How to shrink your carbon footprint without changing a light bulb

If you’re too picky about your lighting to switch out your incandescent light bulbs, too cheap to buy a Prius, or too selfish to give up red meat, you still have a lot of less-demanding options for shrinking your personal carbon footprint–you may even be doing some of these things already and not know it! Step one: live or move to an area where the weather year-round is as close as possible to perfect for your personal comfort, so that you minimize your need for air conditioning (accounting for roughly 16 percent of electricity use in the average U.S. household) or heating (10 percent of electricity, plus natural gas and other fuels). Anywhere along the Pacific coast is a good choice, with optimal locations in central and southern California. Step two: eat out or get food delivered. You can retire your oven, range, microwave, and dishwasher. You may even be able to turn your refrigerator down a few notches–if you don’t unplug it entirely (a savings of 14 percent of electricity use in the average U.S. household). If you stop washing dishes altogether and just use disposable dishes, cups, and flatware, you’ll reduce the substantial amount of electricity and natural gas used to heat water. Step three: do your laundry at a laundromat or dry cleaners’. You might be able to shave almost another 10 percent off of your energy tab without an in-house clothes drier and washer. Step four: join a gym. This might be more of a commitment than some are interested in making, but you don’t have to actually work out at the gym in order to appreciate the personal carbon savings–instead, you’ll want to take advantage of the shower facilities. Combined with the above steps, not showering at home will eliminate water heating needs within your home, which in California accounts for a full third of direct natural gas consumption. Of course, except for moving to a nicer climate, none of the above could be expected to reduce actual overall greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, these measures are just accounting tricks to move emissions from within your home to the commercial sector. Shifts like these are common in urban areas, among renters (as opposed to home-owners), and in smaller household sizes. At a larger scale, a shift of this sort occurs in economies like California’s and the United States as a whole, as part of the move toward an increasingly service-based economy. The problem is, it is the global greenhouse gas emission total that matters in an environmental context, yet policy and news cycles are driven by incomplete accounting or statistical artifacts produced at the local and regional levels. A case in point is yesterday’s Brookings Institution publication, Shrinking the Carbon Footprint of Metropolitan America, which produced the Associated Press lede, “While cities are hot spots for global warming, people living in them turn out to be greener than their country cousins.” The actual Brookings research does not justify that conclusion. Their analysis only looks at emissions from residential energy use as derived from utility sales and state-level data from the EIA and highway transportation emissions derived from federal VMT data from the Highway Performance Monitoring System for personal and freight transport. Because the transportation emissions are estimated based on VMT, they don’t account for wasted fuel due to idling or low speed travel in congested conditions or other fuel- and vehicle-efficiency factors. By the authors’ own admission:

Major omissions are the carbon emissions from commercial buildings, industry, and other modes of transportation such as planes, transit, and trains (p. 14).

In reality, transit belches its share of greenhouse gases. In this scenario, an individual who takes transit disappears from the calculation entirely.

Of particular concern with respect to the estimates presented here is the lack of data on local area, within-community, auto and truck VMT as it moves over low-capacity local roads…. Travel in areas with more extensive use of local roads rather than highways will be undercounted (p. 64).

And so on. Further, as challenging as it is to obtain accurate energy use data at the metropolitan scale, reliable methodology for estimating a baseline comparison of energy use by “country cousins” is even less clear. The Brookings publication simply uses a national average for comparison to their 100 top metro areas. So, while their data might have some limited application for comparison between the metro areas profiled, it is nearly meaningless for comparison to suburban or rural areas outside that dataset. It is too bad really, because on a personal level I’d be happy for more places to emulate the cities with Brookings’ first- and second-ranked metropolitan carbon footprints, Honolulu and Los Angeles. (Let’s see…what could we do to make more Waikiki Beaches in the world?)