As the year draws to a close and 2012 is about to begin, people are making New Year’s Resolutions. Most of them are meant to make people feel better about themselves, like losing weight, starting an exercise program, and quitting smoking. And truth be told, most of those resolutions aren’t kept. So maybe it’s time that people use their New Year’s Resolutions to make the planet better. Maybe they’ll have better success at holding onto them if they’re easy enough to adopt and, of course, they still get to feel better about themselves.
I’ve come up with ten simple measures that you can adopt. Some can be part of the routine in your daily life, and some are measures you might only need to do once, but these should still be important considerations.
- Get a home audit. You only need to do this once but the money is well spent. You can identify places where you’re wasting energy and, therefore, money—such as leaky faucets, or doors and windows where heat is escaping. Although this costs you up front, it will save in the long run and sometimes you can get a rebate from the government if you make changes based on the auditor’s suggestions.
- Become more efficient at home. This one particular topic is huge, and most components are easy to adopt. People tend to know about the importance of replacing light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs and turning off lights when they leave a room. But they may not have thought of getting motion sensors in rooms that will automatically turn lights on and off for you or the benefits of unplugging electronic items when not in use to minimize electricity drain. And nobody should be without a programmable thermostat these days.
- Shop for groceries with reusable bags. Even if your grocery store charges you a nickel for every bag you take home, you should feel guilty if you come home with any. Bringing your own bags to stores where you make your purchases minimizes the waste of plastic bags which are made from petroleum products and take way too many years to decompose.
- Get hybrid or electric cars with your future vehicle purchases. They cost a bit more up front but depending on your driving habits, especially with the starts and stops associated with city driving, you can save a bundle in fuel costs and minimize your emissions. If you can afford it, every new car should be something beyond a simple gas guzzler.
- Aggressively recycle and compost. It takes very little time to separate plastic, glass, tin, and paper. But since it minimizes waste generated by using new materials, it’s much better for the environment.
- Use the dishwasher and washer / dryer with full loads only. It’s about the same energy used to run a load no matter how much is in it, so if the dishwasher is only half full, that’s a lot of wasted electricity. Most family routines can adapt to this suggestion without much hassle. Don’t make certain nights of the week laundry night to suit your schedule; make it so that these appliances don’t run until they’re full.
- Purchase green electricity and natural gas. If you have greener sources of electricity and natural gas that generate less emissions than conventional utility companies and you can afford them, you should make the switch. Home use of electricity and natural gas is a huge source of greenhouse gases. If we were all able to make such a change, that would have a significant impact on helping the environment. Bullfrog Power in Canada is one place to look.
- Purchase carbon offsets. No matter how much change we can make, most of us travel by plane on occasion and by car as part of our daily routine. Since those activities generate emissions, if you can negate those by making donations to companies and projects that offset your emissions with activities such as planting trees, you can go a long way toward living a zero-carbon lifestyle.
- Buy local. Not only does it help your local economy to buy produce and meat from local farmers and butchers, but the emissions you save by avoiding the need to transport those items from great distances is also significant. You likely don’t need lamb from New Zealand for your dinner or Brazilian teak for your flooring to enhance your life. Local foods and other materials can do the job just fine, and you can use them with pride knowing you didn’t generate substantial emissions simply to get them into your home.
- Precycle. If you can make a purchase with less material and less packaging, then do it. The less you have to put into recycling, the better. In this modern era of digital music downloads and ebooks, make sure you think twice before getting a hard copy of anything.
If you can adopt even a few of these suggestions into your family routine, you can make a big difference to your carbon footprint. And you won’t have to feel guilty about letting another set of New Year’s Resolutions fall by the wayside.
My family is carbon-neutral. I know that’s quite a claim, but I stand by it. When I began to seriously explore global warming and the climate crisis, I decided that we as a family had to make sure we were doing our part before I could ask anyone else to do their own part. I wanted to make sure I could lead by example.
In my book Comprehending the Climate Crisis, chapter 6 addresses everything that people can do to try to reduce their emissions. We as a family explored many options to figure out what was best for us:
- we had a home audit to learn where our home’s energy efficiency could be improved
- we had an assessment with a company to investigate placing solar panels onour roof
- we had an assessment with a company that provides geoexchange for heating and air-conditioning
Ultimately, we decided to go with what we thought was the most cost-effective and simplest. Taking the advice of the home auditor ended up saving us money in the long run, but the other two options were really expensive with little chance of paying themselves off for many years, if ever.
