This year it feels like a bit much to think about how to reduce your carbon footprint in the midst of a pandemic.
People have life and livelihood concerns in front of them. A lot of people can’t think about climate change right now.
At the same time, the theme of last moth’s Earth Day on its 50th anniversary was “Climate Action”.
This pandemic shows what’s possible when people take a crisis seriously. There are parts of this new reality that we’ll want to take with us into the future—things like tighter connections with family, less driving, fewer work trips and more neighborhood mutual aid.
No one wants emissions to fall because people have lost jobs. But no more commuting? Sign me up.
Air pollution has fallen 20-50% in cities across the globe, with a corresponding unprecedented 8% drop in carbon emissions forecast for 2020. I know my carbon life looks a lot different as of early March when we first entered lockdown. But how different?
What changes have made life better and more eco-friendly at the same time? This is a good time to decide which changes you’d like to keep.
Public opinion is trending upwards for climate action. For the first time since tracking started in 2008, 31% of survey respondents say they’re doing something about climate change. The next largest group is the concerned, the 26% who are worried but have not yet started taking action. That’s a lot of people.
Like the pandemic, climate change costs lives, blights human potential and exposes society’s fault lines. Like the pandemic, concerted systemic and personal action is needed to solve it.
The good news is that reducing your carbon footprint also leads to the simpler, more satisfying and more connected life that so many people already want.
Most of the actions families take to reduce their carbon footprint also lead to better health, better community and better budgets. As a bonus, the people who take action in their own lives are also those who then seek more systemic community change.
What is a carbon footprint? A definition
The concept of a carbon footprint emerged in the 90’s. It’s an accounting approach. The definition of a carbon footprint is a count of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (the CO2 equivalent) ascribed to a person or group due to their activities and the energy used for the goods and services they use.
A carbon footprint calculator helps you to think through the carbon dioxide equivalent attached to your current lifestyle. It gives an estimate, to be used as a tool for monitoring or motivating change. It’s a tool to help you make decisions.
Think of it like a calorie counter. The idealized average apple in your calorie counter doesn’t have exactly the same calories as the apple you ate. But apples are different from cheeseburgers, both in real life and in the calculator. Using a calculator helps you understand the impact of different choices and opportunities.
How to reduce your carbon footprint: A step by step process
There are lots of books and articles on the top ways you can reduce your carbon footprint. You already know that home energy efficiency, reduced transportation emissions, eating less factory-farmed meat and wasting less food will help.
The trick is to know which change will make the biggest difference, both in your carbon footprint and in the rest of your life.
The pandemic has already forced us to reduce our family carbon lifestyle compared to “before”. The things I thought were hard to change are, like magic, done.
Now, it’s time to see what the situation was “before”, what it is now and what should be kept in the “after” times, whatever that ends up being.
To get started, assess where you are. You may be surprised which aspects of your family’s lifestyle have contributed the most to your carbon footprint in the before times.
The numbers—visualize your life in carbon
There are lots of carbon calculators, with different tradeoffs between user experience, comprehensiveness and underlying assumptions.
Calculators that only cover direct household energy and transportation emissions miss the indirect emissions associated with what you buy. Those calculators calculate your “carbon toeprint”, not your footprint. The US EPA calculator is a toeprint calculator. It covers household energy, driving, and recycling but not public transit, flying, food, goods or services.
My favorite calculator is the Cool Climate Calculator. It has the best combination of usabiity and actionable results.
To use the CoolClimate calculator you’ll need to estimate how many miles you drive or use public transportation and how many air trips your household takes. You’ll need your energy and water bills, an estimate of the amounts of different foods your household uses, and your monthly budget for different goods and services.
Use the information buttons in the calculator to learn more or choose the simple or advanced versions of each category to customize for your family. Because of the way we track spending at our house, it’s easier for us to use the advanced versions in each category. Use whatever works best for you.
Your results will be compared to similar households in your location, which is a more useful comparison than a generic national average. Every region has a different energy mix, climate, and public transportation system which shifts the average carbon footprint for that location.
The results are displayed in a chart that lets you see which categories account for the most carbon equivalent emissions in your lifestyle.
Which categories are quantitatively most important in your household? For most American’s it’s home energy use and transportation.
Psychology—where are your pain points?
