Williston’s Carbon Footprint: Why So Big?

There’s an informative Web site offered by the University of California at Berkeley that offers, among other things, a map of the United States showing how many greenhouse gases the average household puts out in every zipcode. Here’s our area:

Williston's Carbon Footprint

You’ll notice that South Burlington and especially Burlington are greener (literally and figuratively) than we are in terms of carbon footprint, but that’s a little misleading: it turns out that cities tends to have lower carbon footprints, but they result in widespread suburbs with larger carbon footprints. Burlington depends on its suburbs, so unfortunately it’s a linked effect.

The good news here is that those of us in the suburbs have an enormous opportunity to reduce carbon footprint, and that anything we learn to do can spread to other suburbs around the world, where we see this same pattern.

It’s hard to make out from the picture above, but look at the blue and purple columns in the graph. Those represent transportation (blue) and heating (purple). Reducing car trips, reducing use of airplanes, carpooling, using mass transit, and electric cars all can combine to drive that blue bar way down. For the purple bar, we have similarly big possibilities, including insulation, weatherization, and air source heat pumps (or if you don’t have a home suitable for one of those, the next best thing would be wood or wood pellets).

As a matter of pride, let’s not be just an average suburban town: there’s a lot more to Williston than that. Let’s show people how a small town like ours on the fringe of a small city can make a big difference.

Free Climate Change Film Showing: This Changes Everything

Vermont solar company SunCommon will offer a free showing of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, a film about the consequences and opportunities arising from climate change, tonight at Main Street Landing in Burlington at 5:30 PM. Full details are here. SunCommon will continue to offer showings of the film around the state over the next few weeks: the full schedule is here.

Tips and Recommendations from the First Smaller Footprint Meeting

Here are some notes of interest from the November 20th meeting of Smaller Footprint, a group whose purpose is to share information, ideas, and planning for shrinking individual and household carbon footprints.

Here are a fewbooks that were mentioned last night:

Mike Berners-Lee, How Bad Are Bananas – an expert carbon footprint calculator gives footprints of everything from paper towels to steak to car accidents to space shuttle launches.

Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior – The famed novelist’s story of a woman who finds a miracle that turns out to be the leading edge of climate change disaster. Much about the immediate experience of climate change creeping on us, leaving out discussion of what we can do about it.

Doug McKenzie-Mohr, Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing. The two types of social norms I mentioned that tend to cue people’s behavior, the names of which I can never remember off the top of my head, are injunctive norms (what people understand they’re supposed to do) and descriptive norms (what people perceive to be what others mostly do).

ice packDennis’s “Blue Ice Box” concept is a clever approach to reducing electricity use in refrigerators over the winter: purchase two sets of ice packs (he was thinking the blue ones, say, 12 ice packs total). Put half of them outside in freezing weather, then bring them in to the refrigerator as soon as they’re frozen solid. They’ll help cool your food as their temperature equalizes. When they’re entirely unfrozen, swap in the second set (which you’ll have had outside freezing in the mean time) and put the first set back out to freeze again.

Gotchas: leaving either the outside door or the refrigerator door open too long will cancel out some of the benefit of using this approach. Ideally, bring the ice backs in and out when you’re already going in and out of the house for other reasons.

Refrigerators use a thermostat, so adding the additional chill of ice packs will keep the fridge colder longer without requiring the compressor to start: voila, free cold and electricity savings! (Because cold is a renewal resource in Vermont.)

Remaking Holidays for Sustainability: Ways to Improve Any Holiday

Reposted from FaceClimateChange.com


Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover, the Fourth of July, and other holidays all have a few things in common: they tend to involve travel and special meals or feasts. For many extended families, like mine, these kinds of occasions are the only times during the year we all have a chance to see each other, yet travel and food are two of the four biggest ways individuals and households contribute to global warming*. So our choices are to give up on sustainability over the holidays, to give up on the holidays, or to find ways to the holidays more sustainable, starting now. These posts are focused on that last option.

The way I propose we look at cutting any emissions is “biggest impacts first.” We often look for the easiest, most obvious ways to act more sustainably, but the truth is that there are so many low-impact things we can do, we can easily spend all our time on those and never get to the good stuff, the major savings. That’s where the Big Four offer a starting point. With those in mind, here are some tips for the making the largest possible savings in emissions at the holidays.

Rethink air travel: Flying around the country and even the rest of the plant has become relatively inexpensive and easy, but unfortunately it’s one of the worst offenders in terms of emissions. Not only do planes burn a lot of fossil fuels, they push out their exhaust at altitudes where their bad effects are at least doubled compared to what they would be on the ground. It’s not up to me to tell you or your family members not to fly, but there are ways to fly less, for instance driving together in an efficient car, taking a bus or plane or boat, or making one longer visit instead of two shorter ones. For more information on flying, see “You Want Me to Stop Doing What?”

If the trip is very important to you and you can’t find any way to make it other than air travel, you can consider making a donation to offset the climate impact. For example, Cool Earth is a non-profit organization that does excellent work preserving forests, which is one of the best possible ways to help slow climate change (even better than planting new trees). Donations to organizations that make a smaller or less direct impact would have to be proportionately larger.

The cost of offsetting a flight depends very much on how long the flight is. For a transatlantic round trip, an offset donation to an organization like Cool Earth would be only $20.90. A short round trip, for instance between Niagara Falls and New York City, would be only about $2.50. (Source: How Bad Are Bananas by Mike Berners-Lee)

Not making the trip in the first place is certainly the ideal way to go, but offsetting is a decent alternative if you are having trouble finding away around flying.

Use food well: According to FeedingAmerica.org, between 25% and 40% of all food produced in the U.S. will never be eaten. Take a moment to reflect on that with me: At least a quarter of all our food, and possibly closer to half, goes completely to waste! Meanwhile, much of this food is produced with energy-intensive methods that burn many tons of fossil fuels; methane from ruminant livestock (cows, sheep, and goats) that is more than 20 times as potent in damaging the climate than carbon dioxide; and chemical fertilizers that release Nitrous Oxide (NO2), a greenhouse gas more than 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Careful attention to what and how much food we buy and how we serve and store it can cut our personal food waste to far below the usual amount.

Time permitting, I’ll be posting further ways to transform the holidays over the coming weeks. A happy and sustainable holiday season to all!

Photo courtesy of Emily Barney

* The other two are heat/hot water and electricity.