted a total of FIVE customers. And you better believe that when you’re advocating for systemic change, for better or worse, fairly or unfairly, people in positions of power are very interested to know about your personal carbon footprint choices. It absolutely affects our credibility, and while there’s a limit to the importance of personal carbon footprints and we should not feel ashamed for still using fossil fuels in the economy we live in, it’s a matter of personal integrity to take some action to lower our personal emissions. If you ever do P90X3 workouts, you can probably hear Tony Horton in your head saying, “Do your best, and forget the rest.” If enough of us do what we can (and momentum is growing as more people become aware of how dire the situation is), we can significantly slow the avalanche of climate catastrophe and give us more time to get our act together for the bigger changes we need to make in overhauling our infrastructure and economies on national and international scales.
In medicine we are taught, “First, do no harm.” I know that fossil fuels are harmful, so as powerless as I might feel against this astronomical problem, one of my primary responsibilities is to do what I can to stop the harm I’m personally causing. There are limits to what any person or family can do. While Andrew and I have gotten a lot of excitement and enjoyment out of the changes we’ve made, and while most of them are cost beneficial or at least cost neutral in the long term, most of them take some up front investment of time and/or money. This blog is not intended to make you feel guilty or judged for using fossil fuels as you live your life and take care of your family in our fossil fuel-based economy. It’s also not meant to make any of us feel smug at the changes we’ve made, as though they are the silver bullet to this problem. Someday we’ll have policy changes in place to make the green choice the easiest and cheapest choice, and eventually (hopefully) the only choice. Until then, we each need to do what we can, imperfectly. As Anne Marie Bonneau, zero-waste chef, says, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” Same goes for attempting to lower or eliminate our carbon footprints. Andrew and I have made some major changes, but we are still living in the world as it is, not as it should be, we’re only human, and we’d like to keep our jobs, our friends, and our sanity. We are not off of fossil fuels. We know that as a world, we all need to be off fossil fuels by around 2050 to stay under 2 degrees Celsius of warming and avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. We will have to change our worldwide economy and infrastructure at a completely unprecedented pace if we want to have a chance. It’s scary to look the problem in the face. It’s also scary to look in the mirror and know I’m a part of it. But if we have any chance of solving this, acknowledging the problem is the first step. In the weeks and months to come, I’ll be posting on topics like: food, transportation/travel, heating and cooling, solar energy, socially responsible investing, packaging, and more. My aim will be about two posts per month. I hope that reading about our journey will inspire and challenge you in your own and also encourage you to become part of the bigger systemic movement fighting climate change. No matter how much or how little you feel you’re able to do, none of us are powerless and we all have an important role to play. I welcome suggestions, feedback, and guest posts as I know many of you have more expertise in these areas than I do. Hope you will join me on this journey!
Action item: learn more about climate change and why it’s so urgent for us to take drastic action. Some of my recommendations are: The Uninhabitable Earth, Losing Earth, or this Washington Post article. If you’re already convinced that it’s a huge problem and just want to skip straight to solutions, I’d recommend Drawdown or checking out Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which has a bipartisan bill in Congress.