I’ve been a big advocate of using your personal choices to reduce your climate and environmental footprint–because you can and it DOES make a difference. So I am happy to see this sort of research:
Maya Almaraz, a postdoctoral researcher who works with Houlton at UC Davis, said she wishes she had a magic wand that could make everyone understand just how powerful their food choices can be.
“A lot of people feel really helpless when it comes to climate change, like they can’t make a difference,” said Almaraz. “What our research is showing is that your personal decisions really can have a big impact.”
Different foods have vastly different carbon footprints. Swap your steak for fish, for example, and you get an eight-fold reduction in emissions. And if you’re game to switch that to beans or lentils your emissions drop to near zero. It really gets interesting when lots of us start making similar changes.
Go forth, and eat wisely, and maybe others around you will be inspired to do the same…
The idea that wealthier people consume more and emit for greenhouse gases won’t surprise you. But the concentration of global emissions among the planet’s wealthiest might.
How much wealth do you need to be in the richest 10%? $68,800. So now we have a very clear picture of where (most of) the problem lies, and who should (mostly) bear the expense and burden of reducing carbon emissions–and it is not the world’s developing populations. Just in case that wasn’t already clear.
Forget the floating pigs (I know you are eager to forget the floating pigs). Perhaps the most compelling planet-saving rationale for giving up meat is the massive carbon footprint generated by the global meat industry. When people think about reducing their personal carbon footprint (if they think about it), they usually turn their thermostats down, buy fuel-efficient cars, and shut off lights when they are not using them. All good things to do.
But a choice that people don’t usually think about–and that has an outsized impact on their personal carbon footprint–is meat-eating. Numbers are inherently slippery, but one recent study concluded that the contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to global warming contributed by a vegan are about 40% less than the GHG contributions of a meat-lover:
So in some ways, choosing to eat meat is like choosing to have a few Hummers in your garage, cranking your heat and AC up, and leaving all your lights on. Most environmentally conscious people would be appalled by a neighbor that lived like that. But somehow meat doesn’t enter into the carbon equation when people are thinking about their personal impact on the planet. And it should because it is such a major factor.
So think about getting rid of those Hummers on your plate. And if you are worried that your friends and family will scorn you for going vegetarian or vegan, I’ve got good news for you. America, despite it’s meat-celebrating culture, is warming up to the meatless:
About half of American voters view vegetarians favorably, and less than a quarter view them unfavorably. Vegans are viewed less positively, but still have significantly more than a third of American voters seeing them favorably. Generally, women, Democrats, and younger respondents have a more positive opinion of vegetarians and vegans. These are among the results of a poll of 500 registered American voters conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP), a North Carolina-based firm, from February 21st to 24th. The survey asked what respondents like to eat, what they think of fast-food, which chain restaurants they like most, and a number of other food-related issues, as well as key demographic information.
So you can be healthy, planet-friendly, AND popular (though apparently you’ll need to go easy on the vegan righteousness). And there will be fewer dead pigs floating in the rivers.
You may think that all that driving you do, or air conditioning your house, is your biggest contribution you make to global warming. But how about all those air miles?
For many people reading this, air travel is their most serious environmental sin. One round-trip flight from New York to Europe or to San Francisco creates about 2 or 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person. The average American generates about 19 tons of carbon dioxide a year; the average European, 10.
So if you take five long flights a year, they may well account for three-quarters of the emissions you create. “For many people in New York City, who don’t drive much and live in apartments, this is probably going to be by far the largest part of their carbon footprint,” says Anja Kollmuss, a Zurich-based environmental consultant.
It is for me. And for people like Al Gore or Richard Branson who crisscross the world, often by private jet, proclaiming their devotion to the environment.
Though air travel emissions now account for only about 5 percent of warming, that fraction is projected to rise significantly, since the volume of air travel is increasing much faster than gains in flight fuel efficiency. (Also, emissions from most other sectors are falling.)
Tax carbon at $20 a ton, which is roughly the tax that many economists believe would be required to have an impact on human behavior adequate to slow warming, and suddenly you will understand how big a climate change driver air travel is. And you will also think more carefully about how often, and how far, you fly.
Another alternative is to sell carbon offsets along with air travel tickets.
If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven’t convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.
Meteorologists reported that this spring was the warmest ever recorded for our nation – in fact, it crushed the old record by so much that it represented the “largest temperature departure from average of any season on record.” The same week, Saudi authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet’s history.
Rolling Stone calls these numbers “terrifying.” The only thing that is really terrifying is how willfully ignorant we insist on being about this reality. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a person to understand something when his lavish lifestyle depends on not understanding it.”
We’re America, so bigger is better. Except when it’s not, like when it drives up our carbon footprint and consumption without really making us any happier.
YES magazine has some telling charts on the growth of home sizes in the United States.
The biggest appeal to me of downsizing is that it requires getting rid of all the stuff your family accumulates because you have space to accumulate.
Anyhow, here is the extreme counterpoint to the McMansion revolution in America: a tiny house:
In 2004, Williams sold her bungalow, shedding a mortgage payment of over $1,000 per month, and bought plans for an 84-square-foot house on wheels. It cost her $10,000 to build, a quarter of which went for photovoltaic panels that generate her electricity. Now her house is paid for, and her monthly bills total about $8—for heating.
Even with the economic freedom she gained, it wasn’t easy to leave her house. “I loved my house and I liked my community in Portland.” And she knew that day-to-day life in the tiny house would be very different. “I’m going to have to carry water, I’m going to have to deal with my compost toilet, find a place to shower.”
“It was scary,” she admits. “But I also felt like, God! This is so cool!”
Leaving her stuff behind was not that hard for Williams. It was liberating. She got rid of photos, old love letters, her college letter jacket—“all that crap that you have because it reminds you of who you used to be.” Her friends and family have quit giving her things for Christmas, she says, “unless I get some kind of, you know, short fork!” She allows herself to own no more than 300 items, and she keeps careful count. “Not because I have obsessive-compulsive disorder,” she laughs, but because she once bet a friend that she had less stuff than he did. She’s kept count ever since.
I know my wife and kids could not go that low, but it’s an example of how simplicity can work. And how current assumptions about what we think we need are both out of tune with reality, and way, way, off.