Our low-carbon lifestyle may not be as clean as we think. With an expanding universe of “green” information—and disinformation—buying smart and clean is a challenge. Where can we make the most impact?
David Friedman, deputy director at Union of Concerned Scientists and author of Cooler Smarter, challenges consumers to cut back their overall energy use this year by 20 percent. Working against him, however, is the view that individual action won’t make a difference. That’s a myth, Friedman stated. “Every single person can make a big difference by implementing some relatively simple lifestyle changes.” Focus on the big stuff—“the car you drive, the energy you use around your home, the food you eat.”
For Betsy Rosenberg, radio host of On the Green Front, myths arise from disinformation. “The eco-IQ is appalling low,” she said. There’s a lot of green media out there, but it’s not mainstream. She sees “a deep-pocketed dark force at work to turn this all over, and then some.” That has led, in part, to the myth that there’s a debate about climate change. “There isn’t,” she stated emphatically. In fact, “98.5 percent of all climate scientists say ‘It’s real, we’re creating it, it’s an urgent crisis.’”
Diana Donlon, Cool Foods campaign director with the Center For Food Safety, sees food as a “powerful lever” against climate change. She advises us to choose fresh foods rather than processed; avoid packaging; eat local, organic, and in season; reduce our meat intake; and watch against food waste.
Responding to Donlon’s comments, Friedman stated that the biggest impact we can have regarding food is to cut back on meat, primarily red meat. “Americans eat about four times the global average. If a family of four cuts that in half, it would be like roughly doubling the fuel economy of your car.” When asked about “food miles” however, he said that focusing on how far food travels isn’t what matters; only about 5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are associated with the transport of food, though there are exceptions. The biggest culprits are fertilizers, irrigation, and farm equipment.
Rosenberg spoke of the “banana split” dilemma—“Do I buy organic bananas from Ecuador, or local nonorganic from Dole?” To that, Donlon responded that bananas are usually transported by boat, whereas highly perishable foods, like blueberries, come by air. Big difference in the transportation footprint.
What if I don’t want to cut back on red meat? Friedman advises looking at other lifestyle changes—transportation and home energy use. For most of us, transportation means our car. “When it comes to fuel economy,” he said, “40 is the new 30.” While cars available today typically get 20 mpg, it’s not difficult now to find cars that go at least 40. Making that switch can cut your carbon emissions some 3.5 tons/year, that’s about 20 percent of the average person’s energy use. What about electric vehicles? The answer depends on how your local utility produces its power. If you live in California, “an EV is a grand slam,” with a relative carbon equivalent of getting 80 mpg. But in some parts of the country, where utilities burn coal, it’s equivalent to about 30 mpg, so there you would do better with a hybrid.
For Donlon, the kind of car she drives is not particularly relevant. She walks, bikes, and takes public transportation. The mother of two teenagers, Donlon advises parents that walking or biking offers a much richer “quality time” with children than driving in traffic. How you use your car, and whether you keep it well maintained, can make a big difference in fuel use as well.
Addressing another common myth, perhaps leftover from the 1960s—that you should drive your car or appliances into the ground—Friedman said that, while that may have been true once, it is no longer. With today’s technology efficiencies, new products can often save energy, save money, and reduce your carbon footprint.
Food, transportation, home energy use—the panel agreed that it’s about personal choice, personal action.
– Lucy Sanna
May 21, 2012
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California