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How To Go Carbon Neutral

How To Go Carbon Neutral

To have any hope of lessening the impending climatic disaster, a carbon neutral life should be the goal of every single person, but is it truly achievable?


words and photographs Christina De La Rocha

I would like to go carbon neutral, preferably ASAP, halting the growth of my life’s carbon footprint by reducing my carbon emissions to a point where they can be matched by things I can personally do to capture carbon dioxide and store it somewhere safely away from the atmosphere for at least several hundred years.

It’s good to have goals, but why this one? Because, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the people of Earth have less than 100 – 200 billion tons of carbon left to emit as carbon dioxide (or the total greenhouse gas equivalent thereof) before we hit the 1.5°C of global warming that will be catastrophic enough, thanks. Unfortunately, we’re currently emitting 11 billion tons of carbon per year. That means, to keep future carbon emissions under 100 – 200 billion tons, we need to start reducing net carbon emissions now and, depending upon how soon now turns out to be, become totally carbon neutral within the next twelve to 30 years (30 if we start making meaningful progress now, twelve if we leave it to the last minute to do anything).

All the world’s societies attaining carbon neutrality requires overhaul of the ways we produce and consume energy, food, goods, and services and get from points A to Z and everywhere in between, so it’s somewhat disingenuous to frame solving this in terms of our own personal actions. But I have to start somewhere and that somewhere is with a carbon calculator. Even if I can’t solve this all on my own, I can know how much carbon am I responsible for emitting every year via my muddling through the day every day rather than staying hidden under my blankets, not eating, not drinking, not bathing, leaving the heat off, not going anywhere, and not buying anything. So here’s the question: does my mediocre life have enough of a carbon footprint that it’s a problem that needs to be solved but yet not have enough of a carbon footprint that I can’t solve the problem on my own? *SPOILER ALERT* The answers are yes and no.

Carbon calculators seem to be a thing on the Interwebs, falling along a spectrum from three parts science plus one part voodoo to outright balderdash. I decided to find one tailored to where I live but not associated with a company or charity interested in guilting money out of me for carbon offsetting activities more greenwash than actual permanent carbon sequestration. I settled on this one, suitable for Germany. (As this carbon calculator generates its answers in terms of tons of carbon dioxide, to get back to tons of carbon, I had to divide by 3.664, which is 44.009/12.011, the ratio of the mass of a carbon dioxide molecule to that of a carbon atom.) As with all carbon calculators, the answer it gives you is more ballpark than precise. But here is what I learned:

Simply by living in the house I share with only one other person – selfish me! – which is heated by oil and powered by 100% renewable electricity, I drive the release of 1.1 tons of carbon per year into the atmosphere, mainly as carbon dioxide. My aspiring-to-be-vegan but in reality lacto-ovo vegetarian diet adds another 0.3 tons of carbon per year to my carbon footprint and the roughly 10 km drive to the grocery store each week to retrieve everything other than the onions, chard, beets, and potatoes we receive from our garden generates 0.03 tons of carbon per year. I’ll leave it to Spouse’s carbon footprint to take the hit for the 3-4 drives per year down to his parents’ house, since I am not allowed not to come along no matter how much I beg and plead, but the 0.7 tons of carbon emissions I generate flying back home to see my parents roughly once per year is all on me.

Aeroplane seen through an airport window. Aeroplane travel is far from carbon neutral.
According to the carbon calculator I used, my yearly round trip flight from Europe to California releases slightly less carbon than my share of heating the house each year plus the carbon  it takes to run the lights, water heater, and appliances with 100% renewable electricity (because just because it’s renewable, doesn’t mean it’s 100% carbon-free).

This brings my yearly carbon footprint to 2.1 tons of carbon (7.7 tons of carbon dioxide), although I suspect the real number is higher. The calculator did not ask about the shoes, clothes, electronics, and other non-food items I buy each year. Also, every person living in Germany shoulders the additional burden of 0.4 tons of carbon (1.5 tons of carbon dioxide) per year for the carbon  the German state emits keeping law, order, roads and other public infrastructure in tip-ish top shape, although I think the calculator worked some of that into the total, as it asked questions concerning my use of municipal water, something that takes carbon emissions to supply.

