Welcome Greenophobes

Today there is a growing awareness that business-as-usual corporate and lifestyle practices jeopardize the health of the planet and the ability of future generations to sustain a good quality of life. Awareness in turn has created a confusing array of sustainability-oriented decisions. The Greenophobe takes a skeptical, practical, informed look at a variety of sustainability topics. Explore a mix of common sense solutions and in-depth discussions that demystify how to live green and live well.

01 December 2009

Think you know your carbon footprint? It's time to change shoes.

THE GREENOPHOBE"You are familar with the concept of a carbon footprint, right?
CONCERNED READER: "Yes. I went online and it was as easy as measuring my shoe size."
THE GREENOPHOBE: "That's nice.  So, you're probably around 19 tons per year, right?"
CONCERNED READER"Sounds about right. Is that...normal?"
THE GREENOPHOBE:  "Sure, if normal means twice the size of most people in other developed countries and more than ten times higher than most of the 1 Billion people living in Africa."
CONCERNED READER:  "Oh no.  What should I do?"
THE GREENOPHOBE"Don't panic.  The truth is, you can actually make a greater positive impact on the global environment and achieve greater personal satisfaction by focusing less on your carbon footprint numbers and more on a broader range of lifestyle decisions that affect your LifePrint -- a more comprehensive and economically sound way of looking at how all facets of your lifestyle reflect on the world around you.

It's very easy to want to use the concept of a carbon footprint as your guide for going green.  It's a nice neat number based on real science and it can be applied to most things you do and buy.  But, for most Greenophobes, it's not the ideal path.  Today, actively managing your environmental impact to your carbon footprint number is going to cost money and may result in sacrifices in undesirable areas with implications for quality and convenience. 
For this reason, greenophobes everywhere deserve a proper explanation of the carbon footprint and the alternative concept of an environmental "LifePrint" in order to effectively reprioritize major green initatives that have as much benefit for you as they do for the world.

The LifePrint idea is simple:  if you put practical lifestyle considerations including health and value at the forefront of your environmental decision making, you'll end up lowering your carbon footprint and satisfying your greenophobic instincts at the same time.

First, let's look long and hard at the carbon footprint and where it matters. It's not going anywhere and deserves some serious credit as an essential benchmark for emerging climate policy.  The carbon footprint is a friendly benchmark because you don't need a Ph.D. to understand its applications. Web-based calculators make finding your individualized carbon footprint a fairly accurate process that's nearly as easy as measuring your shoe size.

To find the carbon equivalent output from your everyday activities including driving, flying or taking a shower, there are simple online calculators, like the ones at TerraPass.com, that use formulas and energy utitility data specific to your location to produce an approximate measurement based upon the information you enter.

If you live in the U.S., your personal yearly carbon dioxide output is likely somewhere between 15 and 25 tons. It's much lower if you live in a place like New York City, where only about half of people own cars and population density is much higher. The national average is 20 tons per year. That's over two times higher than most large European countries and ten times higher than what most scientists believe the worldwide average needs to be in order for the Earth's sensitive climate system to stay in balance without adverse affects on living beings.

The problem with carbon footprints is that this measurement is important for science and interesting to know if you're into the idea of offsetting your emissions by paying a compensatory rate for every ton of CO2 you generate; however, it is very hard to use the concept of carbon footprint to make everyday decisions.

In fact, the carbon footprint is one of the more confusing green benchmarks because it encompasses other gases besides carbon dioxide (methane for example) but you won't find methane on your shopping list or coming from your [automobile] tailpipe.

"Footprint" is a ubiquitous buzzword that is commonly misassociated with broad environmental impact such as "pollution."  But, the carbon footprint is really a much narrower term describing the amount of carbon dioxide or equivalent gas (CO2e) stemming from a particular activity.  Because CO2 and other heat trapping gases, known as greenhouse gases, are the culprints behind rapid climate change, the concept of a carbon footprint and an entire related global carbon market have emerged to allow global leaders to tackle the problem effectively on a massive scale.

