Year 2, Ep. 1: Back on the Scales

Episodes / Wednesday, January 15th, 2020

It’s a new year and I’ve been reducing my personal climate emissions with this climate diet for 10 months now. So today I step back on the scales and see how my carbon footprint has changed. I find that I’ve lost nearly 2 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent since starting this podcast. Take a listen to hear how I did it.

Where I started

If you’re just joining me, you may want to go back and listen to the first episode of the podcast, “The Weigh-In,” for all the details of my carbon footprint. But if you’re like me, even if you listened to that episode, you’ve likely forgotten most of the details. So here are the cliff’s notes: I started my journey by weighing in using three carbon calculators. I found that my annual carbon footprint was about 4 tons. This is a great place to start, as the average German emits about 12 tons of greenhouse gases per year, and the average American about 20 tons.

Still, if we want to avoid the worst effects of climate change, we have to get down to a species average of 2.8 tons per person per year by 2030. That’s the maximum each of us can emit, whether you live in Bangladesh or Berlin. I started off with a low footprint, but not that low.

What I did

Weighing in

I weighed myself in again with two of the calculators I used last year, to mixed results. The Global Footprint Calculator actually said my carbon footprint was higher—2.7 tons vs. 2.3 last time I took it. But my Global Overshoot Day was December 7, which makes me happy. According to Nature Conservancy’s calculator, my household footprint went down from 13 to 10 tons, or my personal footprint 3.3 tons. I don’t like either of these tools as much as the KliB calculator, which is based in Germany and also includes a figure based on my share of government emissions. But that calculator has been taken down. Another reason Germany’s project-based research gets me down.

But I think the lesson here is that I’ve exceeded the usefulness of these calculators. They’re nice to get a ballpark figure, especially for someone stepping on the carbon scale for the first time. But they don’t include every aspect of our footprints. I could only input the changes I made to my diet, for example, and if I’d been tracking my emissions weekly, I would have gotten dinged for the bus rides to protests. So it may be time to develop a better tool to measure my personal carbon footprint. I accept the challenge, and will get back to you.

But the bigger thing this means is that I’m working without a scale. So I’m going to recalculate my footprint by hand. Starting roughly where I was, let’s say I emitted about 4 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2018. So now I’m going to add and subtract carbon from that, based on changes that I made last year.

Electricity and heat: Here we used a bit more electricity than the previous year, like maybe 100 kwh more. At the same time, I worked from home, which may make this even out. In addition, I buy my electricity from Greenpeace Energy, so my footprint there is negligible.

Transportation: I worked fewer days per week outside the home last year, which meant fewer public transportation trips. I don’t own a car, and I used my bicycle a bit more than in 2018. I also didn’t fly, and the four long-distance trips I made were all by train. I have a German BahnCard, which supposedly means my train travel is carbon neutral. I’ll take their word for it, but I should look into this when I get a chance. I probably saved a bit here, but it’s hard to say.

That homemade deodorant: This seemed like a small change, but it’s ballooned into something with a meaningful impact. First, my husband and I have both been using our homemade deodorant for over a year now, meaning we have saved the packaging and transportation costs of commercial deodorants. That’s the small change, which I calculate to about 1 kilograms More importantly, our homemade deodorant works so well that I can wear my shirts two or even three times now, and often go an extra day without showering, another 10 kilograms. Yes, that’s how stinky my pits were before. So although the climate impact is relatively small, the full impact is ten times greater than the savings from the deodorant alone.

Diet: I tried to eat more local produce, and cook more plant-based meals in general. I also went vegan in September. These dietary changes also bled into those around me. Since I cook and eat vegan, my husband and son get several vegan meals a week, reducing their footprints as well. And I’ve shared vegan quiche, brownies, and cookies whenever I make too much. That all adds up to meaningful savings, I would say at least 300 kg.

Bank account: I still haven’t closed my old bank account, so I haven’t reaped the savings I projected out over the summer. Since I still have a bunch of money in my old account, I think I saved about half a ton of carbon dioxide. Moving forward, I plan to close my old account this month and look into green mutual funds in the United States this year as well. As I discovered over the summer, banking is an area where habitual savers like me can make a huge difference without major changes to your daily life. To put it in perspective, I reduced my footprint more by changing my bank account than by being vegan for the past four months.

The de-junking operation: I calculated the impacts of this to be about 1 ton of carbon savings. Most of this should officially go to my husband, who organized the junk and gave away or sold much of it. But I helped where I could, particularly with the yard sale, so I’m going to count it towards my carbon footprint. More on this in a minute.

Now to the stuff that’s really impossible to nail down. I went to a bunch of demonstrations, hitting Fridays For Future, the Global Climate Strike, and Extinction Rebellion’s Rebellion Week. I took my students to some of these events as well. On the face of it, this means more subway and bus trips. But protesting is an important part of our climate handprint, a necessary complement to the carbon footprint. I can’t really put a number to any sense of carbon savings, but it’s still important that I went. When we get meaningful government action, maybe then we can divide it by the number of people who had to take to the streets.

