When Local Food Helps Fight Climate Change — and When It Doesn’t

by Luc Reid
This article originally appeared in the Williston (Vermont) Observer

Burlington Farmers Market

Burlington Farmers Market

We Vermonters have it made where it comes to local food. While our growing season is short, we’re long on Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) options, farms, farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and gardens.

After Hurricane Sandy, I got interested in local food as a way to help fight climate change. On average, food is the fourth biggest household contributor to climate damage (after transportation, electricity and combined home heating and hot water). Unfortunately, it turns out that “local” doesn’t always mean “low climate impact,” but a few pointers can help us know when it does.

One of the best ways to lower our food footprint is to eat more plant products and less meat. For example: according to carbon footprint expert Mike Berners-Lee, half a pound of strawberries grown nearby in season has only about 1/20 of the climate change impact of, say, a cheeseburger. Cows (as well as sheep, goats, llamas, buffalo, deer, etc.) eat grass and emit methane, a greenhouse gas more than twenty times as bad as CO2. This gives dairy products a larger footprint and puts red meat among the worst climate offenders compared to pork (not as bad), poultry and fish (better), or in-season vegetables and grains (best). Some plant-based alternatives to meat include tofu, seitan (“wheat meat”), and beans.

Local grass-fed beef, though there are very good things about it, unfortunately has about the same climate impact as anonymous beef from far-away factory farms.

The other big climate troublemaker among foods, believe it or not, is the evil twin of those local strawberries. Fruits and vegetables grown in hothouses or flown in from distant places can have a hugely inflated carbon footprint. For example, hothouse or air freight strawberries are almost twelve times as bad for the climate as local, seasonal ones. Other big offenders include out-of-season cherry tomatoes and asparagus.

Some plant foods from distant parts aren’t so bad. Bananas, for instance, are usually shipped by low-impact methods like boats, and they don’t have to be rushed or refrigerated, so their footprint is quite small.

In Vermont, we have root vegetables, apples, and preserved plant foods (like pickles, dried tomatoes, kimchi, and frozen strawberries) available throughout the winter. Additionally, Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury, which offers weekly food pickups throughout the state, grows foods like spinach and mesclun right through the winter in greenhouses that are heated with used vegetable oil instead of fossil fuels.

Of course, there’s no fresher, more local food than what comes from your own back yard. Gardening isn’t always easy, but it can be a fun and relaxing hobby at home or in a community garden, and there’s no way to beat your own fresh corn or tomatoes. Beyond the garden, other great home growing opportunities for Vermonters include blueberries, hazelnuts, and stone fruits like plums. Even if you don’t have a yard, it’s often easy to grow some greens or strawberries in containers on a porch or stoop, and beyond the great taste, eating your own produce connects you with your food in a way nothing else can.

Even food grown at home generally isn’t free of climate impact, though. Careful use of water and building materials, together with avoiding chemical fertilizers and sprays, can keep that footprint small.

Here are a few tips for shrinking your climate foodprint:

  • Include more plant foods and less meat in your diet as well as you can while still meeting nutritional needs
  • Local and regional foods usually have a smaller impact than ones from far away
  • Organic foods are usually more climate-friendly than non-organic ones
  • Poultry and some kinds of fish and shellfish have a lower footprint than pork and dairy, which in turn have a lower footprint than red meat
  • It’s estimated that in the U.S., we waste up to half of the food we produce! Buy no more than you need and use what’s in your refrigerator to keep waste down and save money.

Better Gifts for a Smaller Footprint

presents

The holidays present a whole different set of circumstances compared to daily life, so they also come with a whole different set of sustainability challenges. Top among these after  travel and food (see my previous post) is gift-giving. Recycled wrapping paper or reusable gift bags are great, but be sure the gift in that wrapping takes sustainability into account too.

Here are some tips for carbon-smart gifting:

Start early!
Early planning alone can save both carbon and money. By giving ourselves time to work out good options in advanc, we can avoid unwanted or wasteful gifts as well as rush shipping and other flailing around. In this instance (and many others, as it turns out), organizing and planning make for more affordable, more sustainable presents.

Make sure your gift will be used
In measuring the emissions of a gift in proportion to how much happiness it brings, the biggest loser is a gift that isn’t used at all. We’ve all gotten (and given) them: whether a seemingly genius idea that didn’t pan out or a gift bought at the last minute in desparation, a present that isn’t used damages the climate without helping anyone. Even a returnable present often feels bad to the recipient while creating more travel and/or shipping, which has its own footprint.

