September: Transportation

Transportation is a little simpler than other topics we’ve tackled. Basically, bike, walking and transit are very good, while flying is very very bad.

Trains are good but we don’t have them here. We have freight trains, and a tourist run to Vancouver that costs more than flying, but nothing else.

Flying is one of the worst ways to spend our carbon-dollar. First, it takes a lot of fuel to fly a plane. Second, “the fuel is burned at an altitude where it has, as a best estimate, nearly twice the climate change impact that it would have had at ground level.” (Mike Berners-Lee, How Bad Are Bananas, p. 60, Greystone Books, 2011).

Any alternative to flying is better. Of course, sometimes that’s just not viable, especially in a huge country like Canada, or for international travel. We’ll be checking out carbon offsets the next time we fly, our personal carbon tax on flying, until there’s an actual carbon tax on flying.

We do walk, use transit and bike. We could/should/would do more. We’ll work on that.

We have two cars, which in itself is a big carbon hit, before considering any mileage. We’re not quite ready to shift back to one (we were a one-car family for many years). Our mileage has always been low, although that’s changing a little now. We head into the mountains once a week, and our parents live on the edges of Calgary, far from our central location, and far from each other. It looks like our mileage will be about 30% higher this year.

Our 2007 Honda Fit and 2010 Mazda 5 rate “Superior” on Greenercars.org, the top rating, and were both best in class. Greenercars.org search page. The Fit is rated at 7.3 Litres/100Km in the city, and 5.8 on the highway. Our measured mileage on the Fit was between 7.0 and 7.9 l/100Km, which is pretty good as we mostly drive in the city. The  Mazda is rated at 10.7 in the city and 8.4 on the highway. We’re not faring as well here; our actual mileage is between 11.5 and 14 l/100Km. The very best conventional cars are at the 7.0 l/100Km mark, so we are doing very well with the Honda. The hybrid Toyota Prius is rated at about 5.4 in the City. Natural Resources Canada’s guide.

Fuel efficiency can be boosted by up to 30% with simple maintenance and some driving changes. These include avoiding aggressive driving, as fast acceleration and deceleration both waste fuel. Watch highway speeding, as fuel consumption is up to 20% higher over 90 km/h, depending on the vehicle. Avoid any idling more than 30 seconds, except to clear the windshield in cold weather. Avoid driving in heavy traffic as much as possible. This both speeds up the trip, and doesn’t slow down other people, so there’s a double carbon gain. Make sure tires are inflated correctly, and vehicles well maintained. Plan trips for efficiency. For more details, there’s a good list at eartheasy.com.

We’ve decided to try to improve the efficiency of the Mazda. For a month or so, it’ll be used only for city driving, to make the test clean, and driven only by Mark, who will try to develop more efficient driving skills. We’ve read this can improve efficiency from 10-30%. Mark will take a Natural Resources Canada on-line course on efficient driving.

Our vehicles are 6 and 9 years old. We typically replace cars around 12 years, when they start to become less reliable. That’ll be when we take a close look at alternatives.

At the moment, a fully electric car sounds brilliant for city driving, but we wouldn’t take it into the mountains. Calgary to Jasper is 412 km, and we drive it in one day. We can’t get there on a single charge. Someday there might be enough charging stations. Today is not that day. At the moment there’s only one gas station between Lake Louise and Jasper, a 232 km run. We won’t drive into the Canadian Rockies and risk running out of fuel. That’s just not safe.

We could have an electric car for city driving and a gasoline car for road trips, but that seems foolish. A hybrid might make more sense for us. We’ll keep watching the rapid and exciting developments for electric cars, improved batteries, solar roofs on electric cars, and dropping prices, and make the move when it’s time to replace a vehicle. Here’s a great article on the shifting cost of clean cars. NPR: It may not cost you more to drive home in a lower emission car.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to advocate for a healthy carbon future, including voting for those who support mass transit.

In October we’ll be digging in to food.

 

January: Where We Begin

January was all about assessing our current carbon footprint.

First, we looked up our fuel consumption. This was easy. Enmax, our electricity and natural gas provider, has an on-line service that totals and graphs consumption. One stop data.

For our two cars, we calculated our annual average mileage, and inputted model information. The on-line carbon footprint calculators worked out the rest. This will be based on official mileage for those vehicles, not our actual mileage, as we haven’t kept data on that. We will collect it this year.

We used two calculators to calculate our carbon footprint. The first, recommended by the Suzuki Foundation, focuses solely on fuel use.

https://treecanada.ca/en/programs/grow-clean-air/carbon-calculator/#tabs1-energy

Based on this, our carbon footprint is 20.34 metric tons of CO2. This is for 3 people in a 1200 sq ft house, no basement, detached unheated garage, in inner city Calgary.

