My Low-Carbon Diet From gas gluttony to fuel fitness in three weeks by Seth Zuckerman
The first thing I noticed was the view. I'd never driven a sport-utility vehicle across Seattle's Lake Washington before; with an extra foot or two under my rump, the vista of sailboats and lakeside homes was grand. Still, it was a bit unnerving to thread through traffic in a Chevrolet TrailBlazer, about a foot wider than my usual econo car. Driving a two-ton SUV was not my forte, but I had undertaken this trip in a spirit of inquiry, after confronting some mind-boggling statistics: The average American dumps five times as much climate-altering carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the typical world citizen. But even the world average isn't compatible with a stable climate. Earth's natural systems can remove only about a third of the carbon dioxide humans are emitting daily.
Weather patterns are changing accordingly. Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have increased by 38 percent since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when humanity's fossil-fuel binge began. As a consequence, the planet's climate is more volatile than ever, racked by intensified hurricanes and droughts, early snowmelt, and unseasonable heat waves.
With those trends in mind, I wondered what it would mean to live within the planet's capacities. I suspected it wouldn't be easy. After all, Morocco and Indonesia emit only as much carbon dioxide per capita as Earth can absorb--and they're hardly known for their high standard of living. Is impoverishment the only way to bring our carbon bender under control?
To find some answers, I decided to try three carbon dioxide diets. First, that of the typical American. I would see how my consumption measures up to the national average and attempt (briefly) to burn as much fuel as my fellow citizens. Next, I'd investigate what it would take to bring my emissions down to the world average, the level of countries such as Jamaica and Romania. Finally, I'd try to produce no more than my share of what Earth's natural systems can handle.
For this journey into the thicket of tons, BTUs, and kilowatts, I would need a guide. I recruited Jon Koomey, an energy and climate researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stanford University, who was eager to be my wise man. "I've always wanted to play Yoda," he said.
We reviewed my initial assets and handicaps. It turned out that several factors made my carbon dioxide output leaner than the average American's. I live in a city, so I don't have to travel far for daily necessities. That city is Seattle, where subfreezing weather is uncommon and mild summers make air-conditioning unnecessary. At the time of my experiment, I worked at home, so my commute was carbon free. To top it off, my wife, Jen, and I occupied an apartment in a 28-unit building, whose shared walls reduce the energy needed for wintertime heating. Reaching the all-American consumption level seemed well-nigh impossible.
"Maybe you should just buy some gasoline and torch it," Jon said with a chuckle. That seemed to contradict the spirit of the game, though, so I laid down some ground rules: I wouldn't waste energy on purpose, and I would ignore the fact that Seattle gets almost all of its electricity from carbon-free hydropower. That's a source so much less polluting than the coal and natural gas that power most U.S. homes, it would be cheating to rely on it.
Jon offered a framework of his own. He explained that nearly half of the average U.S. carbon dioxide emissions of 122 pounds per person per day come from industry and businesses. In theory, my share includes carbon from the movie theaters, supermarkets, and cafes I patronize. It also includes the carbon emitted to manufacture the building materials that shelter me from the elements--spread out over the lifetime of the buildings. "Calculating those would be an endless swamp," Jon warned. Instead, he suggested that I concern myself only with the emissions under my direct control--what I use at home and on the road. While mimicking the average American, I'd have the much more manageable goal of 65 pounds per day. In week two, my goal would be 13 pounds per day (an equivalent share of the world average of 24 pounds), and in week three, 5 pounds per day (a share of the 9 pounds Earth can handle).
With the ground rules defined, we did the numbers. My apartment building relies on natural gas for its water heaters, radiators, and clothes dryers. Jon calculated that the boilers and dryers in the basement belch an average of 11 pounds of carbon dioxide daily for each resident. Based on my electric bills, he estimated I was responsible for another 4 pounds for cooking, lights, and appliances, for a not-so-grand total of 15. How would I ever get to 65? The answer lay behind the wheel of an automobile.
Week One: Aiming for Excess
I gave up bikes and buses and drove whenever I could. Jen wanted a ride to the bus? Sure. A candidate for public office was coming to town to unveil his energy policy? I fired up the Volkswagen Golf and headed down to the waterfront. It seemed hypocritical to drive solo to a speech on energy policy, but when the candidate's entourage zipped past in a motorcade of three Chevrolet Suburbans, I realized that I wasn't alone in my inconsistencies. I even drove to my martial arts class six blocks from home. At the end of the day, I'd notched 7.4 miles and burned roughly a third of a gallon, adding about seven pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. That brought my daily total to a mere 22 pounds--pathetically un-American.
Fortunately, the weekend was coming up, and Jen and I decided to escape the city--as always, the main use of our auto. We strapped a kayak to the roof, which I hoped would make the car less aerodynamic and more fuel-hungry. Eighteen miles later, we were on the ferry dock, bound for our friends' cabin on the shores of Hood Canal 30 miles beyond. With this jaunt and an earlier errand, we managed to burn a little more than a gallon apiece. But where I really racked up the carbon points was during the ferry crossing, on a boat that devours seven gallons of diesel per minute. Even with a hundred other cars on board, my share was about a gallon. Finally, I thought, I'm getting somewhere. Between the diesel and gasoline usage and the energy required for around-the-clock heating and refrigeration in my apartment, I finally hit my target, although I had to spend a couple of hours in transit to achieve it. It wasn't easy being an average American.
For the rest of my high-carbon week, I had to drive everywhere to get anywhere near my goal. Even a stunt like running a load of laundry in hot wash and warm rinse (instead of warm wash and cold rinse) was worth only about three pounds of carbon dioxide--about as much as a five-mile car trip but not nearly as useful. As long as I had plenty of driving to do, my consumption hovered around the target. But if a carless day passed, my emissions sagged.
And so it was that I became an SUV driver for a day. I only had a 26-mile round-trip ahead of me, to a research library across the lake. In the 27-mpg VW, I would chalk up a shamefully small fraction of what I needed to stay on course. So I called around for the biggest SUV I could find on short notice. In a rented midsize 17-mpg TrailBlazer, I'd burn about 60 percent more fuel than in my Golf and get 29 pounds closer to my target. It was the best I could do, although it fell short of the eight-mile-per-gallon Hummer I would have needed to attain my goal.
At the end of the week, I checked in with Jon. For all my efforts, I still averaged only 33 pounds of carbon dioxide per day, making me even with the Germans and Taiwanese but only half as polluting as the average American.
Jon soothed my feelings of inadequacy by pointing out how strongly the basic facts of where I live and how my life is organized affect my consumption. To reach my target, I'd have to commute solo to a job half an hour away and house-sit a conventional suburban home. But he warned me not to get too self-righteous. Next it would be time to rein in my carbon emissions.