To put my 2.1 tons of carbon emissions per year into perspective, the global average is 1.3 tons per person per year and the European average is 1.9 tons per person per year. If I want to go carbon neutral, the carbon calculator website helpfully suggests I could get ahold of 75% of a soccer field and fill it with 520 actively growing trees.

Looking up into the branches and canopy of an ancient oak. A carbon neutral life is helped by planting long-lived trees.
This old oak not only soaks up lots of carbon dioxide every year, turning much of it into wood, it also represents a storehouse of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere over this tree’s lifespan so far of several hundred years (sort of a reverse carbon footprint).

I would not only need 520 new trees a year, but I would have to make sure that no one ever chops them down (at least not within the next 200 years or so), not even as a renewable energy source (because on the time scales that matter to climate right now, wood is not a carbon neutral fuel).

A cat walks past a dawn redwood sapling, a fast-growing tree that does little towards carbon neutrality.
It would be a mistake to chop down the old oak in the previous photo and replace it with even this fast-growing tree (a dawn redwood, or Metasequoia glyptostroboide, which can grow to up to 165 feet tall and was perhaps a bad choice for the front lawn). The tiny tree would need half a century or so to grow big and strong enough to be capturing more than a minuscule fraction of the carbon dioxide per year the old oak does currently. It would also take this young tree hundreds of years to claw back the carbon emitted to the atmosphere by turning the huge old oak into wood pellets and burning them for fuel.

Thanks, carbon calculator, for the advice, but as much as I would love to own my own minuscule woodland, it is neither affordable nor, really, feasible (but, wow, imagine the world if every one of the roughly 8 billion of us had our own patch of forest of, say, 50-1000 trees that we’d vowed never to chop down… and that’s in addition to the trees that are already out there).

Option #2: become a saint. First on the to do list: switch from an oil burner to a solar panel powered heat pump to heat the house, which is actual on the agenda for next year, go us! Second, I could bite the tofu and finally permanently go vegan,  although, woe, never mind butter… milk chocolate (call me a Philistine). The third thing it would take would be grocery shopping by bike, which wouldn’t be fun in deepest, darkest depths of winter, but would have the advantage of fighting middle age spread. Lastly- have a nice rest of your lives, Mom and Dad – I could never plop my butt into an airplane seat ever again. (Then, although it was left out of the calculations in the calculator I used, there is the never buying anything non-edible ever again.)

Ignoring for the moment how unrealistic living like this for the rest of my life would be, according to the calculator, such sainthood would drop my yearly carbon emissions down to 0.7 tons (2.4 tons of carbon dioxide), an annual personal carbon footprint which would still take me hosting 194 actively growing trees to achieve carbon neutrality.

So if even the unlikelihood that is across the board individual sainthood can’t get a person to carbon neutrality, what could?

That’s where we need governments and business to come in.

To become carbon neutral in time to avoid truly catastrophic climate change, we need to replace fossil fuels with a diverse portfolio of renewable sources of energy within the next twelve to 30 years (again, 30 if we start now working on it now, twelve if we don’t). Fully switching away from fossil fuels would nip up to 80% of our greenhouse gas emissions in the bud, bringing our current collective annual carbon footprint of 11 billion tons down to 2.2 billion tons.

This is not something that neither you nor I nor even groups of us can accomplish on our own at all never mind quickly. It calls for a global all-out war effort. On top of develop better batteries and set up the power lines needed to carry electricity the long distances from where it is produced to all the places it is consumed, here’s just a partial list of what we’d need to do:

  • Convert all buildings needing heating and/or cooling over to using air source or geothermal heat pumps powered by renewably generated electricity.
  • Place solar panels on the walls or roof of most homes and other buildings, even in places like Scandinavia.
  • Set clusters of solar panels floating on lakes.
  • Deploy arrays of solar panels in deserts like the Mojave and the Sahara and other wonderfully sunny spots.
  • Set up more wind farms, especially offshore, where it’s windiest.
  • Ferment food and agricultural waste that is not suited for use as biochar into renewable natural gas and/or diesel (but this does not mean growing grains strictly to produce biofuels, because that is a wasteful use of fields.)

