According to climate scientists, we have the best chance of avoiding a 2 degrees Celsius rise in global temperatures if the average annual carbon footprint per person drops under 2 tons by 2050. That would require a big change from today’s global average of 4.8 tons per person, it’s obvious that countries like Australia, where people generate an average of 16.9 tons per person, or the United States (16.6 tons) have a long way to go to reach this goal.
That’s why reducing and offsetting our CO2 emissions is the best way to take ownership of our personal contribution to climate change. However, many of us are unaware of what that really entails, meaning that we often fall victim to various half-truths and end up taking action that isn’t necessarily effective.
Understanding carbon emissions is key to being well disposed to address broader climate change issues. So, let’s take a look at the three most common misconceptions out there.
“Renewable energy is completely green”
Renewables have grown massively over recent years, and many of us have come to believe that they present a fully green option. Even though solar panels and wind turbines don’t release any emissions or toxins while generating energy, we can’t say the same thing about the way they’re manufactured.
A hidden carbon footprint often results from the manufacturing or construction of a product; it may come in the form of material extraction or toxic waste. For example, the basic material used for the production of photovoltaic panels is silicon, an element derived from quartz. Quartz must be mined and then heated in a furnace, processes that emit sulfur dioxide and CO2 into the atmosphere. The production of solar panels also uses large amounts of water and creates tetrachloride, a toxic chemical, as a by-product of manufacturing.
While the impact of these processes can be softened with carbon offsets, it takes effort. Fortunately, manufacturers are often able to recycle the toxic substances and discarded parts left over when the solar panel is finished.
In the case of fiberglass blades used for wind turbines, innovators are looking to process the blades into boards used for construction or to utilize some of the leftover compounds to make paints, glues, and fertilizers. Supporting solutions like these will make renewable energy even more affordable and effective.
“It’s all about recycling”
Can washing out your peanut butter jar match more significant action, like getting a flatmate for your apartment? When thinking of carbon footprints, recycling is often what comes to mind first. Scientists say that we often focus on the wrong climate impact, prioritizing small changes over substantive choices that can make a real dent in emissions.
The small changes feel good and, as COVID-19 has demonstrated, can add up to big changes in emissions. However, there’s a way to adopt more meaningful lifestyle changes – considering we do it right.
- Consider a plant-based diet: “Eat local” is common advice for a low-carbon diet, but it may have little impact on your carbon footprint. Transport actually accounts for only 6% of food emissions. Instead, focus on what you eat. Adopting a plant-based diet is one of the most impactful environmental decisions you can make; if a family of four were to cut its beef consumption in half, it would be the CO2 equivalent of not driving for six months.
- Switch to electric vehicles – but only if needed: Instead of rushing to buy an electric car, think about whether you need a car in the first place. Then, you either can opt for electric, or you can pick a smaller car that will cost you significantly less and spend the rest on insulating your walls or another carbon offset strategy.
- Plastic alternatives aren’t as great as you think: From the CO2 perspective, paper bags can actually be worse than plastic, considering they are heavier (making transport more laborious) and made of trees. Cotton bags are no environmental angels either: They need to be reused at least 52 times to have the same climate impact as a single-use plastic bag. So, your best bet is to use whatever bag you currently own – and use it until it falls apart.
“Your individual choices don’t matter”
We often believe that consumer choices can’t make a difference – but there’s a great reason to think otherwise. Besides the beneficial impact, no matter how slight, your actions can help trigger a peer pressure chain – an effective way to help fight climate change. Behavior patterns and ideas can spread through populations like wildfire and transform into something way bigger.
Think about the potential impact of wide adoption of flexitarian, vegetarian, or vegan diets. Growing from a marginal dining preference, more vegetable-intensive diets have evolved into a mass movement: As of 2019, 4% of the U.S. population doesn’t eat meat. Solar-panel installation, currently installed on about 6% of U.S. homes, is another example of behavioral contagion in the environmental domain, with whole neighborhoods leveraging solar energy – and it all started with an initial impulse.
Whether implementing innovative renewable energy sources or simply taking the bus instead of your car, your conscious actions are important. Not only do they have the power to transform the behavior of your peers, but they also make you more likely to support large-scale policies, a vital aspect of achieving further environmental progress.
About the Author
Branislav Safarik is COO at FUERGY, a solutions provider to help optimize energy consumption and maximize the efficiency of renewable energy sources. Prior to joining FUERGY, Branislav was managing director of TESLA Labs, the research and development center of the TESLA Industries Group.