CO2&U: Your carbon footprint, and how to shrink it
Food and gas drive North Van family's carbon emissions
The first in a series of deep dives into the carbon footprints of B.C. households. Names have been changed for the anonymity and privacy of each household profiled. Interested in being profiled in this new series? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the cusp of retirement, Cecilia and Dane are in the final years of the full nest experience, with a pair of twentysomething "kids" at home. As much as they enjoy skiing locally and hiking the trails above their North Vancouver home, they have an appetite to stretch their legs elsewhere in B.C. and beyond.
As they head into retirement, they're open to making changes in their lifestyle and in the products they purchase. They hope those changes will help mitigate some of the emissions associated with car and air travel that are central to their retirement plans.
"Travel is kind of what we've worked for so long," says Cecilia, a counsellor whose husband continues to work as a financial advisor in the resource sector. "So I'd say it would be really hard to reduce our travel."
Why Canadians need to curb their footprint
A new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report concludes that the catastrophic impacts of climate breakdown may soon outpace humanity’s ability to adapt to it. "This is a wake-up call for immediate climate action and climate justice," says the report.
And there's a real urgency for wealthy countries such as Canada to dramatically cut their carbon footprint. Our per-person footprint of 15.5 tonnes annually is one of the highest in the world, more than twice that of people in Europe (6.4), and three times the world average of 4.8.
"Between 2010 and 2020, droughts, floods and storms killed 15 times as many people in highly vulnerable countries, particularly in Africa – which is responsible for less than 3% of global emissions – than in the wealthiest countries," says the IPCC report.
How Cecilia and Dane's emissions stack up
The household carbon emissions estimates in this series are calculated using U.K.-based carbonfootprint.com. It's a detailed footprint estimator that also allows for localization of emissions impacts, which are particularly important in areas such as electricity, where BC Hydro's electricity – powered by water – is far cleaner than that generated in most areas of the world.
The news for Cecilia and Dane was mixed. Dividing their total household emissions by the four people in their household, their per-capita emissions – which they based on a typical year involving air travel – were 13.3 tonnes. That's below the Canadian average of 15.5, but still more than twice the European average.
The big-ticket carbon item in their household is what they spend on food, products, and services. Air travel, the use of a gas furnace in their home, and the gas and related costs of running two small SUVs, also carry hefty CO2 emissions.
Here's how the contributing factors to their per-person footprint breaks down:
- Food, products, recreation, and services: 8 tonnes
- Flights: 2.1 tonnes
- Fuel for cars: 1.4 tonnes
- Home heating and electricity: 1.4 tonnes
- Bus, transit, and rail travel: .27 tonnes
Food for thought: less meat and dairy
One of the immediate changes the four people in Cecilia and Dane's home can make is in their diets. While daughter Naomi has recently switched to a plant-based diet, they still rate themselves (on a household basis) as "medium meat eaters", and consumption of beef and lamb in particular carry a CO2 wallop.
The family is mindful of the amount of meat they eat, mainly due to health and cost concerns.
"Anytime you add meat to your grocery bill, you notice it," says Cecilia. "It's like back when we had to buy diapers – your bill goes up another 50 to 60 bucks. We're also looking at other things, like when I grab a chai tea while shopping I'll go with oat milk instead of cow's milk. And when we make a chicken dish, it's rare that we're each eating a chicken breast each, as it's usually just part of a curry or other dish with mixed vegetables. Of course, Dane still loves his barbecue, so there is that."
Family considers electric car and a switch to a heat pump
Dane says he'd consider switching out the home's natural gas furnace for a heat pump, which also offers summer cooling.
Rebates of up to $11,000 are available for BC Hydro customers switching from natural gas to qualifying heat pumps, which also offer efficient summer cooling. Just switching to a heat pump could cut the family's household emissions by two tonnes or more per year, which is more than the total annual average CO2 emissions of a person living in India.
An electric car is also on the list of possibilities. Like many, Cecilia and Dave have a misconception around how far EVs can drive on a single charge, and said they were concerned they couldn't find an EV that was a fit for their annual trips to Kelowna.
The reality is that there are currently more than a dozen EV models available in B.C. capable of covering the 390 km drive from North Van to Kelowna on a full charge. And when conditions reduce that range, such as on chilly winter days, there are several BC Hydro fast-charger stops en route. Three of those longer-range vehicles – the Hyundai Kona Electric, Chevy Bolt, and Volkswagen ID.4 – qualify for new car rebates of up to $8,000. Canada's top-selling EV – the Tesla Model 3 – has a range between 438 km and 576 km, depending on the model.
How Cecilia and Dane could shrink that footprint
An eventual switch to at least one electric vehicle, eating less meat, and converting to a heat pump, could trim Dane and Cecilia's household footprint by five or six tonnes per year. And Canadian climate change researcher Seth Wynes, author of the book SOS, What you can do to reduce climate change, suggests there are other ways they can contribute in meaningful ways.
One way is to operate just one car, and rely more on walking, biking, transit, and carshares when they need it. Another is to consider reducing the number of flights they take, perhaps opting for fewer, but longer, international trips as that option presents itself in retirement.
Wynes also believes strongly in not limiting our climate action to our personal footprints. He sees everything from the way you vote to divestment away from companies with significant carbon emissions, to discussing actions with neighbours, as equally important.
"Subtracting your footprint has its limits," says Wynes. "Where you can, look for ways to spur changes in society, your friends, and your neighbours. If Dane works in the resource industry, he could help push for sustainability and a reduction in carbon emissions in the companies he works with."
Dane says he feels "fortunate" to be in a position to influence sustainability decisions at companies that can have a major impact. He strongly believes that so-called ESG issues (environmental, governance, social) including carbon footprint, shouldn't be viewed as a cost centre to be managed, but as a goal to be achieved.
But Dane emphasized that pushing for sustainability at work doesn't leave him off the hook for his household emissions.
"I need to do the right thing in my personal life, too," he says. "Being 'good' in one shouldn't somehow permit me to be less good in the other."
How household CO2 savings add up
If even one in four Canadian households reduced their annual CO2 emissions by five tonnes, it would reduce Canada's CO2 emissions by 12.75 million tonnes annually. That's equivalent to taking 2.6 million gas-powered vehicles off the road.
About the footprint calculator
While there are a variety of carbon and eco-footprint calculators available online, few are as thorough and data-driven as carbonfootprint.com, which involves far more detail than most other calculators. It also shows much higher CO2 emissions totals for consumption of food, products, recreational pursuits, etc., than other calculators, estimating those emissions by a household's annual spend in each category.
For this series, we've used the calculator to its full potential, getting profiled households to include detailed information about their transportation, food, recycling, and other choices. If you're using the calculator, note that your emissions total will be your household total. You'll need to divide that number by the number of people in your household to get your per-capita emissions estimate.
If you have other questions about how the calculator functions, see carbonfootprint.com's calculators FAQ.