Introduction to Sustainability
One of my goals for this year is to start living a more sustainable lifestyle. It’s basically the reason I started this blog, as a place to document my journey. I want to share what I learn so we can all make informed decisions in our own lives and hopefully show how easy it can be. In order to do that I will first need to define what I mean by sustainability. I will also discuss why we should care about sustainability, and how to calculate your carbon footprint.
What is Sustainability
Sustainability, in its most basic form, is using resources conservativly while thinking about future generations and their needs as well (Basiago, 1995). To me this means conserving our natural resources like water, air, trees, and non renewable energy for future generations. Other similar terms are green living and environmentally friendly lifestyles. Personal focuses for me include the health of our oceans and wildlife conservation or biodiversity.
Why Sustainability is important to me
In my opinion, climate change is one of the major issues we will face in our lifetime. I feel very strongly that if we all make some tough choices now it will be much easier than the tough choices we will have to make in the future. So how are climate change and sustainability linked?
The United Nations (UN) is working to lead the charge with 17 goals to help the world reach a more sustainable lifestyle. These goals focus on the usual suspects: clean air, water, and energy. They also include ending poverty and world hunger, sustainability in industry and infrastructure, oceans, biodiversity, economy, and health. One of their main goals tackles climate change. The UN climate goal is “to limit global warming to 1.5°C,” which will require a 45% reduction in global carbon emissions over the next ten years!
Climate change is having a major impact on our natural resources and our everyday lives. We may not all see it yet since its effects are currently seen more in some areas of the world than others, but it is happening. Just think about the major loss of sea ice in Antarctica, the pictures we’ve seen of starving polar bears in the Arctic, the increase in strong hurricanes, the fires in Australia, and the list goes on and on.
I started to write about what climate change is, how it’s linked to global warming and the burning of fossil fuels, major effects, etc… but honestly it was too much for a single post. While I will cover many of these topics over the coming months I have included some great resources at the end of this post to get you started. If you have any questions please comment below!
If I want to help preserve this Earth for future generations it is my personal responsibility to minimize my impact on the climate and reduce my carbon footprint.
Carbon Footprint Calculator
In order to start this journey I needed to collect some baseline data. So I did some research and found a Carbon Footprint Calculator. This tells us how many tons of CO2 we produce each year based on the choices we make. It factors in things like how much electricity we use, how much we drive our cars, what kinds of food we eat etc. There are many calculators available. I have used several of them and most are pretty similar and have a range of specificity. I wanted to find one that was detailed but easy to complete in about 30 minutes or less. I chose the CoolClimate Calculator produced by Berkeley University.
The calculator breaks everything down into categories. Under each category is a few easy questions. You fill out the answers and your Carbon Footprint is calculated for you. Most categories are calculated per household but some are per person so pay attention to how the questions are framed. It also helps if you have access to your utility bills. In case you have any questions on how to use the calculator I included some tips and tricks for how I calculated mine at the end of this post.
Follow this link to calculate your own carbon footprint https://coolclimate.berkeley.edu/calculator
Keep in mind that your Carbon footprint will change often according to time of year, how much you are traveling, etc. I have been calculating my carbon footprint yearly for about 3 years now. I usually do it in January as part of my new years resolution or when I’m doing my taxes since both are times when I’m already reflecting on my life over the previous year.
My Carbon Footprint
I calculated the carbon footprint for our household of 2: my husband, David, and I. We produce around 26 tons of CO2 eq/year, which is about 37% less than the average American. Most of this has to do with the fact that we don’t own a house. We currently live in a small two bedroom apartment, which automatically reduces our carbon footprint by a lot. Since we don’t have much space we don’t buy a lot of things. Although I wouldn’t ask David about this after I come back from Target! We are also fortunate enough to not have a lot of medical expenses. Even though our current lifestyle is already inherently more sustainable we have put effort into reducing the amount of meat we eat, reducing our electricity usage, and vehicle usage as well.
Where I’m Failing
So let’s take a look at the areas where my household could improve. Clearly car fuel at 8.1 tons of CO2/yr and electricity at 5.29 tons of CO2/yr contribute the most to our CO2 emissions. We could also definitely improve in the food and goods categories.
Before the quarantine, David would drive me to work almost every morning, and while I did walk or take the bus home most days, we still both put around 8,000 mi/yr on our vehicles. He commutes everyday back and forth between 2 jobs and home; and on the weekends we love to drive out of the city to hike and explore the desert.
We have tried our best to reduce our energy consumption but we can only do so much while living in an apartment. We turn off lights and set our thermostat higher than we usually would. We don’t use our heater since we never really need it here in AZ, but we are unable to choose energy star appliances or add solar panels. While our electric company does allow us to choose if a portion of our usage comes from green energy, like wind or solar, it is at an added cost on an already expensive bill.