We decided to go with Bullfrog (bullfrogpower.com). In Canada, most provinces have access to this service. They can provide 100% green electricity and natural gas and we use both. That means that all electricity that we draw from the grid, and all natural gas we use is replaced with green versions that are completely carbon-neutral. (You can check out their website—it easily explains how they accomplish this.) We still pay our monthly bills to the individual utility companies, but we pay an additional bill to Bullfrog that covers the more expensive but greener forms of energy we use in our home.
Our newest car is a hybrid which helps, but of course isn’t carbon-neutral. We added up the fuel we purchase on a monthly basis and decided to purchase carbon offsets to negate the amount of carbon dioxide our driving generates. Each month we pay a bill to Planetair (planetair.ca) that uses those funds to develop greenhouse gas emissions offset projects such as planting trees which will help emissions in the long run. We can also purchase carbon offsets for any flights we take, so vacations can be completely green as well.
The projects we took on in our house cost us extra, but we think it’s money well spent. Could you imagine what could be accomplished if every family did these same measures, and drove their emissions down to zero? Obviously not everybody is able or willing to pay the extra, but if you believe in the importance of this issue, you should seriously explore these options.
Before I put politics aside—as the title of this blog suggests—I want to make one important distinction. I want you to appreciate the difference between a political philosophy and a political ideology. With a political philosophy, you have a group of views and theories that help guide behaviours and actions. A political philosophy will allow itself to be open to new evidence, and a new approach when experience dictates that “business as usual” isn’t working. Also, compromise is a viable option. With a political ideology, however, there is a greater chance to hold onto those principles to an unbending degree, with less likelihood to waver from those views and theories, even when common sense, evidence, or experience suggest a different approach is better. Compromise is not so much an option. I think the world would be a better place if we all tried to hold more to political philosophies rather than political ideologies.
I can’t think of any issue where putting politics aside is more important than the environment. We don’t have to cast aside our philosophies, but we could certainly do without our ideologies. The former US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it best when he said “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.” With the climate crisis, there are so many sound bites that occur throughout the various media sources on a daily basis that it’s difficult to know what’s truth and what’s not. When it comes to knowing what course of action we need to take for something like global warming, we have to look to the facts rather than hold onto the ideologies that wail us.
The five facts I list below are undisputed and without contention. Anyone who denies these facts is simply misunderstanding the science, or choosing to ignore it. The facts are as follows:
- Carbon dioxide and methane are greenhouse gases. The size and configuration of these molecules, each containing different atoms within them—which sets them apart from oxygen and nitrogen—have a natural ability to absorb infrared radiation energy and, thus, increase in temperature when exposed to infrared radiation. These molecules don’t absorb energy from visible light so their temperature doesn’t increase from the sun’s light until it hits the Earth’s surface and bounces back in the form of infrared radiation. Nitrogen and oxygen molecules which make up 99 percent of our atmosphere don’t absorb energy so much from infrared radiation. But they do absorb energy from the nearby greenhouse gases with which they come in contact. The more of these greenhouse gas molecules there are in the atmosphere, the warmer our planet will become simply because of these scientific properties.
- Burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas), burning down forests, and agriculture all add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
- Greenhouse gas levels have been rising consistently for the last 200 years or so, but were stable in the atmosphere for thousand of years prior. As we dump nearly many millions of metric tonnes of them per year into the atmosphere, this increase should be no surprise. Since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve increased the amount of the atmosphere’s greenhouse gas concentrations by nearly 40 percent, from about 280 parts per million (ppm) to the present level of about 390 ppm, simply by doing the activities listed above in fact number 2.
- Global temperatures are increasing. Recorded temperatures since the 19th century and evidence looking back into our planet’s history even earlier have shown a sharp and unwavering increase in global temperatures that would be predicted from the greenhouse gases our activities have been adding. Other factors that affect global temperature such as changes in the sun’s energy output don’t explain this observation.
- Climate change is already happening as a result of increasing global temperatures. The increase in violent storms in both summer and winter, the increase in coastal flooding, the melting of ice at the North and South Poles as well as many of the planet’s glaciers are all, sadly, predicted when facts 1-4 are taken into consideration.
If we are to avoid extremely serious and dire consequences for our planet in the next few decades, and especially for our children and grandchildren, then we have to heed these facts, put aside our political ideologies, and make the changes that will save our planet from ourselves, and for our future.