Climate, Hooks, Key Ideas
comments 6

Three Steps to Cut Your Carbon Footprint 60% Today9 min read

Every kid knows - you can cut 60 percent of your carbon footprint today in three easy steps
Climate change? Elementary!

It’s all about the source

You don’t need to change your lifestyle to stop climate change. Just choose a different source for the stuff you already buy and love. Three choices will eliminate more than half of your carbon footprint right now. Saving the world is that simple.

Step One: Change the Source of Your Electricity

Switch to solar or wind power with the click of a button. Electric utilities across the country have partnered with alternative energy providers to stay competitive. Sign up with those partners through your local utility and use all the electricity you want without contributing to climate change. You don’t need to own your home, buy a single solar panel or invest a single dollar. The cost of switching to green electricity usually runs around $16 a month.

That’s pretty cheap, but homeowners can even save money by going solar. In many parts of the country, third-party solar companies offer lease-for-use solar programs for homeowners. With one call, the company provides, installs and maintains solar panels on your roof, and your monthly electric bill shrinks.

It seems almost too good to be true: it costs less, you produce your own energy, you decentralize the energy grid, and you don’t have to buy or maintain anything at all. It just takes a call or a click.

In areas where leasing is not available, many solar or wind companies offer competitive purchase programs. Many have financing and maintenance included, and will design and install for free. You can completely unplug from the electric grid and put your electricity in your own hands.

Whichever way you choose, simply changing the source of your electricity immediately eliminates 15% of your carbon footprint. That is a huge improvement.

For comparison, the polarizing and bitterly disputed Obama-era vehicle efficiency standards would cut less than 10% of your carbon footprint after full implementation eight years from now. And, you would have to buy a new car to take part.

Stopping climate change is a matter of making smart decisions about the source of things, not making expensive purchases for incremental efficiency.

Step Two: Change the Source of Your Winter Heat

Cooling your home in the summer uses electricity (handled easily by Step One), but winter heat remains an issue. Cut another 17% of your carbon footprint by matching the source of your winter heat with its climate-friendly fix:

  • If you heat your home with a heat pump, baseboard or electric heaters, changing the source of your electricity immediately makes your winter heat climate friendly. Switching to solar or wind will cut a total of 32% from your carbon footprint in a single step.
  • Heating oil systems are compatible with biofuel (more on that below), and biofuel does not contribute to climate change when it burns. Most local biofuel or biodiesel companies offer “bioheat” programs in the winter months. If you combine bioheat with green electricity, you will eliminate 32% of your carbon footprint altogether. So, take off that sweater and turn up the heat, you will not contribute to climate change.
  • If your home is heated with natural gas, your fuel is supplied by your local utility and there is little you can do to change the source of it. Natural gas produces less potent fossil-fuel emissions than coal or oil, but it still releases fossil carbon. The best option is to insulate your home, try to be efficient and look for other sources of heat: Do you have a wood stove or fireplace? Wood is a green carbon fuel when sustainably sourced. Can you get geothermal? Radiant heating? Space heaters or an electric heat pump and green electricity? The more you can offset natural gas heating, while alternatives like biogas are in development, the better your footprint becomes. So, curl up by the fire and relax, you can still find a way to cut your carbon footprint by 32%—the less natural gas you use, the smaller your footprint.

Step Three: Your Vehicle

Ready for a shock? Your vehicle is already climate friendly. No matter what kind of car you drive, your car can stop climate change. The secret is the fuel you use.

All gasoline and diesel vehicles have engines based on the same physical properties as the first vehicles ever created, and in the competitive days of the first vehicles, the source of fuel was hotly contested. What would power the mechanized world?

Many, including Henry Ford and Rudolf Diesel, believed that the answer lay in green fuels that farmers could grow. At the turn of the century more than 30% of Americans were farmers. Farms were ripe for mechanized solutions to old problems. They needed tractors to replace the slow plodding of plow horses, but a viable replacement would need to run on fuel they could grow themselves—like hay for horses.

The Model-T rolled off the assembly line able to run on kerosene, gasoline, and the fuel that most farms already used for cooking: ethanol. In 1925 Ford declared:

“The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumac out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust—almost anything. There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented. There’s enough [ethanol] in one year’s yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for a hundred years.”

Ford was not alone. Rudolf Diesel’s engine ran spectacularly on nothing more complicated than vegetable oil. Diesel foresaw his own version of a green future: “The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become in course of time as important as petroleum and the coal tar products of the present time.”

Why does homegrown fuel matter today? Because all of our polluting, climate-changing, guilt-wracking vehicles can still run on those fuels—and fuels that grow are made of green carbon. Green carbon forms the basis of life on earth and our planet’s carbon cycle. It belongs in our air, soil and oceans. It does not contribute to climate change, even when it burns in an engine. It is carbon-neutral power.