Some ways to ensure a gift isn’t a duplicate or a misfire include discussing it with someone else close to the recipient, erring on the side of conservative gift-choosing (for instance, with gift certificates), or even involving the recipient in the gift choice. I know it’s traditional (and fun) for gifts to be surprises, but both as a gift giver and a gift getter, personally I’d be much happier about a gift that’s a hit but not a surprise than a gift that’s unexpected but a flop.

The driving gotcha
Think twice about gifts that involve much driving, whether it’s you getting the gift or the recipient using it. On top of the gift itself, the extra driving creates a bigger negative impact on carbon footprint that’s easy to miss or discount. Since travel is the number one source of emissions for individuals and households, it’s entirely possible to give a gift that has a much bigger impact in terms of driving than is embodied in the gift itself.

Of course, not all driving raises a gift’s impact. For example, if you pick up a gift while driving but are combining that errand with others, the extra driving attributable to that particular gift is lessened or eliminated. Similarly, if the gift-getter is already going to do the driving your gift would entail (for instance, you buy a ski pass for someone you know already plans to go skiing), driving again stops being an issue.

Types of presents
Some categories of gifts, such as electronics, tend to have a much worse impact than others. Even some seemingly-harmless gifts, like clothing and shoes, can come with a heavy climate toll. Here are some ways to approach more sustainable gift choices:

  • Favor gifts that will be used more. An item that is seldom used, even if it’s enjoyed when it is used, is contributing much less for its cost in carbon than something that’s used regularly.
  • Favor gifts of necessities over luxuries. A gift that solves a problem is not only welcome, but also does a much better job of justifying its climate impact.
  • Steer clear of upgraded replacements. For instance, a slightly newer, slightly better smart phone as a gift wastes much of the carbon cost of manufacturing the phone that’s already in use.
  • Prize quality. With so many things so easily replaceable these days, we tend to think of quality as an indulgence. In fact, a durable, high-quality item will often pay for itself much better over time than a cheap item that will wear out and need to be replaced.

Used = more delight for the recipient, less trouble for the climate
My son is interested in animation, and for his recent birthday we bought him a high-quality graphics tablet, the kind of device animators connect to computers and draw on to create their art. There’s no way we could have afforded it if we’d tried to get him a brand-new one, and the climate impact of electronic devices in general is often terrible. Buy buying him a used unit from a reputable seller, we not only got him a much bigger gift than we otherwise could have–one he’ll have a real use for–but we also avoided buying something that had to be manufactured just for him.

Buying used goods doesn’t usually make for a zero carbon footprint, even if we disregard shipping. It’s always possible that if we hadn’t bought that graphics tablet, someone else would have who instead decided to buy a brand-new one. At the same time, it’s also possible that by buying that graphics tablet, we contributed enough to the demand for used items like that that somebody somewhere took one out of the closet and dusted it off for resale rather than letting it sit unused. On average, the impact of buying a used item will be significantly less than that of buying a new item, just not zero.

It’s true that some people may be put off by getting or giving used gifts. We certainly tend to prize the new and shiny in our culture. However, I think we can consider this more reason to give used gifts, not less. If we want to reduce waste and therefore climate change damage in our culture, we need to get used to fixing things, reusing things, and sharing things rather than insisting that everything we have be the latest, private to us, and previously untouched by human hands. Buying used has its limitations, but by encouraging reuse, we help to change both our own and the gift recipient’s ways of approaching consumer goods … for the better.

Photo by Liz Brooks

Remaking Holidays for Sustainability: Ways to Improve Any Holiday

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover, the Fourth of July, and other holidays all have a few things in common: they tend to involve travel and special meals or feasts. For many extended families, like mine, these kinds of occasions are the only times during the year we all have a chance to see each other, yet travel and food are two of the four biggest ways individuals and households contribute to global warming*. So our choices are to give up on sustainability over the holidays, to give up on the holidays, or to find ways to the holidays more sustainable, starting now. These posts are focused on that last option.

The way I propose we look at cutting any emissions is “biggest impacts first.” We often look for the easiest, most obvious ways to act more sustainably, but the truth is that there are so many low-impact things we can do, we can easily spend all our time on those and never get to the good stuff, the major savings. That’s where the Big Four offer a starting point. With those in mind, here are some tips for the making the largest possible savings in emissions at the holidays.

