A net-zero personal carbon footprint?

(from a LinkedIn version of this material)

Over the summer I have been thinking about my own quadruple bottom line (i.e. success defined simultaneously in social, environmental, economic and cultural terms). That led me to thinking about my carbon footprint. If NZ is going to meet it's targets of:

  • a 2020 target to reduce emissions to 5 per cent below 1990 levels
  • and a 2050 target to reduce emissions to 50 per cent below 1990 levels

then changes have to be made in both homes and business nationwide. To put the thinking about what society has to do into action I've committed to having a net-zero carbon footprint (related to my personal life) in 2019. Carbon emissions from work-related long-haul travel are a separate question.

So what does net-zero mean to me? Just looking up average NZ CO2 emissions per capita, and writing a cheque to cover carbon offsets for those emissions? Too easy! Throughout the year I'm going to be tracking the sources of carbon emissions related to my personal travel, food choices, household energy & waste etc. I'll share the results and will compare them to how things may have looked if I'd made different choices in the way I live.

Step 1 was to find a carbon footprint calculator. My favourite - due it's local context is from Enviro-mark. However that left me a with a range of questions I wanted to probe more.

Image from ccPixs.com licenced under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License

What is the carbon impact of my vegetarian eating habit (of more than 25 years)? It's still a matter being debated. Buy local? Avoid food imported from far away? I am not giving up bananas or chocolate! There's some counter-intuitive things in the mix - such as NZ lamb exported to the UK having a lower carbon footprint than UK lamb. Does food need a carbon rating system to make things easier for conscious consumers?

How much material do typical Kiwi homes really send to landfill? Our household would only send about 10 rubbish bags per year to landfill in weekly rubbish collections. Sounds like that is well below the average!

I commute in a fully electric vehicle (a Nissan Leaf), often with one or two other passengers going to a similar destination - so while I do a lot of kilometres on our motorway system - that travel is not a major carbon emitter. There is definitely a carbon footprint involved in building any car, electric or otherwise. Life-cycle assessment done in the US showed the Nissan Leaf had the small life-cycle footprint of any vehicle in the American market in 2014. New Zealand has a high percentage of renewable electricity - so it's a great place to drive an electric vehicle.

My year started with a flight back from an Australian holiday ... a carbon calculator has that trip at 0.19 tonnes of CO2. So it's one of the first entries in the spreadsheet tracking the impact of my lifestyle in 2019.

Household energy use is another important aspect - we have solar panels on our roof and solar hot water. During the peak of summer we would normally be generating more electricity than we use in a day. We cook with gas, and run a wood burning fire in the winter. I'll be keeping track of how much gas we burn ...

There's still a range of lifestyle choices that create emissions, for example the use of the internet. I've used the Ecosia search engine for quite a while - it is a social enterprise which reinvests a significant portion of profits in tree-planting around the world. Click here for a review of Ecosia. I average 10 or so Ecosia searches per day. Ecosia claim it takes around 45 searches to plant a tree. So my search history may have planted a few trees so far this year. I'll have to decide how to count that.

I acknowledge that carbon offsetting may not be a perfect solution - but not offsetting carbon is also imperfect. Around the house I would always first consider reducing/reusing/recycling/rotting (composting) to manage both consumption and waste. However this year I am going to be combining that with purchasing carbon offsets (from Enviro-mark or Ekos) to make a more significant change in the level of emissions I am responsible for.

Research from the UK (see reference 4) shows carbon emissions are correlated with personal disposable income. In the UK people in the top income decile have three times of the emissions of the lowest decile. I can't find similar data for NZ, but I suspect the trend would be the same. That means those in the upper income deciles arguably have the greatest scope to make the largest change. In the UK data set, if everyone in the top two income deciles achieved net-zero emissions, then overall emissions from UK society would drop by 30%.

So I'll be playing my part and will be going net-zero this year. Stay tuned and I'll share what that looks like.

 

Additional references / Further Reading

  1. Quadruple bottom line / Kaitiakitanga - Radio NZ, 3 November 2017
  2. NZ's emission reduction targets - Ministry for the Environment
  3. NZ emissions per capita - Radio NZ, 26 May 2017
  4. Distribution of carbon emissions in the UK:Implications for Domestic Energy Policy - Joseph Rowntree Foundation, March 2013

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.