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Family Success On The Household Carbon Footprint Front

By Tim Newcomb

14 August, 2012
Energy Bulletin

We Americans may believe that we are obligated to reduce our household Greenhouse Gas Emissions, but then fall short because of the cost and the inconvenience required to do it. Sizeable household reductions in a household Carbon Equivalent footprint usually cost money and sometimes a lot of money. Our household has succeeded to a considerable extent over the past 5 years, by budgeting carefully and picking projects which have multiple benefits to counter the costs. My knowledge of how to estimate greenhouse gas emissions has helped us to judge the trade off between carbon emissions reductions and costs, and long term planning and persistence have been essential. Success breeds more success and self-reliance breeds more self-reliance. We hope that the following experiences at our house will be instructive for readers!

We began by replacing an old oil heater with a new heat pump in our single storey concrete block house in Des Moines, Washington. The addition of one more duct to the renovated garage gave us another heated room at a small cost. The total cost was considerable so we paid for part up front, and took out a loan for the rest. The monthly payments were reminder that we had made a green choice at some cost, and it helped to redefine our self image. My estimate of the yearly reduction in the carbon footprint is more than 2.5 tonnes per year including minor refrigerant leaks measured by the installer, and the carbon emissions reported by the electric utility per Megawatt hour.The annual electricity costs to run the heat pump were less than the previous oil costs and there was air conditioning available for the few weeks of the year when we needed it. The addition of ceiling insulation imporved the situation further.

When the new light rail system between Seattle and SEATAC airport became operational I rode it several times a week. The trip took twice as long as a car trip, and cold and rainy weather made the trip to the University of Washington unpleasant in the winter. But there weere considerable benefits. I was spared parking costs, traffic tickets and gasoline costs, and the round-trip ticket cost $2.00. There were no traffic jams or delays for road construction, and I occasionally ran into friends to talk with on the way. When I picked up my car at the parking lot, I was immediatley grateful to have a car. Gratitude for an energy service increases when the service is not always available, and reminds us that we are fortunate and need to use our blessings wisely. The estimated carbon emissions reduction from this transportation category was approximately 1 tonne per year.

My wife Margaret teaches in Seattle, more than 20 miles from Des Moines. She began carpooling with a fellow teacher four years ago, and that entailed additional effort to make sure who was picking up whom and at what time the next morning.This change had many more benefits than downsides.There were those delicious mornings when Margaret was tired and could just slide into the passenger seat and have her friend do the driving. They could stop for a drink on the way home to compare notes and laugh together.Occasionally one member of the duo had to leave their car in the shop. One or the other of them saved money each day they carpooled, and also reduced their carbon emissions slightly.

We have owned 7 acres of pasture for the past 7 years, and we began planting small trees including firs, cedars, alders, maples and pond plants. We completed the work after 3 years with lots of help from friends and along the way we learned about driip irrigation systems, deer fencing, the best trees to plant for soil improvement and how satisfying work it is. The King Conservation District helped pay for deer fencing and my labor and provided a 5 week class on how to reforest land. Now the alders are 25 feet high, the firs are 20 feet high and the incense cedars are not too far behind.The alders put nitrogen in the soil and can be coppiced after some years to provide small sticks and firewood. While the trees are still too young to be net carbon sequesterers, the fallow pasture adds carbon to the soil at a significant rate. Soon the trees will be large enough to store carbon in their growing trunks and branches. At the moment about two tonnes of carbon are sequestered by pasture and trees together.

My first observation concerning the roadblocks to a smaller household carbon footprint is that the American mainstream media and the products they constantly advertise place a cultural block in the way of changes like the ones we have taken. Product advertisements define via cool ads what the right thing to buy or the right thing to do is. It is cool to have a new red car, a large house that uses gas heat, a large concrete area for a basketball court and weed killer to make it all look neat.

Consistent attention to the goal of reducing carbon emissions does not have to make life miserable. Once some goals and possible actions are in mind, time often produces neat solutions which save money. For example, the 2,500 feet of drip irrigation line were only needed for the first 3 years for the first wave of tree planting, and after that the lines could be moved over to the second wave of tree planting at no net cost. On the other hand, a lack of focus anda lack of a plan for reducing emissions will not work. A mindset which includes patience, asking questions, and the knowledge that emissions reductions will result from hard work have to be present.

The media biases against smaller houses, truly efficient cars, heat pumps, and carpooling leave us no choice except to become independent of the predominant system and think for ourselves. What pushed my family in these new directions was a desire to adopt a new energy end-use mix that would benefit us, save money in the long run, and leave a healthier plantet for our children. As we became more independent from media advertising, we became more curious about what we could achieve in carbon emissions reductions, and the internet is full of solutions.

Our diminshing carbon footprint has given us pride that we can succeed. This leads to a growth in confidence, a desire to learn and do more, and the satisfaction of contributing to a healthier earth. These positive changes due to success can help to counteract the negative psychological impacts described by the Kubler-Ross paradigm following severe personal loss. Sturm and Drang become less of a problem in the excitement of solving a problem locally. I believe we could move forward as a nation to reduce carbon emissions rather quickly. Our psychological makeup encourages us to strike out in new directions and to find solutions to new problems, of which carbon emissions are a supreme example. Our psychology also provides pride from accomplishments, and gratitude for the gifts we have, such as a car when we really need it. Are there greater gifts than increased self-reliance, increased curiosity, a smaller carbon footprint, and the act of sharing our successes with others?



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