The carbon output of everyday activities forms the basis for the worldwide carbon trading market that already tops roughly USD $450 billion annually.  Experts predict that, depending on the outcome of the Copenhagen summit in December 2009, it could become a USD $3 trillion market in the next decade (twice the size of the oil industry).

This is all important background info to understand as we enter an age where prices are increasingly going to carry built-in carbon costs.

We have now esatblished that the carbon footprint is an important key indicator applied to economic and industrial policies aimed at preventing the world from becoming a giant pizza oven. 

Now let's move on to understanding why it is not the ideal measure to quantify your own environmental impact.  Most of the strategies you can decisively employ today in order to live well and live green are not linked directly to your carbon footprint or the eventual outcome of global carbon policy. Greenophobes as well as highly eco-savvy consumers can focus on more tangible, more immediately impactful ways to meet personal and large-scale goals.

The biggest driver is cost.  Actively reducing your carbon footprint by buying wind power or carbon offsets is guaranteed to cost you money.  Perhaps anywhere from five to ten percent more than you already pay for the stuff that has carbon output associated with it.  When carbon reduction initiatives are implemented on a national and global scale, carbon reductions are far less costly than what you can accomplish today on your own. 

When governments and industrial leaders invest in cleaner infrastructure up-front, there will be no need for you to bear the burden by buying indvidual carbon offsets after-the-fact.  Recent estimates suggest that bringing global carbon output inline with sustainable targets could cost as little as one percent of GDP in the U.S. and other developed nations. By comparison, the U.S. defense budget in 2009 is about 4.8 percent of GDP. All the more reason to leave the active carbon mitigation to high-level global action already underway.

If you're serious about taking control of your own options for living better and living greener, you have to move beyond the carbon footprint.

If your goal is to live green and live well, without the sacrifices that were once associated with being "green," you'll need to beef up your knowledge of the ways in which the environmental decisions you make affect your well-being, energy consumption, budget and so much more.

Your LifePrint is comprised of impact data gathered not just from your carbon-emitting activities, but also from your eating habits, transportation methods, the amount of time you spend indoors, what kind of buildings you spend that time in, and many more variables that you probably won't immediately associate with living a green lifestyle.
If you're expecting your LifePrint to be expressed by a nice round number, like a carbon footprint, it's time to shift gears.  It's a multidimensional assessment, so it can't be a single number or be measured in commonly quoted environmental units like tons of carbon or BTUs of energy. 

Instead, think of your LifePrint as a resume of your environmental impact.  You can always update and expand it to reflect all the dimensions that you value regarding your consumption habits and resulting effect on the environment.  For example, if you don't particularly care about your share of the oil trade deficit but are passionate about conserving precious groundwater supplies in your state, these specific interests can be prioritized and acted upon using your LifePrint as the blueprint for change that you'll need to meet your goals.

Even if you don't have a big picture goal yet, outlining your LifePrint is the first step to realizing tangible benefits from your environmental strategies.  Pick up a piece of [recycled] paper and sketch out a diagram of where you think your life leaves the biggest mark on the environment.  We'll get you started: automobile, home heating/cooling, food, water, electricity...basically all of the places where your disposable income goes, in descending order.
In general, The Greenophobe is an ongoing investigation into the most common drivers of environmental impact for people with high-intensity lifestyles.  Just by reading, your mapping your LifePrint one day at a time. In addition to diving into the science behind each driver, we'll be developing easy-to-follow takeaways.  Reference cards. Stuff to stick on the fridge.  Notes to fold in your purse or wallet.  These can seem trivial but they're not.  Before you know it, you'll be doing way more than reducing your carbon footprint.  You'll start making improvements in each area of your life that rubs off on the environment in some important way. 

The combined effect of millions of people doing the very same thing is why it's worth putting in the individual effort. 
In a year, go ahead and take a look back at your old friend the carbon footprint.  We think it will be time to change shoes.

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