However, we also wanted to include secondary carbon, from making and transporting the goods and services we use, so we looked at other websites, and chose

http://www.carbonfootprint.com/calculator.aspx

It’s easy to use, to reset, and to play with, and it breaks down the various categories clearly. The two calculators came up with the same carbon footprint for fuel consumption.

Our total carbon footprint including secondary consumption is 24.42 metric tons of CO2, for three people.

carbonimage

The average for Canada is 20 metric tons per person. Compared to that we’re doing really well. The average for the industrial world is 11 (we’re still doing well compared to that), worldwide average is 4 (we’re double that), and the worldwide target to combat climate change is 2. Ideally, we need to reach carbon zero.

Our first surprise – that our energy footprint as low as it is. Of course, that’s a relative thing. It’s still far, far too high.

The reasons it’s low compared to average? None of us drive to work or school (we’re in a walkable bikeable transitable neighbourhood). We live in a small house. We’ve made some changes over the years, like installing an efficient furnace, replacing old single-paned (multi-paned mullioned windows) with argon-filled double paned windows, and choosing efficient appliances as they need replacing.

Our second surprise ­– that our natural gas use is lower than average for our area, but our electricity use is higher. This one has us scratching our heads. Our guess is that this is a reflection of Maureen’s health issues. We run air filters through the year and a portable air conditioner on the hottest days to help with air quality. We’ll try to break this down further when we look at electricity use.

Note: Calgary’s electricity is generated in part by coal-fired plants, so our carbon footprint for electricity will be higher than for the same consumption in other provinces. The coal-fired plants are being phased out, but for now, it’s higher-carbon electricity. Our personal use is also higher than use in our area – that’s the piece we can work on.

The third surprise – we checked the price of carbon offsets. This is a purchase into someone else’s carbon sequestering project, to provide a carbon sink equal to our carbon use. For our current carbon footprint, this would cost $400ish, for the year. That’s it – that’s the yearly price for the three of us to get to zero carbon.

But that’s not the path we want to take. We want to reduce our carbon footprint. So to work.

In February we’ll focus on learning more about our natural gas consumption. We’ll test for drafts, and get an energy assessment. Hopefully we’ll learn what’s going on with our roof insulation, and discover why our poorly built back entry is so cold in deepest winter. We’ll also look at the efficiency of our furnace and water heater.

We were hoping to rent a thermal camera and play, but it turns out the rental from Home Depot is only available in the US. Alas. No geek out play time for us. We’ll have to be satisfied with a report.

Maureen and Mark

Here are some links we found useful for learning about reducing our carbon footprint:

http://www.davidsuzuki.org/what-you-can-do/reduce-your-carbon-footprint/

http://www.atcoenergysense.com/For-Homeowners/Tools-and-Calculators/

We used calculators that worked in different units of measure than our data. We googled the conversions, but if you want a chart, here’s one we bumped into:

http://www.atcoenergysense.com/For-Homeowners/Tools-and-Calculators/Energy-Conversion-Table

Fueled By Hope

The day the United Nations COP21 climate change summit accord was signed in Paris on December 13, 2015, committing us all to a lower carbon future, I was thrilled, especially by the increased discussion of the need to get to zero carbon. I linked to an article about it on Facebook, and wrote, “Now we need to get to work.”

Then I started thinking about it. Clearly there’s a ton of work for governments and industry. What can we do as individuals, in addition to lobbying, donating and voting for those who are working to protect our environment? I don’t even know what zero carbon means. What will it look like, at my house?

I tend to do this – learn something new in theory and then need to figure out what it looks like on the ground. In my house, in my garden. So I hatched a plan and talked my husband into joining in. This blog is our first step.

Through 2016, we are going to work on this question: How do we get to zero carbon, at our house?

I wrote to the Suzuki Foundation for advice. This was their reply:

Thank you for your interest in carbon neutrality. The process is actually fairly simple:
– Measure the emissions from your household
– Reduce emissions where possible at your household
– Purchase emissions reductions made elsewhere (carbon offsets) to balance the remaining emissions you were not able to reduce.

I’m not convinced it’ll be simple. Mark says it’s kind of like saying you play the flute by blowing in one end and moving your fingers up and down. But we’re going to leap in and learn to play.

Our plan is to tackle one topic a month, researching and making the easy changes.  We’ll research the big stuff too, like electric cars and solar panels, so when the time is right we’ll be able to move quickly. That’s not likely to be this year.

January will be about finding out our current carbon footprint, and what it would cost to buy carbon offsets for that amount. This will define where we are and set a price on the problem. We’re also hoping to book an energy assessment of our house, so we’ll know what we need to work on most.

We’ll report on our progress at the end of the month, and set goals for the next month.

Maureen and Mark