Rethink air travel: Flying around the country and even the rest of the plant has become relatively inexpensive and easy, but unfortunately it’s one of the worst offenders in terms of emissions. Not only do planes burn a lot of fossil fuels, they push out their exhaust at altitudes where their bad effects are at least doubled compared to what they would be on the ground. It’s not up to me to tell you or your family members not to fly, but there are ways to fly less, for instance driving together in an efficient car, taking a bus or plane or boat, or making one longer visit instead of two shorter ones. For more information on flying, see “You Want Me to Stop Doing What?”

If the trip is very important to you and you can’t find any way to make it other than air travel, you can consider making a donation to offset the climate impact. For example, Cool Earth is a non-profit organization that does excellent work preserving forests, which is one of the best possible ways to help slow climate change (even better than planting new trees). Donations to organizations that make a smaller or less direct impact would have to be proportionately larger.

The cost of offsetting a flight depends very much on how long the flight is. For a transatlantic round trip, an offset donation to an organization like Cool Earth would be only $20.90. A short round trip, for instance between Niagara Falls and New York City, would be only about $2.50. (Source: How Bad Are Bananas by Mike Berners-Lee)

Not making the trip in the first place is certainly the ideal way to go, but offsetting is a decent alternative if you are having trouble finding away around flying.

Use food well: According to FeedingAmerica.org, between 25% and 40% of all food produced in the U.S. will never be eaten. Take a moment to reflect on that with me: At least a quarter of all our food, and possibly closer to half, goes completely to waste! Meanwhile, much of this food is produced with energy-intensive methods that burn many tons of fossil fuels; methane from ruminant livestock (cows, sheep, and goats) that is more than 20 times as potent in damaging the climate than carbon dioxide; and chemical fertilizers that release Nitrous Oxide (NO2), a greenhouse gas more than 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Careful attention to what and how much food we buy and how we serve and store it can cut our personal food waste to far below the usual amount.

Time permitting, I’ll be posting further ways to transform the holidays over the coming weeks. A happy and sustainable holiday season to all!

Photo courtesy of Emily Barney

* The other two are heat/hot water and electricity.

How Supermarkets Can Make Money on Ugly Produce

Ugly produce is a big problem. Why? Because depending on whom you ask, 30-50% of all food produced is wasted, thrown away … whether it’s tossed out because it’s not pretty enough to put on display, left over on your plate at a restaurant, or rotting in your crisper, all of this food has an enormous carbon footprint–by one estimate, 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions!

Because so much produce, when picked, is not beautiful, consciously choosing ugly produce can help reduce waste–because normally, other people will avoid it. However, French supermarket chain Intermarche launched this promotional campaign to help reduce food waste of “undesirable” fruits and vegetables. Rather than throw out ugly, deformed, or damaged produce, Intermarche instead sells them with a unique twist.

Thanks to my friend and fellow Sustainable Williston member Marie-Claude for passing this on to me.

12 Ways to Reduce Carbon Footprint and Have More Cash

Christopher Jones and Daniel Kammen of U.C. Berkeley produced a very useful paper in 2011 that outlines ways for households and communities to lower their climate change impacts. A lot of good information is crammed into that report, but one of the most immediately helpful pieces is this graph:

Money and Carbon Saving Options

From Jones & Kammen (2011), “Quantifying Carbon Footprint Reduction Opportunities for U.S. Households and Communities

The height of each block in the graph shows how much money would be saved by that activity in a year, while the width shows how much it can reduce your carbon footprint. Jones and Kammen estimate the average footprint of an individual in the U.S. at about 20,000 k-coes/year (though there are different estimates from various sources based on different guidelines), or about 48,000 k-coes for a typical household.

If you can do a particular item more than the amount they use for their calculations, of course, your savings could be even bigger.

The authors have created a Web site called the CoolClimate network that offers free calculators for businesses and individuals to find ways to lower carbon footprint, along with other tools.

“Kic”: A Universal Unit for Climate Impact

scale

UPDATE: Since originally publishing this post in November of 2013, I’ve done a lot more inquiring into and asking people about terms, and I’ve eventually come to the conclusion that my original term “k-coe” can be improved on, as it’s a little too strange to write and to say. I’ve settled on the new word “kic,” to mean the same thing: Kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent. Apart from the change in the exact term, the rest of this article, explaining why the unit is important and helpful, still applies.

In my last post, I mentioned how useful I found Mike Berners-Lee’s book on carbon footprints, How Bad Are Bananas: The Carbon Footprint of Everything.

