Simple Citizen: Carbon Budgeting My Thanksgiving Weekend

After I parked the car last night, I checked the trip meter: 936km. Before leaving Vancouver last Friday for a family Thanksgiving in the Okanagan, I zeroed the meter. A couple of hikes, some salmon watching, two family dinners and a late night Monopoly “City” game later, we were back in Vancouver, all the richer for having spent quality time with family (lot’s of laughs). Our trip, like any other, did have a cost though, and I figured I should start keeping track of it.

After entering my vehicle year, make and model (a good condition, used, standard, four cyclinder, four door hatchback), told me I had put .22 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the course of our return trip. That’s 220kg, or the equivalent of 5.5% of our annual household carbon budget for the year.

What the heck is a carbon budget?

Good question, it’s dead simple, but I’m only just learning how to manage it meaningfully. Let’s start with the bottomline: In order for the world to keep global warming below two degrees celsius, scientists say that annual per capita emissions of carbon dioxide need to be two tonnes or less. To put that into perspective, and to give you a sense of the challenge, the average North American has a carbon footprint of 20 tonnes, ten times what is equitable and sustainable. One long haul flight alone will easily eat-up more than half of your personal carbon budget for the year.

Clearly, we’ve got a long ways to go.

Transportation and utilities are probably two of the easier line items to keep track of, other sources of carbon dioxide, like the products we consume (electronics, clothing etc.) and the food we eat (How was it grown or raised? How far did it travel? Does it take a lot of fossil fuel to grow feed, e.g. corn for cows?), are a bit trickier to calculate, but online carbon calculators will make a “best guess” based on your purchasing habits. The rule of thumb is to eat local as much as you can, and to eat meat sparingly. When you can avoid buying new, used is the way to go.

Kicking some carbon ass (aka living simply)

Because this is the first time we’ve kept track of our personal carbon emissions, I have no idea how we’ll measure up (quite poorly I’m guessing). Our annual household (two-person) carbon budget is 4 tonnes (2 tonnes per person). If we were to include a recent flight to Ohio we took to visit family, as well as our other trips and consumption habits earlier in the year, I’m sure we’re already deeply in the red several times over.  However, because I finally remembered to zero the trip meter, I’m going to use the Thanksgiving weekend as the end and beginning of our carbon fiscal year. It seems fitting, given that this is the time of year we make a point of giving thanks for family and the food that sustains us. There's also something about the end of the harvest and the change of the seasons that makes it especially poignant. All of these things are intimately tied to the impacts of climate change.

With those impacts firmly in mind (pick any climate change news story), we’re not going to just measure for measuring’s sake. We want to see what kind of difference we can make. In recent months, we’ve made a real effort to grow more of our own vegetables with summer and winter gardens, and we’re getting close to a plastic-free “zero-waste” lifestyle (more on that soon). We’re also buying a lot more local food, and preserving it (canning and dehydration). Local and plastic free are at the top of our list when we go shopping. All of these things will help to reduce our CO2 emissions, saving room in our carbon budget for the things we really love, like surfing in Tofino, or having Thanksgiving in the Okanagan.

At the end of our new “fiscal year,” what I imagine we’ll find is that we’re still over our per capita carbon budget, but much less than we would have been otherwise. We’ll see areas where we can improve, and we’ll also see the limits of individual effort – those places where we need to come together as citizens to build things (through politics) like better transit systems, cleaner eletricity generation (and conservation), putting a price on carbon, and regulating industrial developments like the tar sands and saying “no” to proposed pipelines.

I strongly believe in a mix of personal low carbon social innovation and government regulation for achieving the two tonne average we’ll all need in short order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. I also think the strong political call for regulation will only arrive when we all begin to think about issues in a bigger-than-self fashion. Rather than getting ahead as individuals, we’ll strive to get ahead together. Without simple (yet rich) lifestyles and a strong sense of community, I don’t see how we’ll achieve sustainability.

I’ll keep you abreast of our carbon reduction efforts throughout the 2011/2012 "fiscal year," and shortly after Thanksgiving, 2012, I’ll give you our annual report. I’d love to hear about your own efforts as well!