Also important and hard to calculate is that I learned a lot about what’s happening to the climate, and the climate impacts of different things. Now, I’ve worked in the field of climate policy and sustainability for 10 years now. But going on a climate diet, and doing this podcast, got me reading stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise, which built up my baseline understanding of what climate actions matter. I would consider myself pretty knowledgeable before I started the podcast, but I was still surprised at how relatively unimportant local produce is, for example. I’m human, and I only have a limited capacity to change how I get through my day. So it helped a lot to learn what things make the biggest impact. Because I had felt a lot of guilt eating things like avocados and bananas. Now I know where I can fudge things a bit, and where it’s worth it to me to hold the line. This takes me back to the excellent book, “How Bad are Bananas?” It’s all about scale, so once I knew where different things fall on that scale, it was easier to be more effective with my actions.

Finally, I talked a lot more about climate change and climate action. And this is another big change for me, even as someone who gets paid to talk about this stuff in my work life. Since going on this climate diet, I’ve be more able to talk about climate action, and to do so in I think a more effective way. One of the problems I’ve always had is the idea that climate action is my thing, not something that everyone can and should care about. Thinking about climate action through personal change has made it more tangible, and made it easier to fit little factoids into my daily conversation. I’ve gotten some great e-mails from listeners about changes they’ve made after listening to the podcast. And my friends have started asking me more about what they can do, and I’ve felt a growing seriousness about the need to act. Finally, since I’ve moved from talking generally about what needs to happen to actually making changes in my life, it’s built momentum among those around me to do something as well. Just yesterday, my husband came home with a climate-related challenge for us. Once I got the ball rolling, I’ve begun to see others feel the need to act as well. Yes, business, governments, the fossil fuel industry, your bogeyman of choice needs to do something. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us can just sit back and wait. Anyway, I would guess that this podcast has caused at least several tons of carbon savings. Which raises the question of how to count them. Can I take partial credit and take that carbon off my balance sheet? If I did, then those of you who actually stopped flying or changed your bank account wouldn’t have it. So it doesn’t seem fair. But it does seem like a topic for a future episode: how to count secondary emissions. But I can say that having these conversations has helped keep my motivation up, and has no doubt contributed to the savings I saw in other areas.

Now, let’s add it all up. Between the different things I did last year, I think I saved at least 1.8 tons of carbon dioxide. That would take my footprint down to a measly 2 tons last year, which is amazing. It’s also below what we need to get to by 2030. And I had a pretty great year last year. So I want to say, going on a climate diet doesn’t have to mean giving up things you love and suffering for the planet. Everything that I did, and everywhere that I saved, brought me joy or at least didn’t hurt.

Moving forward

This year on the podcast, I want to go carbon neutral. If humanity has ten years to get down to 2.8 tons per person, it just won’t cut it for the most sensitized of us to be at 2 tons. It’s also time to act, and to show those around us that it’s possible, it’s easy, and it’s normal. I think that’s the biggest impact I’ve felt since going on a climate diet, the knowledge that I’ve gained about what it really means to have a small footprint.

Now, going carbon neutral this year is going to be hard, because I have a major home renovation project coming up, and my family is planning to fly to the United States. So beyond finding more ways to cut my emissions, I’m going to look into ways to offset what I can’t cut. And figure out the question of secondary emissions.

Finally, as if that weren’t ambitious enough, I want to look into the more systemic changes that need to happen to avoid the worst effects of climate change. In particular, I want to spend time looking into one vision for the future: degrowth. If you haven’t heard about this, it’s a philosophy that says we need to move away from using economic growth to measure happiness and prosperity. While many degrowth thinkers focus on explaining why a society chasing economic growth cannot avoid climate change, others are working on positive visions of new societies that work on a different paradigm. What does a degrowth society look like? What about a personal lifestyle that follows degrowth principles? I have some ideas here, as well as several books I can’t wait to read and some fascinating people I’ve been itching to talk to.

And to show that I’m taking this seriously, I’m going to degrow this podcast. Yep, much as I love talking about this stuff, I’ve found that putting out an episode every week makes it difficult to do the research and outreach that are just important as making the episodes themselves. So I’m going to play around a bit to see if I can manage making an episode every two weeks, or if I have to go down to once a month. I’ll still be spending as much time with My Climate Diet, it’ll just be more behind the scenes.

I hope you’ll stick around as I continue my journey. And I hope you get in touch! I love hearing from listeners, whether it’s things you’ve learned, tips or topics you have for me, or just a kind (or critical) word. Drop me a line at lisa [a] Or follow me on Twitter, @lisapettibone.

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