Drive anywhere you want on green-carbon fuel with a clean conscience, you won’t contribute to climate change. Baby crying? Drive around forever if you need to. Don’t worry about buying an expensive hybrid or electric car, just fill up your existing car with a better fuel.


How do you switch?

Fuels that grow are often called “biofuels” because they are made from the green carbon of living, biological things. If your car or truck runs on diesel, you’re ready to go with green-carbon biodiesel today.

Biodiesel mixes with petroleum diesel in any amount, so your vehicle will run perfectly on biodiesel, regular diesel or any mixture of the two. Use as much biodiesel as you can, whenever you can, to reduce your carbon footprint. Feel free to fill up on a whim, grab a coffee and take a drive—your vehicle will do just fine, and may even thank you for it—but if you’re felling less whimsical, take the time to read up on warranties, winter driving, etc.

If your vehicle runs on gasoline, your green-carbon biofuel is ethanol. Ethanol is ethyl alcohol, the same kind of alcohol that people drink to get drunk. It can be fermented from just about anything and then distilled into a fuel strong enough to power an engine. You could drive around on beer if you distilled enough of it.

Ethanol is more oxygenated than gasoline, so you need a cheap adapter convert your vehicle into a flex fuel vehicle like the Model-T. Mix as much ethanol with gasoline as you wish, drive entirely on one or entirely on the other, it is up to you.

Whatever type of green-carbon fuel you use, the benefit is astounding. To figure out just how astounding, you will need two new terms:

  • Carbon efficiency: the amount of fossil carbon your vehicle produces as it drives. Carbon efficiency changes depending on the source of the fuel that powers your vehicle. As carbon efficiency increases, greenhouse gas emissions decrease.
  • Green miles per gallon (gmpg): the quantitative measurement of carbon efficiency. Green miles per gallon measures how far you can drive before you release one gallon of fossil fuel emissions. The more green miles per gallon, the better your car is for the climate.

The carbon efficiency of the best hybrid is about 50gmpg. That sounds pretty good, but if you fill your car up with ethanol you can easily achieve a carbon efficiency of 200gmpg—that’s four times better for the climate than the best hybrid. If you fill up your diesel vehicle with biodiesel, you can achieve a carbon efficiency of more than 2,000gmpg. That is forty times better for the climate than a shiny new hybrid, and makes your vehicle effectively carbon neutral.

This one step could eliminate your biggest contribution to climate change, and reduce your overall carbon footprint by 28%. If you switch to green electricity and heat as well, you will have cut you carbon footprint by 60%. Stopping climate change is that easy.

Beyond 60

The chance to stop climate change is at your fingertips. The last 40% of your carbon footprint comes from the stuff you buy and the food you eat. Reducing these contributions does not require you to eat less—or even buy less stuff—it only requires a new mindset.

It requires the same mindset that already allowed you to cut 60% from your footprint: remember climate change when you buy. Focus on the source of your products and ask one question: Is this made from green carbon or fossil carbon? Did it grow, or was it made from petroleum?

Do you want paper or plastic? The choice is simple: paper comes from trees, plastic from oil. You could agonize over the sustainability of paper bags and the environmental repercussions of using trees for disposable goods—or not. Most paper bags are recycled and sustainably sourced these days. Go easy on yourself and simplify: did it grow, or was it made from petroleum? You decide; you choose; you make a difference.

And don’t worry about being perfect. Perfection is often the enemy of the good, and climate change is no exception. Do your best. It may be impossible to make the perfect choice anyway (how could you know exactly where your products come from?). Give yourself a break and focus on the source—just remember that your choice matters. Producers are watching.

The products you buy are the products worth making. If you choose based on the source of your products, producers will know, and your choice will ripple out, changing what gets made. The more green-carbon products you buy, the more will become available, and the more you will stop climate change at the root.

Years of choosing fossil carbon for our energy and products is changing the earth’s climate. The only thing we have to do to stop climate change is choose green carbon instead.

Let’s make that choice together.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

6 Comments

  1. Pam Sanders says

    So, how do I find someone to convert my car into a flex-fuel vehicle? I don’t know anything about cars but I want to start!

    • Jackson Carpenter says

      Hi, Pam!

