Chart of the Day: Carbon Footprint Reduction Chart

In honor of the new Stillwater freeway grand opening, here’s a chart for you from some periodical called “Science.” It shows the results of a new meta-study of 39 other studies on carbon impacts. Here is the chart:

The key idea here, from the Science blog:

Many commonly promoted options, such as washing clothes in cold water or swapping incandescent bulbs for light-emitting diodes, have only a moderate impact (see chart, below), the team reports today in Environmental Research Letters. But four lifestyle choices had a major impact: Become a vegetarian, forego air travel, ditch your car, and—most significantly—have fewer children.

Choice #2 seems particularly relevant to the audience, I should think. What can we do in Minnesota to make it easier for people to ditch their car?

12 thoughts on “Chart of the Day: Carbon Footprint Reduction Chart

  1. Jenny WernessJenny WModerator  

    A positive sign from millennials: we’re already buying fewer cars and using cars less. From the original article:

    “Serious behavioural change is possible; there is evidence that younger generations are willing to depart from current lifestyles in environmentally relevant ways. For instance, the United States has seen as a measurable decrease (Kuhnimhof et al 2013) or at the very least, delay in car usage and ownership for the millennial generation compared to previous generations (Garikapati et al 2016).”

    Also noted in the article: more density!!

    “Just as cultural norms promote meat consumption, structural choices such as sprawling neighbourhoods can promote individuals’ use of high carbon transport (Cervero 2002). Shifts in public policy, such as a carbon tax on food commodities (Springmann et al 2016) or encouraging compact urban growth (Hankey and Marshall 2010), can address these barriers.”

  2. Monte Castleman

    This is really interesting. Yes, I’ve made the choices to live in the suburbs, drive a non-hybrid SUV, use incandescent light bulbs, use a clothes dryer, eat lots of meat. But as I suspected the carbon impact of all that pales compared to people that make the choice to have children.

    And notice lighting is at the bottom of the list. Besides being an intrusion by big government into our lives, it’s not that effective. About 7% of US electricity is used for residential lighting, some of that is already efficient lighting, and a lack of regulation would not preclude voluntary switching by people wanting energy savings.

    1. Jenny WernessJenny WModerator  

      Yep, so true. Humans making other humans obviously leads to the biggest increases in consumption & emissions.

      It’s worth noting, though, that the “moderate impact actions” in this study (upgrade light bulbs, air-dry clothes, etc.) ARE still positive changes, and therefore still worth doing from the perspective of reducing our carbon footprints.

    2. Matt EckholmMatt Eckholm

      I know you’re mostly ax grinding here, but that small change made uniformly across a nation of 300 million isn’t insignificant.

  3. Karen E Sandness

    To encourage car-free living in the Twin Cities, create a study group composed of transportation specialists and non-drivers or wannabe non-drivers to redesign the bus routes and future train routes from the ground up so that the buses/trains run frequently enough and go to the right destinations and so that bike routes are set up parallel to most arterial streets for an increased sense of bicycle safety.

    I spent two years in Corvallis, Oregon, which is so bike friendly that the major apartment buildings have bicycle sheds and there are bicycle stands in front of all the downtown businesses.

    Like most communities, Corvallis has a highway commercial strip, but the blocks behind it on either side were designated as bike routes, and the businesses had back doors with bike racks.

  4. Julia

    I do look askance at the choice to include offspring and to calculate it as they have. It’s not considered in a directly annual way, which is, IMO, very disingenuous–it goes out generations to reach those carbon costs. I also have huge issues with the rhetoric of people-as-climate-problems since it is most often used to shame/blame poor POC while absolving white wealthy people who are the actual climate problem. Many of the bigger climate impact choices tend to decrease (I posit) with bigger families, like air travel, meat consumption, buying new, not sharing, not repairing. And conversely, I notice that few people in my networks who fly fly infrequently–flight seems to beget more flight. Showing one transatlantic flight as the indicator for the carbon cost of flight, but the averages of hang-drying clothing? Doesn’t make sense to me at all.

    I’d rather see population stuff aimed at encouraging people’s autonomy around their bodies and providing the kinds of societal support that reduce extraneous reasons for having kids that people otherwise might not want, like social pressures or concerns about aging.

    Using a carbon footprint calculator, I’m at 3.6 tons of CO2/year, most of that being heating (also what I don’t have actual info for since I don’t pay heat, so I used a rough and high estimate). If I had a kid, what are the ACTUAL carbon costs of said human? I think it’s possible to calculate it as a percent of my current footprint, with knowledge about how pregnancy/breastfeeding impact caloric needs, along with questions similar to most carbon footprint calculators: buy new for offspring vs used/hand me downs, move vs stay in same size place, etc. Certainly, having a kid would reduce my individual carbon footprint (household size of 2). Viewing the kid as an extension of my carbon footprint would still put me well under the American norm, with mainly food (some of which could be offset with diet shifts) and marginal transportation costs added.

    In 2018, I could fly once (1.6 tons) or have one kid (0.3 tons). Let’s say I don’t fly again (not typical). Let’s say the kid eats more than I do pretty quickly. I still have ten years of kid before I hit the cost of the single flight. And the entirety of the single flight’s carbon emissions are emitted NOW, when we are in climate crisis and spiralling, versus spread out over ten years. There is NOTHING I can do currently to alleviate the carbon costs of the single transatlantic flight, beyond delaying it. Yes, both have costs, but to chronically underplay the immediate and direct costs of flight is a pervasive problem from a whole sector of environmentalists (coincidentally those who are far more likely to fly frequently than to have large families).

