It sure was hot last year, wasn’t it?  Indeed, it was the hottest year globally since temperature records started being recorded. 

Notice the light grey lines in the figure below. These are annual heat signatures for preceding decades. We’re clearly experiencing something new, something different, a reset perhaps to a new normal, the beginning of hot-house earth.

The world is heating faster than the models first predicted, and we are well on the way to extreme heating that will make vast portions of the earth uninhabitable by people.  Global heating is an existential threat, a rather scary term that means it threatens the existence of humans on planet earth.

Should we continue on our current path of unabated fossil fuel use, by 2070, this large expansion in uninhabitable land could affect 30% of the human population (Xu et al 2020). That includes about half of South America, a third of Africa, around half of India, a third of Australia, the list goes on. No more excuses, it’s time to save our planet. 

So what can we do?

Global warming is scary, but we can take active steps to improve the health of our world.  One rubric to remember is the 4 C’s:  Cars, Cows, Concrete and Coal. Each of these contributes massive quantities of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere (e.g. carbon dioxide and methane).

  • Cars and the transportation industry burn fossil fuels such as gasoline and diesel
  • Cows themselves generate methane and the agro-industrial complex uses oil to create fertilizers, agricultural chemicals and to run farming equipment
  • Concrete it turns out uses vast amounts of carbon-based fuels to bake the ingredients that go into cement
  • Coal is used around the world to generate electricity and to make coke used in steel production.

One conclusion might be to avoid the 4 C’s, but that can be overwhelming. Thinking about our individual circle of influence can make it more concrete (whoops, supposed to use less concrete).

Circles of Influence

Big problems require big solutions. Let’s reflect on the 1970’s environmental movements that resulted in the Clean Air act, the emergence of no-lead fuels, and the banning of DDT.  It was:

“Think globally, act locally”

Indeed, we have global concerns, but how do we act locally? Consider a construct called the Circle of Influence.

The Circle of Concerns is composed of things we are aware of, and that affect us. Global climate change is an excellent example.

Our Circle of Influence include friends, family, coworkers, and the decisions they make. The key here is to lead by example and communicate to motivate others, to get them to recognize a problem and consider doing something about it. The Circle of Control is things we have direct control over, such as what we eat, how we get around, how we heat our homes, and how much we consume. These are the things we can do right now to take individual actions to address global heating.  

Destination:  A negative carbon footprint

After learning about the impact our choices have on the environment, many will have the daunting idea of achieving a negative carbon footprint.

To have a negative carbon footprint means your actions avoid the production of more greenhouse gasses. Anything that burns fossil fuels such as gasoline, coal, oil, and natural gas generates greenhouse gasses; activities that take greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere and pumps them into soils, plants, and rocks sequester them.  

It will require significant commitment and investment. But it’s an investment in our future, our lives, and our children’s lives. Of course, our situations and resources differ, so not all of us will be able to achieve it, but we must consider what is actionable on our part and do it. 

My personal journey to a negative carbon footprint

When I realized that I needed to do my part to achieve a personal negative carbon footprint, I asked myself, “How?”.  Things under my control are how I travel, eat, and heat and light my home.  

Step 1: Easy behavioral changes.  

Thinking about the 4Cs, I learned that meat production from the agro-industrial complex is highly fossil-fuel intensive, so I decided to eat less meat and planted a vegetable garden and fruit trees. I also began consolidating shopping trips; instead of going out two or three times a week to run errands, I would go out one or two times. In summer, I turned my thermostat up two degrees, so the AC didn’t run as much, and in winter, I turned it down, so my furnace didn’t fire as often—and if I get cold, I put on a hat and sweater. These first steps are ones that are easily achievable.

Then, my awareness of the climate crisis increased, and I resolved to no longer be part of the problem. How do I go after the big energy uses in my life—home electric, internal combustion engines, and home heating and cooling? I needed help, so I read widely and called on experts.

Step 2: Home energy efficiency. 

My first thought was to install solar panels, but the experts agreed that home insulation should be higher priority. It’s also possible to have a home energy audit conducted, which many utility companies will do free of charge. I also received free LEDs from my electric company to swap out my current  incandescent light bulbs.

Step 3:  Powertools, weedeater, lawnmower.  

To avoid needing gasoline, oil, and electricity, I replaced my power tools, electric drills, and circular saws with battery-operated technologies. Then, for big tools that still required a lot of amperage (think chop saws) I purchased an ecoflow “solar generator” that provides silent power to any tools that have a power cord.  The convenience changed how I worked—I became more efficient without the overhead of internal combustion engines and power cords.  So next up was an electric chain saw, which I rely on for all trimming jobs on limbs 10” diameter or less, and then a weed eater.  Finally, my lawnmower died so I replaced it with a zero-turn electric lawnmower.  

