I recognize that most of the impacts from climate change can only be mitigated by governments making regulation changes. Without those regulations, landfill might continue to be cheaper than recycling, single-use plastics will remain cheaper than more sustainable alternatives, and gasoline (UK: petroleum) vehicles and machinery will continue to be easier to use than alternatives. A few companies are responsible for most of the world’s carbon emissions, and Americans are by far the largest polluters per head. This article is about being green in 2022.
That all said, the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) has made it quite clear that every little helps. Each gram of carbon dioxide (or methane) released into the atmosphere makes the climate crisis worse.
So, I thought I would share with you the steps we take to be as environmentally friendly as possible. First, a little bit of background on global warming:
Why the globe is warming
Humans need energy for the modern way of living. In the 1700s energy was generated in the following ways:
- human or animal labor,
- wind power from wind mills,
- hydro power from water mills, or
- it was generated by burning trees.
In the 1800s, as the Industrial Revolution started, we started to utilize more energy-dense materials such as coal. In the 1900s and 2000s we gradually moved to burning oil and gas.
When a plant grows, it absorbs carbon dioxide from the air and splits it into carbon and oxygen (CO2 is one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms). The trees (and all plants) keep the carbon and that is what their trunks are made of. Splitting carbon and oxygen requires energy, which trees get from the sun. Combining oxygen and carbon again restores some of that energy. The oxygen is excellent for animals (including humans) who enjoy breathing it in and using it to make energy by combining it with carbon derived from our food. Between animals and plants, oxygen and carbon are combined and separated over and over again. There are other elements of the carbon cycle, but they are not important to us right now.
See this video for a great description of the carbon cycle.
Over massive periods of time, plant matter gets buried and the carbon that was incorporated into the plant’s body gets buried very deep underground. Under immense pressure and over eons of time, coal, gas, and oil are created. Because this carbon has been locked away over long periods of time, there is less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at any one time than there is in the whole of the Earth.
Ancient carbon can be released into the atmosphere naturally by volcanoes, so that carbon does eventually return to the surface, but in the meantime, more is being buried underground creating a relatively balanced cycle. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere varies over time.
By digging up coal, oil, and gas which has been buried for a very long time, humans have increased the amount of carbon that is on the surface. And as we burn it, it combines with oxygen and turns into carbon dioxide which means the atmosphere has more carbon dioxide than it has had for a very long time. Because we are burning a lot of it, the change in the amount of carbon dioxide has been the fastest we know about (including before humanity existed). The following graph shows this change:
Carbon dioxide, and other gases including methane (together called “greenhouse gases”), trap the sun’s warmth. A proportion of the sun’s energy naturally bounces back off into space, but greenhouse gases trap more of the heat, raising the Earth’s average temperature.
When my wife and I lived in an apartment, we collected compost and took it to Whole Foods whenever we were going in, or going past. Now that we have a single family home, we have compost heaps at the end of our back yard. Composting is good because it reduces how much is being carried by gasoline powered refuse trucks to landfill, but also because plant matter that goes into landfill decomposes in a low-oxygen environment. In that environment, instead of converting oxygen into carbon dioxide as happens when we breathe, the food breaks down into methane, which is a much more powerful greenhouse gas. In fact, methane is over 27 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (Source). The carbon dioxide released by decomposition in compost piles (UK: heaps) is not a contributor to climate change because it is carbon dioxide that was absorbed when the plant was grown. This carbon dioxide is a natural part of the carbon cycle (see above).
Recommendation: Compost everything you can.
Plastics are almost always made out of oil drilled from underground. The process of obtaining the oil is carbon dioxide intensive, and once it is on the surface, it does not break down, creating permanent unnatural substances throughout the planet. Recycling means that less oil needs to be drilled from deep underground, and less carbon dioxide is used in creating new plastic objects.
Supermarkets also allow you to recycle their single-use shopping bags. Along with those, you can recycle the non-tearable bags from breakfast cereal boxes and other packaging. Make sure you don’t put these kinds of plastics in your curbside collection bins because those kinds of plastics clog up municipal recycling sorting machines.
Recommendation: If you can avoid using plastics, or any object actually, that you don’t need to use, do that first, but any recyclable materials you end up collecting, recycle them.
In much of Europe, and in many developing countries, there are alternatives to driving cars. Where I live now, there is no alternative. If you can afford an electric car and if you have a place to charge it, you should get one instead of buying a new gasoline or diesel car. But if you have a petroleum vehicle, it is better to keep it than to needlessly replace it. This is because half of a car’s CO2 emissions happen during manufacture! Your car has already been made, so keeping it is the best thing you can do for the environment.
While you’re driving your petroleum-based car, don’t let the engine idle. If you stop somewhere for any period of time, turn off your engine so that you are not wasting your petroleum not moving the vehicle. Car batteries can cope with a very long time running all the car’s devices. Of course if the weather outside is severe, you may want to keep the engine going to run the air conditioning or the heater – and that’s fine – but if you are waiting for someone and the weather is comfortable, turn off the engine.
Recommendation: When it comes time to buy a new vehicle, buy an electric car. If you can avoid car ownership, ride a bicycle, walk, or use public transportation (US: public transit). All these options are cheaper, in the long-run, than car ownership.
