It’s easy to doubt that the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions you control can matter on a global scale (Americans average about 17 tons per year per person, vs. 55 billions tons per year globally). But just like voting, the contributions of hundreds of millions of consumers do add up to billions of tons.
Co-benefits of decarbonization
What isn’t obvious is that the global social costs of GHG emissions (which are externalized, meaning they are paid by society) are far less than the local and near-term costs of burning fossil fuels. In other words, the argument that your household or community emissions aren’t significant globally ignores the immediate and local impacts of fossil fuels. This is why the Hood River County Energy Plan focuses on reducing fossil fuel usage, not just GHG emissions. The co-benefits of decarbonization include:
- Lower operating costs of clean energy alternatives. The fuel for solar panels or wind turbines is free, and fueling electric vehicles (EVs) costs the equivalent of about $1 per gallon of gas. The maintenance cost of an electric motor (one moving part) is far less than an internal combustion engine (ICE, with hundreds of moving parts).
- Keeping spending local or in the region. Oregon sends around $10 billion out of the state annually to buy fossil fuels. Washington sends around $16 billion. Clean-energy alternatives will cut that fossil-fuel spending to zero by 2050 or earlier, and peak fossil-fuel demand will occur soon. Sending that much money out of our states is the same as a giant “job-killing tax.” Every dollar worth of energy produced by your household or by your community is a dollar that can stay in your community.
- Cutting our largest sources of air and water pollution. Several studies of air pollution conclude that America kills as many people from vehicle pollution as from vehicle accidents. The pollution from coal plants is also a major factor in respiratory diseases. The savings from clean energy alternatives include lower healthcare costs and less work time losses.
- Increased resilience. Rural communities want lower fuel costs and more resilient power. Instead of expensive energy distribution, poor reliability, and wildfire hazards from transmission lines, rural households and communities will increasingly be generating and storing renewable energy in their neighborhoods, thus avoiding fuel dependencies and power outages.
- Reduced hazardous material transportation in the Gorge. There are around a dozen oil trains and a dozen coal trains rolling through the Columbia Gorge weekly. Each train creates air pollution from its diesel engines, noise pollution, and very real threats of toxic spills and wildfires. In May 2016, a Union Pacific train carrying crude oil from North Dakota derailed and exploded in Mosier, Oregon. Had there been any wind, the entire town would have been destroyed. That much oil spilled into the Columbia River would have caused many millions of dollars of irreparable damage to fisheries.
Understand the impacts of your consumption
Reducing GHG emissions enough to slow climate change rapidly enough to meet the stern recommendations of the 2018 IPCC report (45% reduction of total emissions by 2030, relative to 2010) requires dramatic reductions from individuals and companies everywhere. Fortunately, the products and methods necessary to achieve such reductions will save you and your community money while creating local jobs and building energy resilience.
Your “carbon” footprint is the total direct and embodied greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions due to your purchases and usage of products and services; the normal measure is metric tons (1000 kg) of CO2 equivalent, or MTCO2e. If your car gets 22 miles per gallon then your exhaust pipe emits about one pound of pollution for every mile you drive. You generally cause GHG emissions from your transportation, your housing, your food, and goods and services you buy. Similarly, businesses cause GHG emissions from the transportation, buildings, and goods and services they buy or lease, and from some industrial processes.
Visualize your emissions
CO2 is invisible and odorless, but you can think of balloons full of CO2 continuously popping out of your tailpipe or your gas furnace. Burning 80 gallons of gasoline or diesel creates about one ton of CO2 pollution. One metric ton of CO2 pollution would fill a 33-foot sphere, and one day of New York City’s emission spheres would bury the Empire State Building.
Americans emit on average 17 MTCO2e per year, and all of us cause various quantities of emissions. The emissions directly caused by our consumption include those from transportation and housing; the food, goods, and services we buy emitted GHGs in their creation (“embodied emissions”) and can be calculated on a macro basis but there is little infrastructure to track embodied emissions by product.
Calculate your footprint
Of the various carbon calculators available on the web, the Berkeley calculator provides good accuracy, a range of simplicity or complexity, comparisons to averages in your area, and quantified suggestions for improvements. It quantifies your largest emission sources and you can use such a calculator to periodically track progress (annually is good) or compete with others.
Notes specific to the Gorge: Electricity in the city of Hood River is from Pacific Power, which is about 2/3 coal (about 20% higher emissions than the calculator’s US average) unless you buy clean electricity. The Hood River Electric Coop, Wasco PUD, and Klickitat PUD source their power from Bonneville, which is mostly hydro and wind, or essentially clean.
The Berkeley calculator is also useful for businesses and very well researched. Here are some tips and examples for calculating your household’s carbon footprint.
Cut your fossil fuel impacts
Here is a presentation about how an average US family can cut their emissions in half over a decade. Thousands of climate scientists agree that such a reduction rate is absolutely required by households and companies everywhere to keep global warming to roughly 1.5°C.
It’s important to note that a few infrastructure decisions lock in a large majority of most household footprints. The choice of housing sets the emissions of the structure until it’s remodeled, as well as the distance and options for commuting. The choice of transportation locks in emissions; for example, buying a new Prius hybrid locks in about 30 MTCO2e of emissions over the lifetime of the car.
Here is a list of actions you can take to reduce emissions from your housing, starting with simple behavior changes you can make immediately and progressing through remodeling your insulation and heating systems.
Here is a list of considerations if you are building or remodeling a house.
Here’s an article on cutting your footprint. It’s fun and rewarding, but don’t expect to fix it overnight.
Here is a video series with 30 easy ways to reduce your footprint.
Here are many ways to save energy and reduce emissions, from the US Department of Energy.