Now, I no longer use tools around the home that require gasoline.  But more importantly, battery power has changed how I work and made it far more enjoyable.  Imagine mowing the lawn without a racket and chainsawing instantly without the struggle to start a recalcitrant two-cycle engine.  

Step 4: Make your home a net energy generator.  

I was spending from $3,000 to $6,000 a year on propane to heat my home in winter, and in summer, my air conditioner ran continuously, resulting in $200 to $300 a month in electric bills.  What to do?

Geothermal: My first step was to install a geothermal system.  My air conditioner needed to be replaced, which would require almost six thousand dollars, and my furnace was nearing 20 years old.  Geothermal made sense; it circulates water through piping underground, buried at about six feet, where the temperature is a constant 50 some odd degrees in Michigan.  A heat pump inside the building extracts heat from this water (to heat the home) or pumps heat into the water (to cool the home).  Geothermal is highly efficient, and obviates the need for air conditioning and for propane.  

Solar:  About 18 months later, I had solar panels installed.  The cost varies from one application to another, my cost was around $15,000, but this was subject to a tax abatement of 30% of the cost.  And of course my electric bill then dropped to $10/mos for the connection, and the solar array is generating more power than I use, which I sell back to the grid.  

Induction:  I realized then that my kitchen gas range was the sole use of propane in my home – I no longer used propane to heat water, or to heat my home.  So I bought an induction cooktop, dual burner, for around $100.  It wouldn’t work with my non-ferrous pots (e.g. aluminum), but works great with my la cruisette and cast iron pans.  It heats faster than gas, is safe, and produces no disease-causing combustion by products. 

Batteries:  Solar only works when the sun shines.  I had Tesla power walls installed, with an interface to my solar array, and connected through a gateway to my home electric supply.  I spent about $14,000 on the powerwalls (they’re much cheaper now). Once again, the investment was subject to a 30% tax refund, and I saved money by not purchasing power at night from the grid. The app that comes with the power walls is really fun and shows me my home’s power consumption, generation, and energy stored in real-time from wherever I happen to be.  

Woodstove: I upgraded my woodstove to be able to heat more effectively with wood whenever I choose. It’s green since trees grow back, and the net carbon pumped into the atmosphere is zero. The geothermal then runs less often, meaning more electricity is sold to the grid. 

Step 5: Transportation.   

In an effort to reduce air pollution, I knew I needed to reevaluate how I travel. Most of my trips take me on 150-mile round trips (or less), so I opted to purchase a lightly used electric vehicle. The Chevy Bolt I decided on is faster, nimbler, and beats most ICE-mobiles out of the gate, and I’m saving upwards of $200/month on gasoline. However, I still have my RAM 1500 pickup in storage for longer trips where an electric vehicle wouldn’t suit my needs.

Is a negative carbon footprint sustainable?

So the ultimate question arises, is this sustainable for the long term? Nothing lasts forever, and solar arrays degrade at different rates depending on the manufacturer and the application. Mine loses about 0.5% generating capacity per year. In the long term, they will need to be replaced, but that will be later than an air conditioner, home appliance or home furnace would need replacement.  Overall, my life is more comfortable, and with the investment costs financed, my monthly balance sheet is healthier. I also enjoy driving past gas stations and mowing the lawn with only a quiet hum.   

The great satisfaction is that I now live a carbon-negative lifestyle, selling green power to the grid to help those with larger carbon footprints take an incremental step towards being on the right side of global heating. Many people I know look at the initial cost of green technologies solely as an expense rather than as an investment. An ICE truck is an expense that won’t generate income; green technologies immediately decrease your energy expenses, thereby making you money. Consider the savings of going green, and factor that into the expense analysis.  

Parting thoughts

I am at a stage in my life where I have adequate resources to invest in solar panels, purchase geothermal, and install battery storage. I live in my own home and have control of what is installed, and of changes in the abode. You might live in a city and rent or own a condo. Or you may live in a dorm or at home with your parents.  

The first steps are simple and start with behavioral change, but the process really begins with awareness. Decide whether you want to be on the right side of the global heating problem. Are you ok with contributing to the problem, or do you want to make things better? Then act accordingly. 

 

References

Chi Xu, Timothy A. Kohler, Timothy M. Lenton, and Marten Scheffer.  2020. “Future of the human climate niche”.  Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, 117 (21) 11350-11355. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1910114117