Home heating and cooling
In our home we have mini-splits which are air conditioners that can be reversed to heat the home as well as air condition the home. Mini-splits are very efficient – more efficient than trying to extract heat from the electricity itself because of the heat sink effect (Source).
Because we are in New Hampshire, we also have an oil-fired boiler (US: furnace) that is used to heat our water and, if we use it, our radiators (US: baseboard heaters). We try to use this as little as possible because it is directly burning fossil fuels. The furnace is in great working order and is as efficient as oil-furnaces can be, so we will keep using this until we need to replace it. When it needs replacing, though, we will probably go with a solar / heat-pump / electric solution.
We would like to get solar panels installed, but at the time of writing, installation of solar panels requires an investment which will take too long to pay off. As a stop-gap measure, we get our electricity supplied entirely from wind power through a reseller. Almost all utilities allow you to get your electricity from another supplier.
Recommendations: Change your electricity provider if you can, and if you can afford the green energy option. Use as little electricity, oil, and gas as you can. Utilize government grants and discounts to get solar energy installed on your home if you can afford it. If you are buying an air conditioning system, make sure it has a heat pump (i.e. it can be reversed). Do not change your heating system just to protect the environment, but when it comes time to replace it, do not replace it with a fossil-fuel burning solution.
We never use disposable plates or cutlery to save washing up. This is a waste of the resources required to make and transport the plates, as well as increasing the amount of material going into landfill (they cannot be recycled even though they’re called “paper plates”). When we go for a picnic, if we cannot use porcelain plates, we use biodegradable ones.
We use the dishwasher to wash dishes instead of using the sink because it uses six gallons less to use a dishwasher (Source: EPA). Water must be cleaned and treated before use which releases a lot of carbon dioxide. In addition, the water that goes down the drain must be treated and cleaned before it is released into the environment, which releases a lot of methane and carbon dioxide.
We never water our lawn. In fact we are slowly replacing our lawn with edible plants because lawns contribute nothing to the world, and maintaining pretty lawns has a severe detrimental effect on the planet (Source: The Anthropocene Reviewed, John Green).
Recommendation: Be frugal with water, use a dishwasher, and do not water (or even have) a lawn.
Clothes and other cotton-based objects like towels should last for a very long time. Towels need only be washed every three days or so, and clothes similarly, unless you sweat into them. Cotton is very damaging to the environment when grown, which is why cotton-based reusable shopping bags are worse for the environment than single-use carrier bags. The average American throws out 80lb (36kg) of clothes every year which is an horrendous waste.
We treat clothes as a luxury item and only buy what we need, keep it as long as possible, and donate anything old. Buying clothes that do not cost much, or that are only being bought for fashion reasons, is highly wasteful. As with anything, buy only what you need and never waste anything.
Recommendation: Treat clothes as luxuries that you only buy when you need them.
All energy on Earth ultimately comes from the sun (except geothermal). Plants convert sunlight into energy that they use to grow (which absorbs carbon and releases oxygen). Animals eat the plants and release carbon dioxide and methane. Some animals eat those animals, and then microbes eat their bodies when they die. There is a natural cycle here.
Humans, like pigs and bears, are omnivores. We can eat meat and plant matter. Some animals (like dogs) cannot digest vegetables, and some (like squirrels) cannot eat meat. As omnivores, we can choose what we eat. The larger the animal, the more methane and CO2 goes into their creation. Because cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens eat plants, we must grow food for them to eat. This uses resources that could be used to grow food for humans to eat.
Vast tracts of land around the world are used for animal food production instead of human food production. If everyone was vegan, the world would have more food, and could return many farms to be wild places that allow the ecosystem to work as it should naturally.
We eat meat as rarely as we can and we eat sustainable sea food or chicken more often than pigs, lamb, or beef. We eat Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat Sausages (conflict of interests: I own shares in Beyond Meat: BYND) and eat free range chicken and eggs.
Recommendations: Because vegetables are cheaper than meat, there is no reason to eat meat at every meal. There are no nutritional difficulties from eating a plant-only diet, despite the myths perpetrated by some (Source: Diet for a Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappé). Eat Impossible and Beyond Meat products whenever possible (especially in things like chilli and hamburgers where the flavours are highly blended) and avoid eating beef as much as possible.
Some items need batteries. Whether that’s a trail camera, outdoor yuletide lights, torches (US: flashlights) or television remote controls, we use rechargeable batteries. In this way they are charged using wind power electricity, and they do not need to be manufactured each time they are depleted.
Pets can provide great emotional comfort to people. Each cat or dog, though, eats meat and is a very high source of carbon dioxide emissions as a result. Do not own a cat or dog if you do not really, really want one, and if you do, only have one.
There’s a lot you can do to reduce your personal impact on the environment. Along with the practical measures listed above, you can vote for environmentally aware candidates, stand for election yourself, write or call your already-elected representatives, and tell people you know about this article.
The climate is changing already, and is killing around 5 million people per year (Source: Monash University). That’s 570 people dying per hour because humanity has for too-long ignored the scientific evidence which is now overwhelming. If you vote based on abortion, or on gun control, then you are missing the largest killer of all – climate change. Ethically, voting for environmentally friendly candidates is more important than any other issue.
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