I also mentioned that there are some things about the book that I think fall short. One of those is units of measurement. Almost everybody I’ve read on the subject of carbon footprints, so far, does this same problematic thing, so I don’t blame Berners-Lee specifically, although he’s worse than most.

Here’s the thing: people use a whole bunch of different units to measure carbon footprint depending on the situation. This habit comes very reasonably from scientific tradition, in which it makes sense to have micrograms, milligrams, grams, kilograms, metric tonnes, etc. so as to keep numbers manageable. Berners-Lee, in publishing the American edition of his book, makes it worse by also converting many numbers to so-called “English” units and talking about pounds and tons of CO2 equivalent right alongside kilos and metric tonnes.

But if having these different units is common practice among scientists, grocery stores, governments, cooks, and many other relatively sensible sources, what’s the problem? In a word: impact.

The conversion to English units is the worst in this respect, because it throws two numbers at us simultaneously. For example, Berners-Lee gives these numbers for an average hotel stay: “24 kg (53 lbs.) CO2e: $100 spent on dinner, drinks, bed, and breakfast in a hotel with average eco-credentials.”

Don’t blame him for all the of details and qualifications: as described in my last post (“Measuring Carbon Footprint: Flawed, but Essential“), they’re important.

However, not counting the price of food, he throws two different numbers at us: 24 and 53. Since most of us don’t have a clue what the impact of either a pound of CO2 equivalent or a kilogram of CO2 equivalent means in terms of climate change, what sticks out are the raw numbers. By comparison, here are Berners-Lee’s numbers for a couple of other items:

  • bananas: “80 g CO2e imported from the other side of the world (or 480g per kilo/240g per pound)”
  • a hectare (2.5 acres) of deforestation: 500 tons CO2e.

With all of those units thrown at us, we may intellectually understand that we’re counting things differently in each example, but our brains are not configured to easily distinguish between differing units when we’re being presented with a list of numbers. On some level we have to fight against the intuitive idea that a hotel stay is 24 or 53 whatevers, a banana is 80 whatevers, and a hectare of deforestation is 500 whatevers.

If we want people to really understand the relative climate change impact of different choices, we need to standardize on a single unit and not try to keep numbers small by changing what we’re counting. Let’s adopt the single most widely-used and well-understood unit, kilograms of CO2 equivalent. Further, let’s call it something short and easy and distinctive so that normal people can use the term: I advocate for “kic,” pronounced like “kick.”

I know that’s a weird word, but I think a weird word is necessary. We could abbreviate to “kce” and call them “kaceys” or something, but that sounds much too cute and innocuous. It would be like calling a nuclear bomb “Mr. Kablooie.” It’s a bad idea to make life-threatening destruction sound friendly. We’ve even got a number in there, so a straightforward acronym like “KCO2E” is unpronounceable. So is “KCDE” for “kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent.” My first attempt at a compromise was “k-coe” or “kcoe,” but it’s just too unwieldy. People can say, spell, and remember “kic,” even if the spelling is odd.

One benefit of a strange (but easily-pronounced) word is that it draws attention to itself. If I say “Hey, we could save 5 kics if we take our bikes instead of driving,” the natural response is “What’s a kic?” (or “what are we kicking?”). That gives an opportunity to answer “A kic is an easy way of comparing climate change impact. It stands for ‘kilograms carbon dioxide equivalent.’ I’m trying to get mine down to 2,000 kcoes a year, but it’s a long, hard slog.”

Most normal people, on hearing this, will almost instantly forget the technical details, but the word and how it’s used may stick, and the numbers make easy reference points. Anyone can see that saving 5 kics if you’re trying to keep your impact down to, say 10 kics per day, is a smart move.

So what do the above examples look like if we use kics?

  • A hotel stay: 24 kics
  • A banana: 0.08 kics
  • A hectare of deforestation: 500,000 kics

To me, that’s much, much clearer. I instantly understand a lot more of the relative impact of these different actions than I did with the differing units.

One thing Berners-Lee does that I think is very smart is to compare a lot of things to what he calls the “ten ton(ne) lifestyle,” which is to say a lifestyle in which a person’s footprint is 10,000 kics per year. (Note that I can say “footprint” instead of “carbon footprint,” because the term “kics” already tells us that we’re talking about greenhouse gases.) Berners-Lee is much more comprehensive than many sources in carbon footprint estimation, so while that may sound high, it’s a good bit lower than what most of us in the developed world are actually doing. Regardless of whether we choose that target or a much more ambitious one, like 2,000 kics per year per person, using kics for both the target and the impact of each choice becomes very useful. We can compare apples and oranges and bananas and cheeseburgers and make informed decisions. We can look at how we’re doing in comparison to a goal and figure out what scale of change is necessary to meet it.