The next step is to see which changes will make the biggest impact in your quality of life.
Is there a part of your life where you just feel badly doing something because you know you can do better? Or something you just hate doing in general?
This might be something that has to do with carbon emissions directly (such as driving to work when we used to do that) or something related to other values (such as eating cheeseburgers when you love cows).
You’ll notice your pain point as a nagging feeling of unease every time you do that thing. Think about the top two or three things that bother you.
For me, my top pain points before the pandemic were commuting and traveling for work. I wanted to eat more plant-based meals and less meat. Enter pandemic—and done.
Imagine changing your pain points. How do you feel? Does the thought of making that change give you a feeling of comfort, ease, or delight?
Are there “joy points” you would like to have more of? Things like doing more outside exercise instead of driving to the gym, or growing more food at home?
Hang onto those ideas when you decide what changes to make.
What’s your optimal carbon footprint target?
Mike Berners-Lee, the author of “How Bad Are Bananas”, a surprisingly entertaining book, suggests 10 tonnes per person as a near-term target. That’s a big reduction from the current American per person average footprint, and a target Berners-Lee considers doable for those in the United States and Europe at this time.
If you take 10 tonnes per person as your target, you could reduce significantly for several years and get there, or you can make a lot of wholescale changes now and get there ASAP. Everyone has their own constraints and their own non-negotiables.
What actions will you take? Ways to reduce your carbon footprint
Change happens one decision and/or behavior at a time. Use your calculator and your pain or joy points to decide what changes to try.
Some changes are one and done, while some are longer term behavioral shifts. If you’re able to negotiate work from home as a regular thing that lasts beyond the pandemic, you won’t have to do that again anytime soon. Choosing to live close to work or replacing a gas guzzler with an efficient model is another one and done decision
But if you’ve decided to take the bus to work instead of driving, you’ll need to make that decision again and again until it sticks.
Behavioral change sticks best if you don’t try to change everything at once. I recommend one behavioral change per month to avoid burnout. The old saw about a habit taking 21 days to form is simplistic; in reality building a habit until it’s automatic can take between 18-254 days, with an average of 66 days until a change becomes automatic.
Track your success at doing that habit over time in order to motivate yourself. The best resources I know for changing habits are from James Clear.
See the ways to reduce your carbon footprint, the amount of carbon equivalent you’ll save, and the cost or savings of each change in the “Take Action” part of the CoolClimate Calculator. Or review the Resources links for more ideas on carbon relevant home energy efficiency, transportation, food and shopping changes.
Which actions would make the biggest quantitative difference in your household carbon footprint and the biggest qualitative difference in your life?
Our household carbon footprint: Pre- and post pandemic
Before the pandemic, our three person household carbon footprint was 46 tonnes. There’s a big glaring category for eleven work trips in 2019 (!). Without travel our household carbon footprint was 35 tonnes. That’s a little over 15 tonnes per person with work travel and just under 13 tonnes per person without. Even with all that work travel, our pre-pandemic footprint is still 38% of that of similar households because of our other decisions and practices. But it’s not to target.
In 2020, our work and personal travel has been cancelled, except what we already did in January and February. Commuting is mostly cancelled. We’re no longer going anywhere. According to the calculator, maintaining our current pandemic levels of emissions would result in a 33% decrease in our household carbon footprint, or a total of 10.3 tonnes per person. Like magic, those changes would put us down close to the 10 tonne target.
Pandemic lifestyle changes get us close to our target but there’s still a lot of work to do.
Two big takeaways
Numbers versus psychology
My climate pain points, the things I stressed about every day, are magically gone during the pandemic. No more work travel, no more commuting.
That’s good for quality of life, and it decreased our footprint, but the story in our family is about emissions that almost no one talks about. Services account for a whopping 23% of our new total. I wouldn’t have known that without doing the calculations.
Calculating our carbon footprint carefully showed that the invisible emissions due to health care insurance, medical care, home improvement and information services are the biggest contributors now. Using less water would help too. The numbers don’t lie.
It would have been easy to get distracted by categories that are most visible but don’t make a big difference to the bottom line for our family.
The most overlooked way to reduce your carbon footprint
Our results are highly dependent on the number of people who live in our household. When someone moves in or out of our house our footprint per person goes way down or up.
