By Mitchell Beer, publisher of The Energy Mix
It’s a baked-in reality of the way we live our lives, build our homes, and set up our communities: Just about everything we do produces carbon emissions that are warming the atmosphere and causing climate change.
The energy we use, the transportation choices we make, the food we eat, the jobs we do, and the vacations we choose — everything has an impact.
But there’s a powerful silver lining in the wide reach of your personal carbon footprint. It means that the right, small change to almost anything you do will make a difference, as people across the GTHA and around the world come to grips with the climate crisis.
Those small changes add up to something worth doing. And so often, they help us get other things that we already know we want—like cleaner air, healthier and tastier food, or more time in our day that isn’t spent in bumper-to-bumper traffic congestion.
Personal action alone won’t be enough to get climate change under control. But something else happens when we decide to tackle our personal and household carbon footprint. For many of us, once we’ve made that commitment, we expect our institutions—the governments we elect, the businesses we deal with—to follow our lead. Down that road lie a collection of carbon-cutting measures that are too big to get done on our own, but that we can still address together as friends, family, neighbours, and citizens, pooling our efforts to make our community a better place.
Start at the Beginning
Several years ago, a carbon consultancy in England published How Bad Are Bananas, a book whose subtitle said it was about “the carbon footprint of everything”. You knew at a glance that it wasn’t—it was a paperback, not an encyclopedia. But it carried three big takeaways:
- Everything has a carbon footprint. So there’s no single, silver bullet to bring our emissions to zero, but every change you make matters
- The biggest impacts might not be where we think we’ll find them
- We should all do what we can to reduce our footprint, without expecting to hit zero carbon overnight
The story begins with bananas because the authors concluded that a cylindrical yellow fruit from the tropics was the perfect food from a carbon standpoint. If it was transported by carbon-intensive air freight, all bets were off. But as long as it travelled by ship, the big bonus was that it came in its own compostable, protective packaging. Unless a banana at your corner store is inexplicably covered in single-use plastic wrap, its carbon footprint is surprisingly low.
Then the carbon consultants turned their attention to the hot drinks they consumed in their office each day. They realized the methane released by belching cows gave the milk in their tea a bigger footprint than the tea itself.
Do What You Can: The Top 10 Tips
But even if none of us can do it all, everyone can do something. Here’s a menu of Top 10 steps to consider:
- Turn your thermostat down by one degree in winter, up by one degree in summer. If your living space is still comfortable, try for two degrees. You’ll reduce your emissions and see a saving on your energy bill
- Look for ways to drive less by combining errands rather than running them separately, or planning to reduce your commute distance. One couple cut their daily commute from 60 to 12 minutes each way when one of them moved to a new office location that avoided a major traffic bottleneck. Although they cut their carbon emissions, that wasn’t their motivation: the change gives them an extra 48 minutes per day with their 18-month-old daughter before her bedtime
- Leave the car in the driveway more often by using other transportation modes or working from home when you can. According to one recent analysis, households can cut their future transportation emissions by nearly one-quarter just by reducing driving distances by an average of 6.5 kilometres per day
- Use active modes of transport like walking and biking as much as you can, whenever you can. It’s a great way to get some exercise and discover more about your neighbourhood or commute route by moving at a more leisurely pace. (If you’re biking, just be sure to use a helmet and stay safe, never forgetting that you’re the smallest vehicle on the road)
- If you’re moving into a new home, don’t forget that the size of the house or apartment is one of the biggest factors determining its energy use. If you really need the space, take it. If not, you can make a difference by looking for something smaller. (And you’ll probably help your household budget along the way)
- In many condo buildings, amenities like swimming pools, gyms, and media rooms are driving up energy use and carbon emissions. A little more simplicity can have a big impact
- If it feels like too big a leap to shift to a vegetarian or vegan diet, you can still try out different options by declaring a Meatless Monday. A whole new set of recipes and taste sensations awaits!
- You can also join a local food co-op or buy a share in a community garden or community-supported agriculture (CSA) operation to reduce the transport footprint behind your food (although the carbon calculations can get complicated)
- Many people across the GTHA and elsewhere are reducing their air travel, or buying carbon offsets to cover off the impact of a flight—which means learning how to distinguish a legitimate carbon offset from one that is less so
- And don’t forget to read (or reread) TAF’s recent blog post offering 15 tips for saving energy, at home and on the road