All of this becomes hopelessly complicated with multiple units for everything. Let’s stop making a confusing subject even harder to understand.

I know that something as picky as how we talk about climate change numbers seems trivial, but I think it’s the difference between the subject being permanently vague and confusing and it being crystal clear. I believe that clarity and understanding are desperately needed if we want to see any widespread improvement in how people think about climate change.

If you agree, please spread the word about this term. You don’t have to link to this site or give me credit for the idea or spell it the same way: for all I care, attribute it to Tom Hank: that might even be better for popularizing it. Let’s just agree to line up our numbers and talk in a language everyone can understand.

Photo by sidelife

You want me to stop doing WHAT?

Flying. I’d like it if you stopped using airplanes. I’m not saying you have to or that I’m going to make you or that you should: I’m just hoping you’ll think about it.

downed airplane

The number of things we could be doing every day to reduce our carbon footprint and fight climate change disaster is unmanageable, overwhelming. Reducing paper and plastic use, recycling, reusing, repurposing, gardening, public transit, local foods, avoiding processed foods, solar and wind power …  I don’t know if you have time to tackle it all at once, but there’s no way I can manage. I have to change at most a few things at a time–which is why it’s essential for me to to figure out the things I can do that will make the greatest impact and do those first.

Number one on my list? Not flying.

For millions upon millions of years, not flying for humans has been a no-brainer. Then the airplane comes along and suddenly we’re Jonathan freakin’ Seagull.

I totally get the wonder of flight. I don’t mean the feeling of it, which for humans generally means getting a little queasy, trying not to spill the little airplane meal, and looking out a small window at a weirdly disconnect landscape; I mean the possibilities. Years ago I flew to Japan, and while I visited, there wasn’t a day I didn’t look around me to see and feel that holy crap, I was in Japan, and my two shoestring trips to Europe after I got out of college felt even more life-changing to me. On the other hand, as wonderful as those trips were, did I really need to go to Japan or Belgium or Hungary? No, not really. It was fun and fascinating, but there are other fun and fascinating things to do in the world.

Travel to foreign countries used to be one of my favorite things. Now that I see the real cost of it–which is not counted in dollars but in disasters–the shine has worn off.

I understand there are a lot of people who travel for business. The first thing I would suggest is that this often isn’t strictly necessary, just convenient and even, from a cost standpoint, reasonable. The second thing I’d suggest is that if you’re in a business that really does require a lot of air travel, you could make a disproportionately huge, positive impact on climate change by finding a way to cut way back, or to stop it. The third thing I’d suggest is that if your job really requires air travel and you don’t have the means to change it, it may be worth considering another job if you want to fight climate change.

Easy for me to say, though. Except for vacations and writing-related events, I generally have no reason to fly. Yet it being easy for me to say this doesn’t take away any of its importance. I’m sure I’d be more convincing on the subject if I were a former world-traveling business prodigy who had stopped flying instead of some schmuck who started taking regional vacations, but I’m doing my best.

Just how bad is air travel? Of course it depends on the specifics, but two or three round trip transatlantic flights can do as much damage to the climate as everything else an average American might do during the course of a year put together. All of the heating fuel, the driving, the fertilizers and fuel to bring you food, the cow methane, the household waste, and everything else: it’s doubled by a few flights.

As far as alternatives are concerned, the best and easiest is often to stay put or go to some alternative destination close by. Trains, boats, and buses are good bets, each having a much smaller carbon footprint than airplanes. Even cars are a lot better than planes, with hybrid, plug-in electric, and highly fuel-efficient cars of course being the preferred way to go. A trip by car can come close to emitting the same amount of greenhouse gases as a flight of the same distance, depending on the circumstances, but airplane emissions occur high in the atmosphere, where they have several times the impact they would have on the ground.

No one is going to stop you from flying. Few people even care at this point, but I hope you’ll be one of them, if you aren’t already. If fighting climate change is important to you, there’s not a single thing I can recommend that can reduce your footprint so easily and so profoundly.

Photo by The_ Incredible_ Mr.E