To start this year of learning, it seemed reasonable to begin by taking stock of where we are starting from, both personally and nationally. What is the carbon cost of being an average American? As has been well documented in countless reports, Americans emit the largest per capita CO2 levels globally. China emits more total CO2, but their per capita emissions are lower; this will likely shift as more and more people join the middle class.
So, what does it mean to be the largest carbon emitters? How much CO2 are we talking about? According to data from the World Bank, our national per capita emissions peaked in the 1970’s, at around 20 metric tons per person. We’ve actually dropped our emissions since then, trending at around 16.5 metric tons per person for the last few years. (So that report from the Trump administration a few months ago was accurate- our national carbon emissions did decrease in 2018.)
But your personal carbon emissions will vary wildly depending on a variety of factors, including lifestyle choices, income level and where you live, among others. Where you live is a major factor in determining what kinds of power generate the electricity you buy to power your home, and thus how environmentally impactful that energy usage is. The New York Times recently published a very cool article that lets you explore the major sources of electricity for your state. Living in Washington state, we actually generate a majority of our power from hydroelectric sources (71%). Only 9% comes from natural gas, and even less from coal. Washington is the second largest producer of renewable energy, coming in only behind California. This is in stark contrast to states like West Virginia, where coal still powers 98% of electricity generation. I mention this mostly to highlight that most personal decisions that we make about consumption and the environment will always be dependent on the context we live in; there are always hidden structural elements to basically every consumer decision we make that will impact what kind of environmental effects our decisions have. For example, a person buying an electric car in Washington state will be powering that car mostly using a renewable energy source; so, buying that car will reduce carbon emissions compared to a combustion engine vehicle. But, in West Virginia, and many other parts of the US, that will be less true.
To establish my personal carbon footprint, and figure out what kinds of lifestyle choices I could change to have the highest impact on my energy usage, I used a couple of different online calculators (here, here and here). The estimates vary, but are between 16-40 tons of carbon emissions per year (I find even these order-of-magnitude scale estimates useful, since they help frame the magnitude of changes one might make as well), putting me at either average, or significantly above average, energy consumption. The questions that the surveys ask are revealing; they ask about energy usage in your home, trash production, flying habits, transportation methods, what you eat and how much you shop. A HUGE contributor for me is flying; both my family and my husband’s family live a plane ride away, so just visiting them once or twice a year adds up; add in any recreational travel, and we’re looking at a huge carbon impact. We’ll discuss the validity and usefulness of carbon offsets in a different post, but it’s definitely something I think about.
In addition to carbon footprint, it’s also important to consider production of trash (municipal solid waste, in the official parlance). This is true for a number of reasons; reducing the amount of waste sent to dumps like an inherently good thing to me, but in addition, the decomposition of municipal waste generates methane (in addition to more CO2), which is a potent global warming gas. Landfills release 92.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents each year. This number includes the contribution of all gases emitted, scaled relative to the global warming potential of CO2. For example, 1 kg of methane is equal to approximately 25 kg of CO2. (Natural gas and oil drilling, plus livestock cultivation are the two other major sources of methane.)
The average American produces nearly 1,600 pounds of waste per year, which is approximately 4.4 pounds of trash per day. Of this trash, paper and paper products, like cardboard, comprise about 26% of trash, yard clippings is 13.3% of waste and plastic is about 13.1% of waste (from the EPA). In our house, we try to recycle everything we possibly can, and we are able to compost pretty much all of our food waste (thanks Seattle!!), but even with all of that, our household still produces more waste than I’d like. This is something I’ll explore further, so I’ll be actively looking for easily-implemented strategies to reduce our trash output, and will report back.
As much as possible, I will discuss lifestyle changes in the context of either waste diversion potential or carbon emission savings. I hope to get a better understanding of the magnitude of reduction in climate impact relative to lifestyle impact. For instance, if I’m going to start air drying my clothes, how much energy will that really save? If it’s moderately inconvenient but saves 15% of my carbon emissions, maybe that’s worth it. But if it’s really annoying and it’s only going to knock down my energy consumption by 2%, that might not be a tradeoff I’m interested in.
In that vein, one of the first extremely minor changes we’ve made is to our energy bill. Seattle City Light offers a program called Green Up, in which consumers can pay a bit extra on their energy bill to help create markets in Washington for renewable energy. I plan to follow up with Seattle City Light to learn a bit more about this program and how “additional” these markets are to energy markets that already exist, but based on the estimated kilowatt hours of clean energy listed on the website, our contribution level (400 kWh per month) should offset about 3.4 metric tons of carbon per year (according to this online calculator). That’s nearly 10% of our household emissions, which seems pretty worth it to me.
What do you know about how your electricity is produced? Do you have questions about how energy in your state is produced? Does your electricity provider provide any options for making your electricity source greener? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll try to investigate!