What do I (we) do about my (our) carbon footprint?

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A very frequent question asked by students after learning about climate change is "But what can I (we) do about it?". Here are some ideas, all of which have benefits in addition to reducing greenhouse gases, and so are worth considering even if you reject the idea of anthropogenic global warming completely.

Big Ideas: 
  • Every little bit helps, but big bits help a lot more.

 Things we all should do:

  • Vote.
  • Educate yourself on what impact all of your activities have on the environment.
  • Get numerical. Know basic facts, like the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere (280 ppmv before 1750; 392 ppmv and rising sharply in 2011). If you are Canadian, know that your annual personal total is 23 tonnes CO2e per year*, almost the highest for citizens of any large developed nation in the world.
  • Educate yourself on what's going on in the world. Know what's going on in countries other than the United States (this comment is directed at Canadian students).
  • Educate those around you. You are science students; you should know more about energy and climate than other people do.
  • Be very skeptical of: greenwash, sustainababble, carbon offsets, claims of carbon neutrality.
  • Don't blame others. 
  • Don't yield to lazy fatalism.
  • Realize that the people doing the most damage (i.e. citizens of the developed world) will probably be the last ones to suffer the consequences. Overconsumption is an ethical issue.
  • Get smart: think of ways to have fun that don't involve (a) burning fossil fuels and (b) buying gobs of "stuff".
  • Ditto for earning a living (at lot harder). 
  • Recognize that if you live in the developed world you will never on your own be able to reduce your footprint to the level of global sustainability (one or two tonnes CO2 per person per year) simply because of the environment in which you live. However, any reduction in carbon burnt now means less mess to clean up later.
  • Most of your footprint is outside your individual control. This is why you should involve yourself with the wider community. Voting is the first and easiest significant step.

What you can do to shave at least a tonne of CO2 per year off your (or your family's) carbon footprint:

  • Eat way less meat. The production of each 30-50 kg of beef (i.e. 1/4 lb per day for a year) results in the release of a tonne of CO2e; this is 5-10 times as much as for vegetables, per food calorie.
  • (Re)arrange your life to travel less: $400 spent on gasoline, or $1000 spent on an economy airfare or a cruise, represents about a tonne of CO2 released. For daily travel, ride a bicycle, and/or use public transport. Travel electronically rather than actually.
  • Turn your thermostat down a degree or two; put on a sweater. Turn the heat off when you leave. 

Smaller impacts:

  • Try not to buy stuff that will quickly end up in the recycling box.
  • Try even harder not to buy stuff that will quickly end up in the landfill. 
  • Take less (and shorter) showers.


Its OK to burn this. Its green and natural.

* "CO2e" means "carbon dioxide equivalent", the amount of carbon dioxide that would produce the same amount of climate forcing as whatever mix of greenhouse gases are being discussed.






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