Where the Carbon Comes From: Getting a Clue

I’m only at the very beginning of a process of understanding how we’re individually contributing to the climate change problem, but in the past week or so, I’ve come across some useful information, and I thought I’d share some of it here.

Note to self: avoid airplanes
One of the miracles of the modern world is being able to step onto a plane and step off later that same day halfway around the world. It’s an amazing thing to be able to do. It’s also, as it turns out, a huge climate pig (no offense intended to pigs). According to this, Americans are individually responsible for, on average, about 20 tons (TONS!) of CO2 being spewed into the atmosphere every year. That’s bad enough, but according to the same page, one round trip transatlantic flight adds another 3-4 tons to the total. Just one trip! In around 16 hours of travel, we can do as much damage as we do with all the purchasing, plugging in, turning on, heating, driving, eating, wasting, etc. that we do for two entire months. For me, that’s way over the line: I intend to avoid air travel as much as possible unless and until fuel consumption for airplanes changes radically.

What’s the breakdown?
Fellow Codexian and writer Laurel Amberdine posted this chart, “Total U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Economic Sector in 2010,” which I found well worth contemplating.


Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about how emissions are broken down to draw conclusions about how we as individuals figure in. For instance, if I buy a set of placemats and have them shipped to me from Idaho, is the impact of the shipping figured under “Industry” or “Transportation”? Is electricity used by a light manufacturing site under “Electricity” or “Industry” … or even “Commercial & Residential”? Where do emissions having to do with building go? It’s clear to me that I need to learn a lot more about all of this.

I was dismayed to read that one British supermarket chain that had committed to carbon impact labeling for all of its products has given up the job as too difficult and time-consuming. I think carbon labeling is a desperately needed step, if it’s accurate.

A split within the climate change community
I also came to realize that there’s a quiet but problematic divide among people committed to fighting climate change. On one side are the people who think that we can go on living more or less as we currently do, consuming an enormous amount of energy and resources–but that we need to simply change over to more sustainable energy generation methods.

The other side, where I stand, is populated by those who believe that in order to make a real difference in the climate change problem, we need to radically scale back our lifestyles–to stop buying tons of cheap goods manufactured overseas, stop insisting on eating foods that are out of season a thousand or more miles from where they’re grown, stop jetting around the globe, and stop driving everywhere (among other changes).

Coal is worst, natural gas is temporarily acceptable [NOT!]
I hadn’t realized that there’s a big difference in emissions from different fossil fuel sources.  Coal, apparently, is the absolute worst–and it’s plentiful in many developing or partly-developed places around the world, where the need for energy and wealth of any kind is most acute. [Later note: A metastudy done after I originally published this article reveals that natural gas is just about as bad as coal as soon as we take into account the side effects of harvesting it, especially of fracking. Fracking can release methane, which is 20-25 times as potent as carbon dioxide in causing climate change. On the whole, gas might be a little better or a little worse than coal, but the best estimate puts it right about on par. Be wary of propaganda claiming otherwise! It is most likely based on an incomplete footprint assessment–a “toeprint,” as the term goes.]

I’ve also come across several reliable sources of climate change information now that recommend we adopt natural gas more widely for a short period as a transitional fuel until we can get to all-renewable or nearly-all-renewable sources.

All grist for the mill–although I guess we had better make that a water mill. Wish me luck getting a better handle on this. I wish the same to you.