My first full month of tracking my carbon footprint for my 2020 challenge has come and gone, and I’ve already learned a lot about how to reduce your carbon footprint.
The Numbers: My January 2020 Carbon Footprint in Detail
Note: These numbers are all estimates, and incomplete ones at that. Take them with a grain of salt. I’m not tracking my footprint to be exact, rather 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.
- January 2020 total: 1,905.17 lbs CO2e
- Year to date total: 1,905.17 lbs CO2e (9.53% of 10-ton allotment)
- Remaining 2020 carbon budget of 10-ton allotment: 18,094.83 lbs CO2e
- Adjusted per-month allotment: 1,644.98 lbs CO2e
- Adjusted per-diem allotment: 54.01 lbs CO2e
- Driving: 641.57 lbs CO2e
- Electricity: 139.17 lbs CO2e
- Water: 107.5 lbs CO2e
- Food: 303.6 lbs CO2e
Goods, Services, & Leisure (37.4%)
- Furniture & appliances: 270 lbs CO2e
- Personal care & cleaning: 51.67 lbs CO2e
- Medical goods: 115 lbs CO2e
- Healthcare: 138.33 lbs CO2e
- Information & communication: 38.33 lbs CO2e
- Other services: 100 lbs CO2e
* These numbers reflect my utility usage for the first three weeks of January only, during which I lived at my old apartment. Usage for the final week of January will be captured in my February report.
Surprisingly, my largest source of emissions this month was goods, services, and leisure, at 37.4% of my total.
The furniture I purchased for my move was a heavy contributor. As were the contact lenses I purchased (categorized under “Medical goods”) and my health insurance (categorized under “Healthcare”).
Less surprisingly, transportation — 100% of which was driving — also contributed heavily.
On one hand, a monthly footprint of 1,905 lbs CO2e is great progress. That’s more than an 800-pound reduction compared to my average monthly footprint in 2019 of 2,717 lbs CO2e.
On the other hand, I need to do more. At this pace I will easily exceed my 10-ton limit. The challenge becomes especially apparent when you consider that I hope to fly to see friends at some point this year.
I need to keep reducing my daily emissions from all sources to have a fighting chance of staying under 10 tons!
An individual’s carbon footprint is inextricably tied to the systems in which they live, from societal norms to public infrastructure.
I believe top-down systemic change will have the greatest impact in mitigating climate change. Thus, before focusing on personal successes and challenges, I’ll note what systemic features made it easier or harder to reduce my carbon footprint.
- Access to plant-based foods. Plant-based products tend to have a significantly smaller carbon footprint than animal products. Fortunately, I have access to lots of fresh, healthy, and delicious plant-based foods at local grocery stores and restaurants.
- Many convenient ways to buy used goods. There are a number of apps, sites, and stores that make it easy to buy used items online or locally — Amazon, Letgo, OfferUp, Craigslist, eBay, and Goodwill to name a few.
Personal Success: What Went Well & Why
- I moved closer to downtown. Moving was this month’s ‘big win.’ I now live closer to the part of Atlanta where I spend most of my time. As a result, from now on I expect to be driving much less per day.
- I carpooled more this month than I have in years. Before moving, I had one roommate. Now I have two, which has greatly increased my opportunities for carpooling. I took full advantage of this in January and plan to keep doing so.
- I kept my food carbon footprint below 10 lbs CO2e per day. Eating a mostly plant-based diet helped a lot here. I also did a five-day DIY Fasting-Mimicking Diet which significantly cut my food emissions during that period.
- I bought two things used. I found a nice used shelf and bar cart on Letgo for our new home.
- Limited and inconvenient public transportation. MARTA, Atlanta’s public rail, has a limited number of lines. While I now live closer to a transit station, access to MARTA is still inconvenient, making it infeasible to use in some circumstances.