If you have the space, helping out a family member, adding roommates or short term rental guests can make a big difference in both your budget and your household carbon footprint. Your shared resources are more important than the increased utilities and food.
Recalculate—how often should I calculate my carbon footprint?
The standard time to calculate your carbon footprint is once a year, but that’s not frequent enough to guide change. People need frequent, regular feedback to help changes stick.
Think of your carbon footprint as a big check-in, to be done once in a while. Build in lots of little checks around specific changes.
It’s more important to track the specific changes you’re making daily, weekly or monthly and to troubleshoot as needed. Use a planner, a wall chart or a journal spread to track the progress you’re making.
All those changes will be reflected in your carbon footprint. Make Earth Day your carbon footprint anniversary, or do it as part of your new year inventory.
But, what about….? Common issues and questions
It’s easy to get hung up on “am I doing it right”. There are lots of people talking about whether or not this action or that action really matters. There are simplistic ideas “just change your light bulbs!” that you know in your heart are insufficient.
The truth is that it will take a lot of different actions at all levels to address climate change. It can be confusing. Here are some answers to questions about climate change action that you’ve probably already wondered about.
The vegan/meat question isn’t that simple
People get confused by debates over particular actions. A lot of people will say that being vegan is THE answer to climate change. But decisions about particular foods and diets are made based on multiple values, cultural and religious traditions and individual health needs. Choices aren’t usually made on one issue, no matter how important.
Every food can represent a huge range of actual carbon impact depending on how it’s produced. It’s true that factory farmed meat is one of the most carbon-intensive foods you can eat. But local grass-fed beef raised with rotational grazing is a net carbon sink. When it also preserves open space in an arid grassland unsuited to agriculture, like where I live, I’m ok with it as a modest part of our family diet.
Even vegetables have a huge range. A greenhouse tomato flown in from Mexico is vastly different compared to a backyard tomato.
The point is that any given food or diet can be more or less carbon-intensive, depending on how it’s done. The details matter. A plant-rich diet is definitely better from a climate perspective. But it isn’t necessary to go full vegan to have an environmentally sensitive diet.
A 10 tonne goal doesn’t seem like enough
I have friends and colleagues who won’t get into a combustion engine vehicle, or who live in cooperative housing where part of their food comes from dumpster diving. But that lifestyle won’t fly for most families in the US today.
Ultimately, we need to get to a net zero carbon culture by 2050. Per person globally, that’s 3 tonnes/person by 2030, 2 tonnes/person by 2040 and 1 tonne/person by 2050. Faster is better. That will take a whole scale change in how we obtain and use energy.
In the meantime, cutting your footprint to about 50% of that of similar households in the US or Europe is achievable today. It’s like anything else. You have to take the first few steps before you can get to the goal.
I changed my light bulbs—am I done?
Climate action is bedeviled by cognitive pitfalls as is all behavioral change. When people stop because they changed their light bulbs it’s called the “one action bias”. Another pitfall is when people use more energy in one area because they are saving energy in another.
To avoid these biases, have a target carbon footprint in mind, recalculate your footprint regularly and keep taking action until you reach it. Then set another goal. It’s the same as getting out of debt or losing weight.
If you take one action for environmental reasons it makes you more likely to take another. Eventually it’s just part of who you are and you won’t go back. It doesn’t matter much where you start, as long as you keep going.
What if my family won’t get on board?
You can find common ground around the co-benefits of any carbon-efficient change—but maybe not immediately. In our family, unpopular changes became palatable when the benefits were realized (saving money, better health, more fun). Sometimes it takes time.
The constraints you have today may shift. I’ve seen in my own household how people’s attitudes towards change, such as eating less meat, can shift. A proposed change may be a non-starter until all of a sudden it isn’t.
If you can’t find common ground and it’s something you can do yourself (grow food, buy second hand), you don’t need agreement. Everyone is allowed at least one weird hobby. Maybe your weird hobby is energy efficiency.
A personal carbon offset project
Carbon offsets are controversial in environmental circles. They are likened to medieval indulgences in the Catholic Church, where you pay some money and your sins are absolved.
However, If like all of us, you have emissions that you cannot get rid of at this time, buying offsets through a reputable project is an alright thing to do. I don’t think of it as a one to one carbon reduction in the way that it’s sold, I think of it more like a donation to build a lower-carbon world.
