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.

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.

The Hidden Climate Benefits of eBooks

Paper books vs eBooks

I’m reading a book by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) called Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living, and by and large I recommend it. They start with the biggest impacts and work their way down to less important ones, offering a lot of sound advice on the way.

However, there are some errors and oversights in the book, and one of these underscores how eBooks can be much more climate-friendly than paper books. It’s important to stop here and mention that book-buying accounts for only a tiny proportion of our individual carbon footprints, but enough people changing their book-buying habits can have a significant impact.

Here’s what UCS has to say about eReaders versus paper books:

When analysts crunch the numbers, they estimate that the emissions caused in manufacturing an electronic reader are about the same as those caused in manufacturing 20 to 40 books … What the debate obscures, however, is that a standard paperback book is responsible for around five and one-half pounds of carbon emissions in its manufacture and transport to your local bookstore. But we are each responsible for more carbon emissions than that when we drive six miles round-trip alone in a typical car to the bookstore [emphasis theirs]. The point is this: don’t waste time worrying about the carbon footprint of the way you read.

OK, raise your hand as soon as you see their mistake. Yes, you got it: buying an eBook doesn’t require any travel. Of course, you can also order your paper books to be delivered to your door, and in most cases that’s likely to save emissions compared to you driving a car to the bookstore, but there’s still a noticeable impact for the transportation of the book from the store to your door–not to mention from the pulp source to the paper mill, the paper mill to the printer, the printer to the publisher, the publisher to the distributor, the distributor to the retail hub, and the retail hub to the retail store. Additionally, any book that ends up in a landfill is all set to add yet more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere as it decomposes, probably anaerobically (without access to air) and therefore producing methane, a greenhouse gas 20-25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

I may be objecting too much about too small a thing, but I’ve seen enough poorly-reasoned claims that eBooks are worse for the climate than paper books that it seemed worth taking up.

Of course, using an eReader or tablet requires electricity, but the amounts are quite small and aren’t likely to have nearly the impact of the manufacturing or transport. If I wanted to be snarky, I could also point that reading a paper book often requires electricity too, but since it’s possible to read by sunlight, and since people usually don’t read eBooks in dark rooms, I’m going to try to leave that one alone.

One more point that was missed about eBooks: often people read them on devices they purchased for other purposes. If you would have a smartphone or tablet regardless of whether you read eBooks on it, then it’s really inaccurate to count the emissions from manufacturing that device as being due to the eBooks that are incidentally being read on it. If you are buying a new tablet or eReader, though, please consider a used model rather than the latest, greatest thing. A tablet that’s saved from gathering dust or being dumped into the landfill and that thereby prevents a new one being manufactured reduces your carbon footprint by (depending on the tablet) around 130 k-coes, according to this article. Since a sustainable individual footprint is only about 2,000 k-coes per year (compared to the average American footprint of 28,000 k-coes!), that 130 really counts.

So it’s true that if you only read a few books a year and you purchase a brand new tablet or eReader primarily to replace paper books, you are probably pissing Mother Nature off. If you’re a heavy reader and/or already have a tablet or smartphone (or buy one used), however, the advantage is strongly on the side of eBooks.

To be responsible about this post, I need to bring it back in the end to the very solid point UCS brings up in their book (which I bought as an eBook and read on my 5-year-old Kindle Keyboard, by the way). The most important climate change choices and actions have to do with the biggest areas of emissions: travel, home heating and cooling, electricity, and food (in that order). In the grand scheme of things, books–e or otherwise–make only a small difference. Now that you know, though, why not make that difference in the right direction?

“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

Measuring Carbon Footprint: Flawed, but Essential

footprints

I recently read Mike Berners-Lee’s excellent book How Bad Are Bananas: The Carbon Footprint of Everythingwhich uses detailed research and painstaking calculations to give realistic ideas of the carbon* footprint of many of the things we do in daily life. What’s the difference between buying asparagus and frozen peas? How does train travel compare to car travel? What’s the impact of a traffic jam? Berners-Lee answers these questions and many others.

One catch is that neither Berners-Lee nor anyone else can give exact numbers for any of these things. For example, the carbon footprint of eating a banana differs a whole lot depending on whether you’re buying it practically off the boat in Miami or from a grocery store in Topeka, Kansas because of the transportation element. The impact of driving a car depends not only on the kind of car, but also on its age, how long you plan to keep it, how well it’s maintained, how often you drive it, and many other factors.

Some of these complications are minor and can be ignored, but others are major. For example, you’d think that between clothing made from natural fibers and clothing made from polyester or other petroleum-based products, the natural fiber clothing would always be greener–but what about laundry? It turns out that washing and drying clothing can be a much bigger factor than the manufacture of the clothing in the first place, and a pair of jeans requires much more energy from a dryer (if you use one) than a pair of synthetic fabric pants.

An even worse complicating factor is that different sources disagree hugely on what the footprint of a particular item or activity really is, and most of these sources greatly underestimate the footprint. For instance, you may have heard statements about the carbon footprint of different vehicles, but in many cases those statements only cover the fuel consumption of the vehicle, and even then don’t take into account the infrastructure and supply chain necessary to deliver the fuel, but rather just what’s coming out of the tailpipe. Berners-Lee makes a special effort to be complete in this regard, but even he readily admits he is likely to be missing some factors in at least some cases.

This doesn’t mean that we have to nail down every last gram of impact and get some kind of complicated analysis of every little thing we do. It also doesn’t mean that because the answers can’t be exact most of the time, we should give up on counting carbon. It just suggests that the most useful approach is to understand carbon footprint numbers as guidelines and to make the best decisions we can based on those guidelines.

For example, it’s next to impossible to quantify exactly what the footprint of manufacturing and transporting a solar array is, or to know the potential footprint of the electricity the array replaces (though it’s often safe to assume it’s from coal, for reasons explained in the book). At the same time, it’s easy to see from even rough calculations that regardless of where these numbers land exactly, installing an effective solar array makes for a huge reduction in carbon footprint.

Annoyingly (to me, anyway), Berners-Lee is not much of a booster of solar power for reasons essentially unrelated to its carbon impact, and I think his analysis on that point is off-target. This is one of my many minor peeves about the book, yet on the whole it’s extremely useful. I hope to cover more of both its good and bad points in future posts. In the mean time, if you’re at all interested in understanding your personal impact on the climate–and everybody else’s, for that matter–may I suggest you buy the book?

*Like Berners-Lee and many other people who discuss the subject, I use the term “carbon footprint” as shorthand for “carbon dioxide equivalent,” which is to say the impact of all greenhouse gases, all of which can be calculated as being equivalent to a certain amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. While there are a variety of greenhouse gases, CO2 is the most abundant, though it’s not as damaging gram for gram as most of the others. Anyway, it’s unnecessarily complicated in most situations to talk about “carbon dioxide footprint, nitrous oxide footprint, methane footprint, and refrigerant footprint” and then to have to do a bunch of extra math from there when we can just use conversion factors and talk about “carbon dioxide equivalent.”

Photo by liknes