Let’s Make 2019 the Peak of Our Carbon Emissions

“The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere just hit its highest level in 800,000 years, and scientists predict deadly consequences.”

You may feel like you just read that at the start of this week when it was discovered that humanity has reached a new high in carbon emissions. But actually that’s the headline from a Business Insider article published eleven months ago in 2018. And it’s one possible future we’ll see again in 2020 if we don’t do something about it.

Let’s let that sink in for a moment. Think back to where you were in June of 2018 when that article was published. Give yourself a moment to reflect on the last year since then. Did you do anything as an individual to change your carbon footprint? Maybe you believe that individual action is irrelevant because what we really need is an economic revolution or some other collective action. Did you start or participate in any uprisings over the last year?

Seriously, think about it. You were given the exact same information last June. How have you reacted? What have you done? Perhaps you found yourself mired in numbness and grief. Or maybe you reacted with anger and outrage. Maybe you completely changed your lifestyle and are ready to do more.

Now imagine for a moment that you are seeing this headline again next year in 2020. What do you wish you’d accomplish now to have an impact on that possible future?

We have another whole year before then in which we can take decisive action to change our lifestyle and initiate or participate in larger-scale policy changes that will have an effect on the world we enter next May. If you took these last twelve months to sit with your depression or outrage, let’s challenge ourselves to do something more this time around. If you have been taking bold and meaningful action, let’s keep it up, let’s take it further, and let’s help others get to where we’re already starting from. This year let’s work up from whatever progress we’ve made in the last year.

Let’s do something about this.

U.S. Carbon Emissions by Economic Sector in 2017

data source: https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions

Sources of CO2 Emissions

In the chart above, I recreated a graphic the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses. Their data identifies transportation and electricity as the two sectors contributing the most to carbon emissions. The largest of these, transportation, primarily (90%+) comes from the gasoline we use to power not only our cars but also all the other vehicles we use to move goods around and into the country—think: ships, planes, trucks, etc. Likewise, about 62% of our electricity sector emissions come from burning fossil fuels like coal and natural gas.

Fossil fuels play a primary role in every sector’s carbon emissions whether we’re talking about these big two or powering industrial factories, heating our homes and businesses, or accounting for the impact of agriculture on the planet. But a fossil fuel future is not necessarily the direction we’re heading in.

In 2018, renewable energy sources accounted for 17% of total electricity generation in the U.S. while this 2012 study by the U.S. Department of Energy has previously found that 80% of U.S. electricity could come from renewable sources by 2050. Similarly, since 1990, forestry and land management have transformed the U.S. land use sector from a source of carbon emissions to a source of carbon sequestration—that is, pulling carbon back out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis. While the viability of diverse renewable energy seems to be positively trending around the globe, carbon sequestration is still a developing strategy and not a viable pathway for many other countries right now. Importantly, both renewable energy and carbon sequestration raise valid concerns too. Nevertheless, both of these solutions and others are necessary to drastically reduce CO2 emissions in the coming decades to help keep global temperatures suitable for sustaining life.

Top 5 Countries by Share of CO2 Emissions

data source: https://www.ucsusa.org/global-warming/science-and-impacts/science/each-countrys-share-of-co2.html

This is Absolutely an American Issue

In the above graphic, you can see a depiction of the top 5 countries by share of global CO2 emissions. This data comes from 2015 and is based on CO2 emissions from fuel combustion, i.e., all the fossil fuel uses in the different sectors identified above. Additionally, last year’s report by the Global Carbon Project also estimates 2018 emissions rises by 4.7% in China, 2.5% in the U.S., and 6.3% in India. So, even as renewable energy is replacing fossil fuels in the U.S., and carbon sequestration is offsetting carbon emissions, the U.S. is still one of the leading carbon polluters in the world, second only to China.

Moreover, while U.S. CO2 emissions equal about 55% of China’s, our per capita consumption is around 2.5 times higher. Additionally, our emissions are about 2.5 times higher than India’s (the next leading country), and our per capita consumption is nearly 10 times higher. Taken together, these data points demonstrate that global CO2 emissions and fossil fuel consumption are absolutely issues of pollution and consumption here in the United States.

While the consumer choices and lifestyles we can lead are absolutely factors of our economic conditions, the health of humanity and this planet is still very much tied up in what people in the United States do about it. This brings me to the two major fronts where action is required to decrease our emissions.

