When I first announced to my activist friends on an email list-serv my plans to convert a van into a home and travel across the country, I received lots of positive responses. I did, however, receive a critical response from one friend. In his opinion, committed environmentalists should avoid fossil fuel usage at all costs, and buying a big, gas-guzzling vehicle was questionable.
I’d like to be clear that the point of this post isn’t to defend my decision to purchase a van that gets 15/16 miles to the gallon and proceed to drive all over the place with it. The intention of this post is to take an honest look at what contributes to our personal carbon footprints, as well as the much larger picture of where the world’s carbon output is coming from.
So, let’s start with personal footprints. The three major components of an individual’s carbon footprint are: household, transportation, and diet.
The biggest hit to someone’s transportation footprint comes in the from of air travel. According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, the rankings on fuel mileage per passenger places planes as the least efficient, with personal vehicles slightly ahead of trains, and buses/public transportation taking a heavy lead overall on efficiency. If you’re concerned about your personal footprint (hopefully you are), avoiding travel by plane as much as possible is important. Obviously, the greenest ways to travel are by foot and by bike. A quarter of all American car-trips are for distances of two miles or less… distances that could easily be walked or biked.
One of the easiest and most immediate ways of reducing your carbon footprint is looking at your diet. Regardless of your opinions about veganism and the various debates around health and morals, something that isn’t disputable is that vegans have the lowest carbon footprints when compared to omnivores and vegetarians. The livestock industry emits three important greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Carbon dioxide is the most problematic for our planet simply because of the massive quantities we emit. However, both methane and nitrous oxide persist in the atmosphere for longer and are more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, 21 and 296 times more respectively, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FOA) of the UN’s 2006 report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” The EPA says the effect of methane is more than 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
The EPA says the United States’ biggest methane sources are the natural gas and petroleum industries, domestic livestock, and landfills, in that order. Globally, livestock comes in first place for methane emissions. Livestock emit large amounts of methane as a part of their natural processes, but that does not excuse our responsibility. A cow fart is one thing. But billions of animals we have purposefully brought into existence and genetically engineered to suit our purposes all farting in unison is quite another.
Currently, the global chicken population outnumbers humans, by a lot, according to NPR. In the United States, the cattle populations in South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Kansas, Idaho, Iowa, and Oklahoma outnumber the human populations of those states. Overall, the weight of humans and their pets and livestock drastically dwarf the weight of wild land mammals, which is illustrated in an interesting graphic you can view in this article.
This is all to say, omnivorous diets are having a big impact. And the solution isn’t as easy as moving away from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which, in addition to being horrifically cruel for the livestock, have massive environmental impacts in terms of methane release and water pollution. What if all of our livestock are allowed to be free-range in wide, green pastures and fed natural diets? To give the amount of land needed for such a scenario, we would need to remove an unreasonable amount of forests, which are important for storing and cleaning carbon from the atmosphere. Worldwide, the livestock industry has been already been responsible for huge amounts of deforestation, and according to the FOA, livestock and the feed grown for them occupies 1/3 of the earth’s ice-free land. About half of the land in the contiguous United States is used for livestock and their feed.
Besides land usage, livestock agriculture also contributes to ocean dead zones, water pollution, water usage, species extinction, and desertification. The impact of the meat industry goes far beyond a carbon footprint. While my friend argued that a car-driving environmentalist is a hypocrite, I would argue that a meat-eating environmentalist is much more concerning.
In addition to being vegan, not having a house at the moment also gives me a significant advantage in the carbon footprint world. Electricity and heat make up a huge part of our footprint. According to the US Energy Information Administration, fuel types in terms of carbon emissions are as follows: coal clocks in with the most carbon emitted per million Btu, followed by diesel fuel and heating oil, gasoline, propane, and natural gas. Natural gas’ lower carbon emissions is how it came to be toted as a “bridge fuel” to move our world from fossil fuels to renewable energy. However, it is important to take a holistic view at the entire production process — digging up, transporting, and processing these fuels can have a huge environmental impact before the fuel is ever even burned. Hydraulic fracturing, a method of extraction for natural gas, has come under fire for polluting drinking water, causing sickness near drilling sites, and causing earthquakes. This is why many environmentalists, including myself, abhor the idea of natural gas being a “bridge fuel.”
Fortunately, solar and wind for households and businesses are becoming more affordable and even competitive with conventional fuels. Unfortunately, the uptake has been and continues to be slow. That’s largely because massive, influential corporations have an interest in slowing the spread of renewable energies.
The big picture
Utility companies, for the most part, are a great example of this. Based on their traditional model of business, utility companies rely on there being a demand for energy and supplying that demand. What happens when individuals start producing their own energy? Or worse, when battery storage technology develops and they can unplug from the grid completely? For the most part, utilities have reacted with resistance. This debacle is explained really well in this Grist article by David Roberts.
And of course, the fossil fuel industry has a huge interest in preventing the success of renewable energy. The best illustration of this is the exposed cover-up Exxon conducted for decades to keep information about the impact of fossil fuels on global climate change from reaching the public. Fossil fuel companies routinely spend massive amounts of money to spread climate skepticism and get renewable opponents in elected office. Recently, Peabody Energy, the United States’ biggest coal company, lost a court case in which it brought forth “expert” witnesses to make an argument that fossil fuels weren’t as responsible for climate change as everyone thinks.
On the animal agriculture front, “ag-gag” laws have cropped up to prevent activists from obtaining footage of the horrific conditions inside factory farms. Fortunately, some of these laws are starting to fall apart in courts.
While it is a good idea to take steps to reduce our personal carbon footprints, that can only go so far. To truly address the massive issue of climate change, we must leave the comfort of our own lives and step out to challenge corporations and governments that are fighting the progress we need to save our world and all the species living on it. We need to protest, vote, self-educate, write, organize, and demand change. Recycling your plastic bottles and changing your light bulbs isn’t good enough anymore. It never has been. Advocating those little changes has been and always will be a distraction from the larger issue.
If you are interested in calculating your carbon footprint, there are lots of carbon calculators out there. For the purposes of developing this blog post, I used CarbonStory. I found that as a vegan living in a gasaholic van, my footprint is about half of the average American’s.
Thanks for sticking it out through all that information! I would really love to hear your thoughts on all of this. Do you still think I’m a hypocrite for driving a big van? Hash it out with me in the comments. What are you doing to reduce your footprint? Do you have questions about a vegan/vegetarian diet? Do you feel hopeless that we’ll ever solve this issue?
One of the best ways to address climate change is to start taking the issue seriously and talking about it. So let’s discuss.