Or, you could run your own personal carbon offset project. You could use the money to make low carbon investments in your own lifestyle instead, such as buying lower carbon energy from a renewable supplier.
A lot of low-carbon lifestyle changes save money (biking instead of buying gas, less air travel). If you invest some of that money in lower carbon living, that seems like a fine tradeoff to me.
Does my work travel count in my personal footprint?
Up to you. I track, and include it in the calculation, but I make a mental distinction between personal and work travel. Commuting is included in our personal footprint since we chose where we live but work trips are in a gray area.
Employers have their own carbon footprint, which includes employee work travel. But to the extent that we control what work travel we do, it’s ours. Emissions are emissions. On some level it doesn’t matter, the point is to try to reduce it where possible. Also, the point is to change what’s possible.
In today’s pandemic world, our work travel is cancelled for at least a year. Thing we did face to face are being done virtually. Some of that will likely stick in the after times.
I can’t just move to an off-grid cabin in the woods.
Good news—you don’t have to. It’s far more energy efficient to retrofit an existing house than to build a new off-grid dream Passivhaus. Tighter exteriors, more insulation and efficient HVAC go a long way to make your existing house perform as efficiently as it can.
We can all make a big difference where we are in the life we live today.
Systemic change and personal action go together
My city council asked all the sustainability board applicants what actions they took in their own life as part of the application process. We couldn’t lead change in our city if we weren’t living it ourselves.
It’s popular in environmental research circles to dismiss individual action, because the carbon footprint of any one person out of the 7.8 billion people on Earth doesn’t matter. That view is simplistic and short-sighted.
Society is a complex system, where we learn what’s possible from each other. Early adopters who make a change (reusable grocery bags, solar panels) make that change more palatable for others.
You don’t need to be a carbon monk before advocating change—we all live in the same fossil fuel infused society. But if you build some level of carbon efficiency into your own life you’re more likely to then lead systemic change for others.
All the carbon reducing tips you’ll ever need
These resources do a great job of putting different changes you can make in context. Which are most important? Which are most fun? Which are ideas you wouldn’t have thought about?
Sign up to get a Green Home DIY quick guide to “50 Quick Wins for your Green Home”.
Project drawdown: The Project Drawdown nonprofit excels at comparing climate change solution strategies, and explaining which are most important and why. View the strategies in the table of solutions. To see which are most important, click on “scenario 1” or “scenario 2”. “Reducing food waste” and “plant-rich diets” are top strategies in both scenarios.
How Bad are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything: This book discusses everything from the carbon footprint of a rose to that of a college education. Use this after you’ve tackled the big obvious categories to whittle away at the rest, or to put proposed changes in perspective.
20 Ways to reduce your carbon footprint: This resource from Global Stewards starts with the top two one and done strategies to reduce your carbon footprint and goes on from there. The graphics showing the top sources of carbon emissions for Americans, in US homes and from common foods are useful. Top carbon-intensive food? Lamb.
How to reduce your carbon footprint: This comprehensive list of tips from the New York Times covers every area of your life, beautifully. The guide won’t tell you how important each change is but it is comprehensive. Explore ideas for your transportation, home energy, food, wardrobe, and community involvement.
25+ Ways to reduce your carbon footprint: This list from an organization offering carbon offset projects to alleviate global poverty shares uncommon but doable ideas, plus ideas that are relevant for…someone else? “Don’t be a space tourist”? Note to self.
Reducing your carbon footprint leads to a better, healthier life
If you take both the numbers and your pain or joy points into account, your work to reduce your carbon footprint will lead to better quality of life and a positive environmental impact.
I’m not saying every action is easy or comes without cost. But overall, life ends up simpler, with more ease and satisfaction.
A crisis like this pandemic leads to crystal clarity. We’re all more clear than ever about who we want to be, what we want life to look like and what’s important. The pandemic has allowed us to stop dreaming about less work travel and commuting, and to know what those changes really do for us in real life. I know my family is lucky to have that privilege.
After this exercise, you’ll know where to put your efforts. Equipped with knowledge, you can make choices that serve you better, guided by your carbon graph results and your vision of the life you want to live.