That’s a lot to accomplish in order to get over fossil fuels. And yet we know from decades worth of measurements and modeling by more scientists than even the most ardent of climate deniers could shake a hockey stick at, cutting out fossil fuels won’t be enough on its own for us to avoid catastrophic climate change. Currently, more than a fifth of our input of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere each year comes from agriculture and our use (bordering on abuse) of land. This is what’s behind the recent flood of news articles reporting that changing the way we eat is a major part of the solution to global warming.

Closeup of a highland cow. The burping of bovines is a potent source of atmospheric carbon.
Is this bovine burping methane?

We currently keep tens of billions of cows, sheep, goats, pigs, poultry, and other livestock that belch methane while digesting what they’re eating, produce manure that produces methane (and nitrous oxide, another even more potent greenhouse gas) when it rots, or both.

We’re also more than living up to our several-thousand-year history of destroying forests for wood or to make space for keeping cattle, growing grains, or, ahem, setting up oil palm plantations. The resulting destruction of biomass and soil organic matter transfers billions of tons of carbon dioxide directly into the atmosphere every year on its own.

On top of all that, we feed all of the all of us (including all that livestock and our pets) by engaging in intensive, industrialized agriculture that burns a lot of fossil fuel to run machinery and to produce artificial fertilizers. Intensive agriculture also drives soils to exhale carbon dioxide and methane rather than store carbon in the form of organic matter (in this case, worms, bugs, microbes, and plant litter).

To put some numbers on this, of the current total emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, 13%, 44%, and 82% come from agriculture, forestry, and other use of land (a grouping sweetly referred to as AFOLU). As a set of greenhouse gases, that’s equivalent to emitting 3.3 billion tons of carbon (12 billion tons of carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere every year.

Although it’s a scary thought, screwing around with the way we produce food when we’re facing down the challenge of feeding nearly 8 billion people now and nearly 10 billion people in 2050, and as many as 11 billion by the end of this century, we can’t save Earth’s ecosystems or ourselves from climate change without turning our use of land into something that stores carbon in soils and trees rather than releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

We individual consumers have little power to change how farming is done, but we could help reduce AFOLU carbon emissions by reducing our personal consumption of

  • dairy to the equivalent of 1.75 liters of milk per week (remember, it takes a lot of milk to make a little bit of butter or cheese),
  • red meat to less than 100 g per week
  • poultry to less than 200 g per week
  • eggs to roughly 1 per week
  • and fish to less than 200 g per week

by eating more grains and vegetables instead.

Closeup of two barred female chickens.
Miss Chickie and Destructo shocked by the news that the eggs they and their half dozen colleagues produce ought to be shared among not six but 30 people.

But even all that together with ditching fossil fuels won’t be enough to bring us to carbon neutrality because it won’t bring our gross carbon emissions down to zero. To bring our net carbon emissions down to zero will require safely, reliably, and permanently removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. We could begin today by stopping chopping down trees to make way for new farmland and buildings, allowing those trees to keep locking carbon dioxide into the wood that they produce. In addition, we could start planting millions of trees we would promise not to turn around and cut down.

A slightly fancier but nonetheless also immediately implementable approach would be, instead of burning crop waste for fuel, to burn it under oxygen-limited conditions to produce biochar that we would add back to soils. Not only would this improve, for instance, crop productivity, it would store that charred carbon in the soils, keeping it out of the atmosphere for the hundreds of years that would be incredibly helpful to us right now. Best estimates suggest we could sequester a couple of billion tons of carbon per year this way, which, if we cut our carbon emissions down to a couple of billion tons, would do the trick. We’d be carbon neutral.

A girl can dream, anyway.


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