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

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.

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[note]”ppmv” means “parts per million by volume.” Most writers miss off the “v,” but it is important to understand this subtlety when making calculations. The alternative would be “parts per million by mass,” which would be 44/29 higher than ppmv, scaling by the mass ratio of a CO2 molecule to an average air molecule.[/note] Before 1750; 410 ppmv and rising sharply in August 2019). If you are Canadian, know that your annual personal total is 23 tonnes CO2e per year[note]”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[/note], 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.
  • Be very skeptical of clever hopes[note]If you don’t get the reference, see  here (first stanza).[/note]: Carbon capture, ocean seeding, cloud making, etc. These technologies are variously untested, expensive, dangerous or useless on any scale that would make any difference.
  • Don’t blame others.
  • Don’t yield to lazy fatalism[note]See last two stanzas in the link above.[/note].
  • 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.
  • Don’t award yourself a “Get Out of Jail Free” card[note]For example “I’m not going to change my way of life because X isn’t doing anything about the climate”, where X is variously Donald Trump, the Pope, women in the developing world who still have lots of babies etc. etc.[/note].
  • 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 merely 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, which waste heat, water, negate the environmental advantages of cycling, and are bad for the skin.

Greenwash. Author photograph.



Updated 2019-09-12