      If you don’t feel comfortable working on your car yourself, you could talk to your local mechanic (or mechanically inclined friend) about a conversion. There are many brands, so do your own research and find the one you like best. They’re cheap and simple to install, but your mechanic might have never dealt with a conversion before, so here are a couple of websites you could show him or her to get an idea (we’re not endorsing any of these, they’re just examples):

      http://www.ez85.us/
      https://www.change2e85.com/
      https://www.amazon.com/E85-Conversion-Kits/s?ie=UTF8&page=1&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3AE85%20Conversion%20Kits

      We’re working on putting together a network of mechanics that do A-Z installations—sourcing the kits, installing, handling questions, etc.—but it’s still a few months off.

      Love to hear your enthusiasm! I’m sure you can make it work!

  2. WARREN BURROWS says

    Jackson,
    I have tried a couple of times to ask a question about your concept of “Green Carbon” and “Fossil Carbon” and it doesn’t seem to get through, even though I believe I pushed all the correct buttons. My question is, even though the the two sources of CO2 are different, green vs fossil, it is still CO2. Irrespective of the source, adding more CO2 to the atmosphere, wherever it comes from, will contribute to the greenhouse effect, and thus global warming.

  3. Jackson Carpenter says

    Hi, Warren,

    Thank you for your question, and way to go on the Climate Reality Project! Very exciting.

    It is true that both fossil carbon and green carbon are essentially the same chemical in our atmosphere, though, fossil carbon contains a greater percentage of a lighter carbon isotope, carbon-12, than occurs naturally. This means that fossil carbon and green carbon are not, strictly speaking, identical, and amounts to one of the more categorical proofs that climate change is manmade. We see a corresponding change in the atmospheric ratio of carbon-12/carbon-13 as we observe the overall rise in CO2 every year. This change in composition points directly to fossil carbon in the atmosphere.

    Regardless of the strict semantics, your question very much deserves a full answer. Why go to the trouble to distinguish between types of carbon, when it all ends up as CO2 in the atmosphere anyway?

    The quickest answer would be: green carbon is a part of the carbon cycle; fossil carbon is not. But that statement doesn’t speak to your question in any meaningful way. Here’s a better answer by way of a quick overview of the earth’s carbon cycle:

    If a tree falls in the forest, and decays naturally, a significant amount of its carbon will be released into the atmosphere by the microbes, etc. that actively decompose it. Some carbon will enter the soil and eventually be used by other organisms and released, some will enter the microbes themselves and be transferred up the food chain as those microbes are eaten—many processes are involved, but most of the tree’s carbon will eventually be released into the atmosphere as CO2 (or methane that will react chemically to become CO2 in about a decade).

    Let’s assume that the forest is healthy and a new tree will grow to replace the dead tree. This is essential, and a process that I call biogenic potential: if left to its own devices, the ecosystem will replace what was lost. So, when the new tree grows, the free carbon from the dead tree floating around in the atmosphere will be captured and become the living body of a tree again. This process may take fifty or a hundred years, which may seem to be a long time on a human scale, but on a geologic scale it is the blink of an eye. Carbon goes out, carbon goes in, nothing is gained, nothing is lost.

    The same thing happens if the tree falls and is burned. Carbon dioxide is released by the fire into the atmosphere and a new tree uses that free CO2 to grow. If that tree is cut down and made into a book and the book is burned, same outcome.

    A somewhat awkward analogy would be to think of two pitchers mostly full of water. One pitcher is the earth’s various biomes—the sum total of all the living ecosystems everywhere. The other pitcher is the earth’s atmosphere. The water is carbon. As things grow, carbon is poured from the atmosphere into the biomes. As they die, carbon is poured from the biomes back into the atmosphere. On earth, carbon is continuously poured back and forth from the biomes to the atmosphere. Water circulates from one pitcher to the other and back. This process is the carbon cycle, and was relatively balanced before the industrial revolution. (More on the imbalances later.)

    Fossil carbon, however, comes from outside of the carbon cycle. We dig fossil carbon out of the earth where it has remained hidden for millions of years, sequestered from both the biomes and the atmosphere. Fossil carbon does not belong to either pitcher in our analogy. As we burn fossil fuels, modern humanity pours fossil carbon into the atmosphere, basically pouring cup after cup of carbon into the atmospheric pitcher. But that pitcher only has so much space in it—it is already almost full. The earth has a limited biogenic potential. The excess carbon cannot be poured into the biomes pitcher either, because that one is already almost full too. Instead, all that extra carbon just spills over the sides of the atmospheric pitcher and pools on the floor. The spillage is what causes climate change. You can see it in the rising levels of CO2 across the atmosphere. That extra, fossil carbon has nowhere else to go; it just pools and increases the earth’s greenhouse effect.