The air conditioning in the summer is what really pushes our usage up higher than I would like. Since temperatures are usually above 110F during the summer in Phoenix it takes a lot of energy to keep even our small shaded apartment cool. My kwh are over 1000 per month in the summer but the rest of the year they are around 300. While many of my native AZ friends don’t even think about turning their AC on until it reaches triple digits I am not that strong and we have my husband’s guitar to think about!
Food and Goods:
We didn’t do too badly in the Food or Goods categories, but most of my improvement goals will be in these categories since they are the ones I can control the most in my life right now.
At the end this Calculator gives you a list of things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint. Many of these are very expensive (buy a fuel efficient car, etc). They do provide an average upfront cost to help you choose some things that fit your lifestyle which I liked. I’ll break my goals down into 3 Categories:
- Overall goal – this will be more like the rules of the project and will help me stay focused
- Short term goals – changes we will implement in the next year or so
- Long term goals – things we will strive for in the future if life permits
Work towards a more sustainable lifestyle, reduce our household carbon footprint, make changes that are efficient timewise, and stick within our current budget by finding cost effective options that don’t break the bank (or even save us money).
Short Term Goals:
- Reduce the amount of plastic we use/buy especially single use plastic
- Reduce the amount of new items we buy, such as clothing
- Reduce the amount of trash we produce
- Eat a lower carbon diet and buy more sustainable groceries
- Reduce the amount of mileage we put on our cars (this one will be difficult)
Long Term Goals:
- Compost and start a garden, collect water using a rain barrel
- Use all energy star appliances
- use alternative energy sources such as solar panels
- Buy a hybrid, or more fuel efficient car
- Plant trees, water saving landscaping, etc
I’ll explore each of these goals along my journey. I’ll work to find the most sustainable, easiest, and most cost effective ways to implement changes in order to reach these goals. I’ll make assessments along the way to see if the changes are really working. Below I’ve left some tips for calculating your own carbon footprint and some resources on climate change and sustainability. Comment below and tell me about your own sustainability goals! If you calculate your carbon footprint, what areas can you improve in? How big or small is your carbon footprint?
Tips for Calculating your Carbon Footprint by Category:
This is a general estimate on how many miles you drive your car, and take public transportation.
Flights: I count each layover as one flight. You can google how many miles for each flight, but generally short flights will be less than an hour, medium flights between 1-3.9 hours, and long flights will be over 4 hours.
Example: My flight from Phoenix to New Orleans has a layover in Houston. The flight from PHX to Houston is about 2.5 hours and the flight to New Orleans is only around 45 minutes. So I count that as 1 medium and 1 short flight. I add my return trip home and multiply by 2 since my husband also flies and that adds up to 4 medium flights and 4 short flights per year.
Utility bills: Electric, Water, and Gas bills(use a bill from an average month or take the average over a few months)
Other heat sources: I included the propane we use for our grill here
For this step you can use the general or advanced calculator. I find the advanced easier to use since it breaks things down into smaller categories. Generally, I think back over the past week or 2 and come up with an average number of times a week I eat something (beef, chicken, pork, etc).
Remember, this is per person! If you use a food journal or app to track what you eat, this is a great time to break that out. Next you’ll need to do a little math to figure out your average daily servings.
Ex: how much beef do I consume on average per person daily?
Let’s say I eat beef twice a week on average.
2 servings of beef per week/ 7 days per week = 0.28 servings daily
Shopping: Again I use the advanced calculator. This is per household not per person. For most of these categories l think about any purchases I’ve made over the past year (a new couch, new tires, etc), add them up for each category and divide that number by 12 to get my cost per month.
For categories like clothes or paper and office supplies I generally only go back one or two months and figure out how much I spent that month. I use my amazon orders, receipts, and memory to make lists of items I’ve purchased in the past month and their cost by category.
For Entertainment I include netflix, cable, movies, amazon prime membership, etc…
For Information and Communication I include my internet bill, cell phone bill, etc
All of these resources come from some of the leading organizations in climate change. They are presented in a friendly format for the general public. Each website has links to primary sources and scientific journal articles as well.
Basiago, A.D. (1995), Methods of defining ‘sustainability’. Sust. Dev., 3: 109-119. https://doi.org/10.1002/sd.3460030302.
United Nations Sustainable Development : https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/
UN Climate Goal: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/climate-change/
NASA: information on what climate change and global warming are, what is causing them, the effects on us and our planet https://climate.nasa.gov/resources/global-warming-vs-climate-change/
UCLA website includes info on what is sustainability, a video presentation on sustainability, and links to scholarly articles: https://www.sustain.ucla.edu/about-us/what-is-sustainability/
For more information on my sustainable journey check out my page on sustainable living.
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