We have a major crisis facing us — limiting global warming to two degrees. It requires big changes in transportation, heating and cooling, and food. But rather than put our brains to work creating solutions we are running around like chickens with our heads cut off. We are lost in the weeds, nitpicking over recycling glass, using straws, or idling in the drive-through line at Tim Hortons. Worse yet (because we are “building social consensus”?) we are firing large amounts of criticism and guilt in random directions. Climate deniers have good reason to look at the mess and think we are crazy.
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The problem is a bit of borrowed eastern philosophy: the idea that even your smallest action matters. Sorry, this is one of those cases where size matters – and it better be big. If you create a big amount of carbon while saving a tiny amount of carbon then your effort doesn’t matter; you’re still 99% in the hole.
“Every little bit counts” is doing more damage to our current climate action plans than coal-fired power plants. Rather than face personal choices large enough to matter (electric vehicle, smaller living spaces, fewer flying vacations, less meat) or working to change non-electric energy needs (still 80% of BC energy: this includes diesel for trucking and oil and coal used for high temperature processes like making concrete).
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Let’s look at idling in line. You drove your F150 pickup truck from Kaleden to town: that is 15 km. The F150 uses about 15 L per 100 km (16 MPG, www.fuelly.com). Add half a litre for a ten minute idle. You have used up almost three litres of gas and created six kilograms of carbon dioxide – and that’s just a one way drive. (This is just burning the fuel. If you include what it took to pump it out of the ground, refine, and deliver, this would be a “life cycle analysis”.) Idling was only a small fraction of the carbon you created.
A Honda Civic uses seven and a half litres per 100 km (32 MPG, www.fuelly.com). Your trip to town takes one litre, your 10 minutes of idle is one-fifth litre. The total (one-way) is just over one liter which is three kilograms of carbon dixoide. Electric cars do have a carbon footprint, but doing the math as we did for the Honda Civic and the F150 the carbon footprint is zero. So the problem is not idling, the problem is what you drive.
You can halve your emissions by moving from a F150 to a Honda Civic, or massively reduce it by buying an electric vehicle.
You would never do this with your financial budget. It would be the equivalent of buying a “grande skinny latte with a shot of vanilla” for six bucks every morning, then putting your change into a jar at night and calling that savings.
We need to use our brains to challenge climate change. We need to measure, then we need to triage. We already have all the tools: we know how big the problem is, we know where the carbon is coming from. Now we have to figure out which solutions are going to make a dent. We can’t afford to confuse people, to make them think that soaking labels from glass before recycling makes them part of the solution. When you need a spade to get out of a big hole, don’t use a teaspoon.
If the behavior you are changing is going to be worth the effort it has to add up to one megaton of carbon per year.
How big does it need to be to matter? Here’s my yardstick: if the behavior you are changing is going to be worth the effort, it has to add up to one megaton of carbon per year. If you change your behavior and you convince 80% of Canadians to change their behavior, that one year difference should be a megaton. Why that amount? That is five percent of the reduction we pledged for every year at the Paris Accords. Nothing smaller than that is going to help.
To misuse a quote: “First take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye”. I suggest you go around removing beams (personal and industrial) and skip the speck.
I’d like to give a shout out for QuestioningTheData.Wordpress.com for thoughtful and fact-based arguments.
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About Kristy Dyer:
Kristy Dyer has a background in art and physics and consulted for Silicon Valley clean energy firms before moving (happily!) to sunny Penticton. Comments to Kristy.Dyer+BP@gmail.com