Me against the world: The trouble with travel and the climate
My personal carbon offset plan has bogged down with a serious case of the Couldas.
For those of you just joining us, I’ve been on a personal quest to nullify the carbon dioxide emissions from a trip to Texas last October. All 1,858 pounds of it. Rather than buying a dubious carbon offset for the trip, I wanted to slice enough emissions from my own lifestyle to atone for my sins against the climate.
How’s that been working out, you ask? Coulda been better.
I could have cut back to once-weekly showers, saving gallon upon gallon of water. After all, it takes gobs of energy to gather, treat, and deliver fresh water on demand. I could have gone vegan, lifting resource-intensive and methane-spewing meat products from my conscience. I could have given up my apartment and my job in favor of a life spent illegally squatting in the woods and eating raccoon gristle. All that power I’ve been sucking to keep my food cold and my computer humming? Off my balance sheet.
Perhaps it won’t shock you to learn I didn’t do any of those things. That’s why, to date, I’ve managed to offset just 789.5 pounds of that mighty 1,858-pound total. Well, that’s the official tally. I’m hoping you’ll give me some credit for a side project I’ve undertaken. More on that in a minute.
Replacing car trips with biking and walking netted some savings, as did air-drying my laundry in lieu of using the electricity-gobbling clothes dryer. One of the single biggest changes was swapping an outdated light bulb for a compact fluorescent at my desk (a move that earns me 300 pounds of CO2 over the course of a year, according to Climate Crisis).
Other savings weren’t so easy to calculate. Take my leaky bathroom faucet. My carbon quest finally spurred me to get the damn thing fixed, an undeniably good defense of potable water. But how much carbon did this repair earn me? I have no idea. Estimates for how much water a dripping faucet loses swing wildly from a freewheeling high of 7,300 gallons per year to the USGS’s straitlaced low of 104 gallons per year. (The latter calculator dryly informed me that one drip from the faucet equals about 1/15,140 of a gallon. Who knew?) If I grit my teeth and take the most conservative estimate with the most conservative pounds-per-gallon ratio (1 gallon of water equals 3 ounces of carbon), I can credit 19.5 pounds of carbon to my account.
But here’s where I’m looking at you, dear reader, to throw me a bone. Frustrated with my slow progress, I reached outside of myself and realized that, you know what? It takes a village to offset 1,858 pounds of CO2, and I’m going to get my neighbors involved in the effort, whether they like it or not. So I set out to start a compost program for my building.
The Nature Conservancy estimates that composting “most” of your individual food waste saves the equivalent of about 600 pounds of carbon dioxide per year. Composting dramatically lessens or eliminates the release of climate-choking methane that you get with anaerobic landfills.
I already feed most of my food scraps to a bin of hungry, hungry worms. (That’s a whole other can of, well, you know.) But if I could find someplace to put the rest of my scraps, and convince the residents of the other 13 apartments in my building to keep their leftovers out of the trash with me, the results would be more than enough to forgive my debt and spot me another trip to the Lone Star State besides, should the opportunity arise. Yay! Ring the bells and pop the confetti!
Well, I did it. My building now has a composting program. But is it cheating if I don’t actually deserve all the credit for this?
I did email my landlord, in a show of bold leadership, asking if our building could arrange for municipal compost pickup. I was ready to fight for it, picket our dumpster area, perhaps stage a sit-in, but none of that was necessary. “Good idea,” she replied. “I’ll take care of it.” She brought it up at the next homeowner’s meeting, and soon a plucky green compost bin appeared behind the building. Personal time invested: 30 seconds.
Here’s the thing: It’s now illegal in Seattle not to have a composting program in apartment buildings. The program almost surely would have started without me. Plus, you can lead your neighbors to the compost bin, but you can’t make them sort their avocado pits and egg shells. What if my comrades aren’t using the bin to its full potential? I may be the compost queen, but I’m no garbage inspector. No matter how I crunch the numbers, my accounting is a muddle.
So what have I learned from all this? Personal carbon offsets are tricky, and even drastic carbon-slashing methods pale in comparison to the waste we generate when we fly. Unplugging the fridge in favor of a root cellar? Duct-taping the toilet shut and digging my own composting version in the side yard? Not exactly realistic in this time and place. But even if I did get that crazy, the next time I jump on a plane, the whole exercise goes up in a puff of airplane exhaust.
I’ve chiseled away at my carbon debt for more than three months, and I’m not even half of the way to my goal. The carbon gluttony of a simple weekend getaway is astounding when you translate one round-trip flight into everyday habits. Of course, the solutions to the airline emissions issue are a lot bigger than my measly travel choices; they involve global conversations about high-speed rail and new recipes for jet fuel. But at least I now have a much more intimate understanding of what my personal carbon footprint feels like.
So I’m tossing (calm down, into the recycling bin) my CO2 tally sheet. I’m done calculating how many pounds of greenhouse gas I’ve prevented by eating the asparagus spear over the bacon-wrapped date at that last cocktail party. I’m going back to a holistic view of green living for its own sake. And you can bet I’ll think twice before booking my next airline ticket.
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