    Additionally, their numbers don’t take into account delaying childbearing (I assume)–if my theoretical offspring doesn’t reproduce until my age, the costs the chart is assuming are further lowered.

    I feel like charts like this functionally provide emotional absolution for people without kids or with 1-2 kids to continue their wholesale participation in very carbon intensive choices by make it a “trade.” I don’t think this is super-conscious (though I hear people talk about it almost as if it is), but the end results seem the same. We’re at (beyond) a crisis point. There isn’t a safe amount of carbon (methane, nitrous oxide) that we can put into the atmosphere.

    1. Julia

      The offspring stuff also appears to assume that our offspring will be making relatively constant average wealthy nation greenhouse gasses even 20, 50, 100 years from now. But we don’t have that long (and luckily, we’re capable of rapid behavioral shifts–hello smartphones!). The chart looks at consequences decades out–though only for offspring, not the costs/benefits of delaying any immediate carbon production in order to buy us even a millisecond more time to push for our species’ survival. And it presumes (I’m guessing) a relatively constant average wealthy carbon footprint. But we know that’s not actually feasible–our current rate of carbon emissions is not going to happen, because either we collectively shift to much lower carbon outputs, or we have societal collapse that does it for us. I’d say it’d more accurate to use assumptions that presuppose a decreasing carbon footprint, whether a linear decline or with specific triggers (rapidity of shifts we need in the next few years, or certain point for assuming that all electricity is renewables, or that meat consumption is decreasing with greenhouse gas pricing, or ???) or even just going back in time (I don’t think I’ve seen any work predicting future carbon footprints).

      Additionally, making a child a fixed carbon cost is really misleading, particularly when flying IS a fixed carbon cost. I care about my carbon footprint, but there’s almost nothing I can do (besides reducing transfers and flying coach) to make my flight less impactful than anyone else on the plane, even if their everyday choices make their carbon footprint ten times higher than mine otherwise. In contrast, child-rearing in particular has a lot more room for mitigation efforts.

      Flight has little/nothing on the horizon for meaningfully decreasing its carbon costs, either in terms of carbon-mitigating/reducing technologies OR regulation (even under the Paris agreements, international flights are totally unregulated, though they’re increasing dangerously). While flight as a carbon producer is largely unregulated, changes to flight are heavily regulated (NTSB is incredibly amazing at what it does for the safety of flights, but shitty for GHG emissions). It’s a known, fixed, immediate cost with serious constraints to rapid progress being directly implicitly compared to unknown, malleable, amortized costs that lend themselves to rapid progress (see: spread of behavioral changes).

      Our lifestyles are shifting much more rapidly than flight is adapting or can improve. Some of the waste and carbon/methane/nitrous oxide sources are still increasing (like flight), but bike lanes and road diets and more walkable developments are happening around the country, renewables are increasing, there are very real movements around repairing items, reducing food waste, increasing recycling, banning plastic bags, etc.

      Putting offspring on that chart like that not only is specious, it serves as a dangerously high anchor visually. And by showing children as as fixed a cost as flight, it essentially glosses over/undermines two important considerations (IMO) in the whole making-new-humans thing, specifically:
      A) What are the ethical implications of having children during climate chaos? What are the moral responsibilities implicit in the choice to have children as our ecosystems collapse? How do parents live out these responsibilities to their offspring?
      B) For those that have children (because people will, and that doesn’t make them bad people), what are the ways that they can do so with the most minimal impact? What are the different choices and how do they potentially compare?

      I have almost exclusively heard the “OMG children are bad!” thing slung at people to blame and shame them while the slingers fly and drive and live in single family homes and eat meat and buy new couches shipped across oceans (also unregulated industry). The hypocrisy of it, combined with the race/class implications, set my teeth on edge. For me, I cannot hear calls to “stop having children” without hearing the “don’t have kids you can’t afford” racist trope that is pervasive in the U.S.

      The way it’s written is per-child, with an implication that fewer children is linearly a lower carbon cost. Without nuance (and I have not seen nuance from those producing these charts and marketing pieces), there is a very direct implication that a person who has 1 kid and flies a lot is less of a climate burden than someone with 2-3 kids. Perhaps that’s not how it’s being intended. But the U.S. at least has a long history of judging (poor) people’s family size and in my experience, this kind of chart taps into that. It definitely gets into dog-whistle category for me, at the expense of the gravity of the rest of what it illustrates.

      1. Monte Castleman

        You might “mitigate” carbon produced by your kid in the short term, but there’s no guarantee that your kids will follow the same lifestyle. After all, my family grew up driving gas sipping cars, one of which didn’t even have air conditioning, never took airline flights, kept the thermostat at 58 degrees in the winter, would air dry clothes. Once an airline flight is done it’s done but the actions of any kids you choose to have will emit carbon for generations. Maybe they decide to fly multiple times a year, but even if they take the bus and eat veggies they’ll have houses or apartments to heat; gas heat for houses isn’t probably going anywhere for many decades due to how expensive electricity is.

        Point taken though that the chart is a mess comparing all sorts of costs over different timeframes. different fixed and variable and maybe for example a lifetime of the average air travel should be included rather than one fixed flight or using a clothes dryer for life rather than for a year. But I’m sure under and reasonable standard having a kid will still have a lot more impact than shipping a couch or eating bacon.

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