- Lack of bike lanes. Atlanta’s limited number of bike lanes has made me apprehensive to bike on busy streets, especially as a beginner city biker. (Fortunately, the city is taking steps to add more.)
- Carbon intensity of the energy grid. The carbon footprint of home energy use is largely due to the carbon intensity of the source of the electricity.
- Social forces. Advertising, media, peer pressure, and other social forces oftentimes make me want to engage in activities — such as conspicuous consumption — that raise my carbon footprint. Sometimes I’m able to overcome them, other times I succumb.
- Population density of where I live. According to the 2010 US Census, the population density of Atlanta in 2010 was 3,154.3 people per square mile. By comparison, New York City had a 2010 population density of 27,012.5 people per square mile — nearly nine times greater. In practical terms, this means Atlanta is a sprawling city that is more difficult to live in without a car.
Personal Challenges: What Didn’t Go Well & Why
- I drove a fair amount. This was largely due to moving, moving-related tasks (e.g. picking up furniture and hardware supplies), and social outings.
- I purchased a few new items. Moving closer to downtown was the month’s big win, but it did come with some indirect emissions in the form of buying new furniture.
- I ate animal products. I’ve yet to stop eating them and go full vegan (or at least vegetarian). My hesitation is partly out of habit, partly because I enjoy animal products, partly because I’m bad at resisting social pressures or being socially inconvenient, and partly due to worries of not doing veganism or vegetarianism “right” such that I get all the nutrients I need.
- I passed my emissions on to others. Goodhart’s law is the idea that “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” I’ve already found this to be true for this challenge. For instance, in the effort to reduce my carbon footprint, I’ve started inviting friends to come over to my house more often instead of driving to theirs. By doing so, I’m just passing my emissions on to them. Our net collective emissions remain the same (unless they’re also carbon budgeting and offsetting the trip’s emissions with a reduction elsewhere, which is highly unlikely). It seems one’s personal carbon footprint might not be the best measure.
5 Tips for Reducing Your Carbon Footprint
Here are some tips I picked up in January:
- Use a good carbon footprint calculator to get a more accurate picture of your footprint. I tested seven different carbon calculators this month and found that some offer extremely limited estimates. If you’re interested in reducing your footprint, first use a top carbon footprint calculator to get the most accurate picture of where you’re starting from.
- When shopping on Amazon, filter by “Used” to limit your search to used items only. You’ll save money, reduce your carbon footprint, and benefit from all the convenience of shopping on Amazon.
- Use Letgo and OfferUp to buy and sell used items locally. They have some amazing deals on everything from furniture to clothing to electronics. Just be sure not to drive so far away to pick up the item that it cancels out the emissions you save from buying it used.
- Carpool, carpool, carpool! It at least halves your share of the emissions of a car trip. Moving to my new place has shown me that living with multiple roommates makes carpooling significantly easier. The more people you live with, the more opportunities you’ll have to carpool — not to mention the money you’ll save!
- Replace driving with biking as much as possible. Driving less is one of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint. Biking is a great, carbon-free alternative. If you don’t have a bike, consider using tip #3 to pick up a used one for a good deal. One of my roommates bought a great used Cannondale road bike for $75 on Letgo — a steal considering it’s hard to find a new model for under $500.
How I Plan to Improve Next Month
- Call my electric utility to switch to a clean energy program. This will hopefully be easy to do and reduce my carbon footprint substantially.
- Drive even less. Beyond limiting unnecessary car trips and consolidating errands, I’ll consider lifestyle changes such as going to a different climbing gym because my current one is far away.
- Get a used bike lock. I’ve been hesitant to start biking because I don’t have one!
- Keep carpooling as much as possible. Enough said.
- Use public transportation at least once. I want to find the best bike route to get to the nearest transit station and get into the habit of using MARTA when possible.
- Substitute one animal product I still eat at home for a plant-based food. Eggs, butter, fish, and cheese are my main culprits. I’ll look to replace one with a plant-based food.