The first is of course demanding accountability from both the public and private sectors. Even if all of us people choose to consume as ethically as possible, corporations are not individual people and they are expected if not also legally liable to act in the best interests of their shareholders, not from a place of morality or ethical considerations. Likewise, lack of accountability from state agencies creates gaps in our knowledge of fossil fuel use and unfairly shifts the burden back solely onto us as consumers, rather than all of us both individually and collectively as a country. We affect change around the behaviors of both corporations and the state through public policies which force decision-making to align with public and ecological interests rather than the whims of discretionary ethics. Demanding public accountability and stringent environmental protection from these powerful players is necessary.

At the same time, we absolutely have an obligation to change whatever individual consumer habits we are capable of changing now, and to prepare to change others as additional options become available. Fuel efficient cars, for example, are a great option if you need a car and can afford one. But at the same time, our ultimate goal needs to be radical reductions in car culture, car-populated cities, and car-driven economies, not affordable fuel-efficient cars for everyone 16 and older. Economies reflect the vices we act on, not the virtues we proclaim. And the current world economy is very much based on exploitation for the benefit of the U.S., as can be seen in the vast amounts of pollution our civilization produces. Earth cannot support materialistic equity for Americans at the expense of the rest of the world.

Reducing Our Impact

Keeping this balance between policy- and individual-driven changes in mind, we have a lot of data already to work with on how we can ultimately reduce our carbon emissions. Returning to the first section above, transportation is a key area we can transform. Air travel is one of the fastest growing sources of CO2 emissions in this sector, and an area where a lot of individual cuts can be made by simply choosing not to travel so far so frequently or by using alternative modes of transportation.

Marine shipping is another area in this sector where our individual choices matter. We cut back on this one by cutting back on the miles traveled by the goods we consume. Buying as local as possible, whenever possible, is actually a major way we can tackle not only CO2 emissions but production of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) from refrigeration required to transport food goods over large distances. So even though agriculture isn’t a major direct source of carbon emissions, changing our relationship to it can decrease some of the indirect ways it produces CO2.

Of course, ‘local’ is a subjective term with no regulated meaning. It can refer to goods made in the same country where one buys them, goods who traveled less than an arbitrary number like 500 miles, or perhaps just goods produced within your postal region.

Personally I set my goal post as ‘hyper-local’ which I define as goods produced within my neighborhood or social network. I definitely don’t meet that goal all the time, but it’s a relationship we’re all working on, and it’s okay to not reach our goals immediately. The key factor though is that we want to take out as many travel miles and as much fossil fuel combustion as possible for as many of the goods we consume as possible.

Here are a few other solutions we can contribute to as we’re able to:

  • Decrease use of cars by walking, biking, carpooling, or using public transportation

  • Replace your car entirely with walking, biking, or public transportation if possible

  • Decrease personal demand for electricity at home, and encourage electricity mindfulness in your workplace

  • Decrease consumption of agricultural products from areas where agricultural expansion through forest clear-cutting is not effectively offset by carbon sequestration

  • Divest from non-local food and good networks to the extent that’s possible, convert your lawn to food and fiber gardens, partner with other neighbors to expand the variety of what you’re able to produce hyper-locally

  • Divest from fossil fuel power grids at home or at work entirely if possible in you’re area

  • Advocate for your city to establish more fuel-efficient or renewable-powered modes of public transportation along with better routes to engage more people

  • Advocate for your city to establish suitable renewable energy upgrades to existing infrastructure, like installing solar panels along highways or in parking lots

  • Advocate for hemp replacements of building components like drywall which are significant contributors to carbon emissions

  • Advocate for stronger environmental policies to bring industry emissions to zero in the coming decades

  • Advocate for clear public accountability on fossil fuel uses by industries and governments at home and around the world

Many of these strategies require governments and other authorities behind the infrastructural nature of our world to be receptive and supportive, which they may not be. The efficiency of our advocacy will vary from region to region, and the strategies of applying pressure to these obstacles necessarily must as well.

Ultimately, reducing our carbon footprint is only the start of the healing process our relationship to the planet needs at this time. The well-being of life on this planet depends not only on a decrease in production of greenhouse gasses, but repair of the damage we have caused, and restoration of our environment’s capacity to regulate a healthy atmosphere for us. Those however are issues for another time and another post.

Today let’s just start with what we can each do to bring down our collective emissions level. Future reports on human carbon emissions are not yet written in stone. We can absolutely still make a difference in the direction humanity takes this planet.

Deepening Resilience began as a community blog project with a set of prompts anyone can submit to, but I’ve decided to add to my contributions here through additional posts on related subjects. You can read past posts in this category here, and even join the project’s Facebook group page here.

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Pat Mosley (LMBT #16882) is a licensed massage therapist and life coach in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His work is especially focused on creating permaculture in his community, which sometimes looks like providing bodywork, and other times looks like writing or designing gardens for people and bees.

Get connected with him via email to info@pat-mosley.com