Read about climate change for any amount of time and it’ll quickly force you to ask what you yourself can do, however insignificant, to mitigate its effects.
I’ve sat with this question for a while now and tried to answer it in various ways. While there are many routes I could go, to start I decided on a simple, quantifiable approach: reducing my carbon footprint.
My 2020 Goal: Reduce My Carbon Footprint to 10 Tons of CO2
My goal is simple: to reduce my carbon footprint to 10 US tons (aka “short” tons) of CO2 in 2020.
Why 10 tons?
At the time of formulating this goal I was reading Mike Berners-Lee’s book, How Bad Are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything, where I initially ran across the 10-ton figure.
I decided to adopt it as my goal rather arbitrarily. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense as a first step toward answering the “what can I do?” question. Systemic change will have an infinitely greater impact, of course. But until I learn more about what I can do to help catalyze it, I see personal change as a good starting place.
10 tons is also significantly less than my estimated 2019 carbon footprint of 16.3 US tons (14.8 metric tons), based on my results from the best carbon footprint calculators. It’s also still within reach based on what I expect my lifestyle to look like in 2020.
10 tons is far from enough, though. In fact, Berners-Lee doesn’t include the 10-ton figure in his book as a recommended target, but as a unit of measure to help readers get a sense of perspective about the footprint of their purchases and activities.
As he writes, “there is not much that is particularly magical about a 10-ton lifestyle — that is, a lifestyle causing 10 tons of CO2e per year — apart from the fact that 10 tons is a round number. It’s certainly not a long-term sustainable target for everyone in the world: if everyone went in for 10-ton living all over the globe, emissions would skyrocket by 40 percent.”
Though less than the US per-capita average, A 10-ton lifestyle is hardly praiseworthy in a global context. According to Our World in Data, the global average CO2 emissions per capita in 2017, the most recent year for which there is data as of this writing, was 4.79 metric tons (aka “tonnes”), or 5.28 US tons.
This means if I reduce my 2020 CO2 emissions to 10 US tons, I will still have emitted roughly twice the global per capita average.
To be clear, I don’t think one’s carbon footprint is entirely their responsibility. Part of it surely is, but part of it is inextricably linked to, among other things, the energy and transportation infrastructure available to them.
I’m unsure where I’ll ultimately come down on how much of one’s personal footprint — or what types of emitting activities — should be viewed as one’s own responsibility, and how much should be viewed as the responsibility of the political, societal, and cultural systems in which they live. That is one question I hope to answer as I undertake this challenge.
Why Am I Doing This?
I have a few reasons for wanting to reduce my carbon footprint:
- I want to become intimately familiar with what makes up my carbon footprint so I can better understand the changes needed to be made at the personal and systemic levels to reduce emissions globally
- Call me crazy, but I find it to be a fun and interesting challenge 😁
- The challenge will be useful for organizing the editorial direction of this site
How I’m Going to Reduce My Carbon Footprint
Here are the main lifestyle changes I plan to make to reduce my carbon footprint:
- Replace driving with biking and public transportation as much as possible. I live in Atlanta, on the outskirts of the city, so I need to drive to get anywhere. I’m moving closer to downtown in late January. I’ll be within biking distance of friends and other venues I frequent, and I’ll be closer to public transportation. I plan to take full advantage of my more centralized location.
- Get electricity from 100% renewable sources. When I move in January, I’ll lobby my two roommates to switch our energy from the default source to 100% renewables.
- Eat a mostly vegetarian diet. I already do this at home, but tend to eat meat when I go out to eat or when on vacation. This year I’ll try to be stricter about avoiding meat in every situation.
These changes don’t reflect the advantages my lifestyle already has over the average American’s. For instance, I don’t commute in a car. I’m fortunate enough to be able to work from home or, when I move, bike to a co-working space. Nor does my work require that I fly constantly. If that were the case, I would surely find it impossible to keep my annual footprint under 10 tons.
How I’m Going to Track My Carbon Footprint
There is no simple way to granularly track your carbon footprint as far as I know. Thus my current tracking system involves a collection of environmental apps and websites.
Here are the categories of personal emissions I’m going to track along with how I’ll track each:
- Food. I’ll be using LiveGreen, an app which estimates the carbon footprint of a meal based on its calorie count and type (e.g. vegan, omnivore, mostly meat).
- Transportation. I’ll be using OffCents, an app which estimates the carbon footprint of your transportation based on your transportation method and starting and ending destinations.
- Housing. I’ll be using LiveGreen here as well. It estimates the carbon footprint of your utilities based on your zip code, monthly bill amount, and the percentage of your energy source that comes from renewables.
- Goods, services, and leisure. I’ll be using the CoolClimate Calculator, in particular the “Shopping” tab, which estimates the carbon footprint of your purchases based on how much you spent in a number of categories.
I’ll record all the emissions I calculate for the categories above in YNAB, a software I use for financial budgeting that I’m repurposing for my “carbon budget.”
- I can’t buy carbon offsets to cancel out my emissions. If I allowed myself simply to spend some money to offset my emissions then this wouldn’t be much of a challenge!
- When carpooling, I’ll divide the emissions of the drive evenly among the number of people in the car.
- When eating out, I’ll estimate a meal at 1,205 calories unless I can find a more exact number. A 2015 study found this to be the average number of calories in the sample of restaurant meals they tested. The exception is when I eat out at restaurants that publish calorie counts or ranges for their meals. In those cases, I’ll use the upper limit of the numbers they provide.
- I’ll treat any used, secondhand, or refurbished goods I buy as producing zero emissions.
- I’m using the US “short” ton as opposed to the metric ton because I expect a majority of my audience to be American.
- 1 US ton = 2000 lbs
- 1 US ton = 0.907 metric tons = 907 kg
- I may modify my tracking system as I go along. I’m sure that as I go along I’ll discover new and improved ways to track my carbon footprint.
- My tracking system is incomplete. While I’m tracking the four major categories of personal emissions — food, transportation, housing, and goods and services — some things will be left out. Some examples:
- Free services such as my bank, email, and social media accounts
- My share of public services
- My work activities
- All numbers are estimates. Because of the many variables that make up a thing or activity’s carbon footprint, by necessity all trackers and calculators provide estimates as opposed to exact numbers. Take all numbers with a grain of salt.