You can't live a 1.5 degree lifestyle and get on a plane

One little trip can blow you right out of the water.

As noted earlier, I have committed to trying to live a 1.5° lifestyle, which means limiting my annual carbon footprint to the equivalent of 2.5 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, the maximum average emissions per capita based on IPCC research. That works out to 6.85 kilograms per day.

In my last post, Living a 1.5 degree lifestyle is hard, I quoted a study which noted that we should concentrate on the “hot spots”:

Focusing efforts to change lifestyles in relation to these areas would yield the most benefits: meat and dairy consumption, fossil-fuel-based energy, car use, and air travel. The three domains these footprints occur in – nutrition, housing, and mobility – tend to have the largest impact (approximately 75%) on total lifestyle carbon footprints.

Events of the last few days have graphically proven this point to me. TreeHugger has wonderful new owners, DotDash, and when your new boss tells you to come to New York City for two days of meetings, a Tuesday and a Wednesday, it’s hard to say, “Sorry, I am on a carbon diet.”

I first thought I would take the train on the Monday, but trains in Canada are unreliable right now thanks to blockades by supporters of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who are trying to stop a gas pipeline.

But more importantly, I teach Sustainable Design at Ryerson University on Tuesdays, a commitment that I had to prioritize, so we agreed that I would come for Wednesday only. That meant going straight to the airport from class (subway to UP Express diesel train to airport, 1.081 kg CO2) and then flying to La Guardia.

It’s not a long flight, just a bit over an hour, but short flights are the worst for carbon emissions, much of which happens during takeoff and climbing to altitude. The carbon calculator I used put the flight at 90kg. Since I was arriving late I decided to take a cab to Times Square, adding another 8 kg. So by the time I got to New York City, I had burned through 103.6 kg of CO2, 15.14 times my daily allowance.

Head office is in the building on the left/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Wednesday was a good day for my personal emissions; I was in a small board room all day and so exhausted at the end that I just had a short walk around Times Square and then off to bed.

Since I had an early flight I called for a cab, and what pulls up but the biggest Escalade I have ever seen – certainly, the biggest thing I have ever been in. I estimate 10 kg just getting to the airport, another 90 kg of flying back to Toronto, then train and subway and bus home. In 36 hours I blew through 214.27 kg of CO2, equivalent to 31.2 days of my carbon ration.

This depressed me totally, and I took some time off from tracking my carbon, thinking that there was really no point anymore. I finally started up again this past Sunday, resolving to go full Rosalind Readhead and track everything I do in even greater detail; if I am going to do it at all, might as well go deep. Then it was my daughter’s birthday and our son-in-law invited us to dinner and served the best steak I had ever eaten, though it may have tasted that way because I had not eaten red meat since this project started. Just that bit of red meat cranked the carbon for that day up to almost 15 kg, 2.16 times my daily carbon budget.

All of this proves the point made by the 1.5 degree study: It’s the big things that matter. Flying is just incompatible with a 1.5 degree lifestyle, as is driving in an Escalade or eating a steak.

I noted in my last installment that on a day-to-day basis, it is not hard for me to live within my carbon budget because I work from a home near lots of shopping, but that not everyone can do this.

I am coming to realize that for others to be able to do this, we really need societal change; we need good, efficient housing built at densities that can support transit, that is walkable and bikeable so that people do not have to drive. Then it really becomes a matter of minor dietary changes and choices about travel. For the 73 percent of North Americans who live in the suburbs and are pretty much forced to drive, doing this would be almost impossible.

But it continues to be such an interesting education, and it’s really teaching me what matters. I am going to keep it up and go into even more detail; stay tuned.

One little trip can blow you right out of the water.

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