    This analogy is very imperfect, as any analogy would be for a complex system. The atmospheric pitcher dissipates some of the carbon as it interacts with the sea, forming carbonates and acidifying the oceans; terrible news for sea creatures, but providing an active carbon sink for the atmosphere. The biomes pitcher can shrink too, as we destroy forests and change habitats, becoming much less effective at growing things. By destroying our ecology, we essentially curtail the ability of the earth to store carbon in its living systems, keeping green carbon trapped in the atmosphere. Humans have been changing the pitchers in this way since long before the industrial revolution and fossil fuels.

    On a geological scale, eventually the pitchers will come back into some kind of balance. A new equilibrium will occur, but will take tens of thousands of years to reach stability, all but rendering that outcome meaningless in terms of humanity. And that balance will be at a different climatological “set point” anyway (think setting the temperature on a thermostat—the temperature rises and falls around a set point), so that enormous evolutionary changes will be all but inevitable. The pitchers have been very different in the history of the earth, and a very different set of historical creatures lived within those biomes, adapted to their own carbon cycles.

    For us, this means:

    Fossil carbon is very, very bad. Green carbon is good on its own but can be harmful if not shepherded correctly. Green carbon has biogenic potential—it has a place already reserved for it in earth’s biomes, assuming those biomes are preserved. Green carbon is only waiting for life to capitalize on its potential by living. Seeing this distinction opens the doorway to real action on climate change.

    Example: Vehicles that run on hydrogen seem like a fantastic idea. When hydrogen burns it combines with oxygen and releases pure water. Problem solved. —But where does the hydrogen come from? Most hydrogen is harvested from methane (CH4 or carbon + hydrogen), so, again, where does the methane come from? If the methane comes from a bioreactor that captures the gases released from decomposition of organic material—e.g. green carbon—the carbon released when harvesting the hydrogen is already a part of the carbon cycle and harmless. It has biogenic potential; there’s space in the biomes to suck that carbon back up.

    If the carbon comes from natural gas, however, it is extrinsic to the carbon cycle and, no matter how efficiently we attempt to use it, it will not fit in either pitcher on any human time scale. Instead, it will pool and cause climate change. Even if we hide that fact for a while by pumping it into the soil or manufacturing plastics or whatever, that carbon does not belong on the earth today. There’s no place for it in the atmosphere or any of the earth’s biomes.

    So, despite the fact that hydrogen fuel cell cars release only water when they run, the source of the hydrogen can be harmful or benign. It’s all about the source. It’s all about the kind of carbon.

    Another example: In the past couple of years, researchers have created/uncovered microorganisms that eat plastics. Sounds great, right? Problem solved. But plastics are made of molecules of fossil carbon that are essentially sequestered from the carbon cycle, even though we use them daily. A plastic bottle does not decompose very well at all, creating a huge problem for ecosystems everywhere—but nowhere near the problem we would face if that fossil carbon were released into the atmosphere by specially created bugs. Those bugs would decompose the plastic in the same way that other bugs would decompose a tree. They would free its carbon into circulation. Since this carbon is extrinsic to the carbon cycle, releasing it would be equivalent to burning all that plastic and pouring it into the atmosphere to cause climate change. Even though the process seems natural—decomposition through microorganisms—the result would be catastrophic because of the source of the carbon. It’s much more effective in terms of climate change to bury that plastic in a landfill, sequestered from the carbon cycle.

    Only if you can distinguish between green carbon and fossil carbon does this problem become apparent.

    To finally address your question directly, green carbon and fossil carbon matter when we gather our frayed wits and attempt to act on climate change. Our current narrative ranks climate change along with all other sorts of pollution, simply naming carbon dioxide another atmospheric pollutant. But not all carbon dioxide is created equal. Fossil carbon is bad; green carbon is the building blocks of all life. We are literally composed of green carbon captured and transferred through the food chain into the substance of our bodies. We’re made of carbon dioxide.

    It makes a difference which type of carbon we try to curtail—especially as time and attention are increasingly limited. We must choose how and what to fight since we don’t have time to muddle about. The distinction between green carbon and fossil carbon gives three main advantages:

    1. Since both fossil carbon and green carbon are essentially the same molecule, we can make the products we use from a safe source of carbon instead of fossil fuels. If the source is intrinsic to the carbon cycle, it has biogenic potential and, by itself, will not affect the climate. (The manufacturing process could still be harmful of course.)
    2. We can focus our attention on the root cause. There are dozens of examples like those listed above that appear beneficial until we distinguish the source of their carbon. Climate change red herrings are everywhere. If we are to fight, we need to know what we’re fighting.
    3. We can provide a framework from which consumers can make choices. Part of the hopelessness of climate change is that we are waiting for governments or superhuman inventors to save us—but you and I have enormous power to combat climate change in our own lives. Armed with this knowledge there is hope.

    Does this help?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *