I used to have a huge carbon footprint. I liked to fly to conferences in Europe; I lived in a big drafty old house, drove every weekend to a cottage, and in winter would drive two hours to get winched up ski hills covered in artificial snow. The average Canadian is responsible for about 16 tonnes of carbon emissions; I was probably double that. The very rich in Canada are probably double that again.
According to the IPCC, we have to cut the amount of carbon we emit roughly in half by 2030 and to almost nothing by 2050 to prevent catastrophic changes that are likely to happen if average temperatures rise more than 1.5 degrees (we are already up about 1 degree). They calculated a carbon budget, and it’s not much; by 2030, it amounts to about 2.5 tonnes per person. Going from 16 tonnes to 2.5 tonnes sounds daunting, and for many, it is, but others in Canada are living it already without even knowing it.
Many will say that these “lifestyle emissions” don’t matter, that the oil companies and big corporations are responsible.
But we are buying what they are selling, whether gasoline for the pickup or natural gas for our houses, jet fuel for our vacations, or single-use plastics for our takeout. And as was demonstrated during the pandemic, if we stop buying, these companies are in big trouble.
Many will also say that this isn’t urgent, that my next car will be electric, and the government will give me money to replace some windows. But we are not talking about global warming anymore or even climate change; we have an immediate climate crisis with droughts here, floods there, heat waves, crop failures, and forest fires. It is extremely urgent.
Many will even say that our emissions in Canada are barely a rounding error, that China’s emissions dwarf ours. But that’s because the western world has offshored our carbon; the Chinese are doing the dirty work making everything, and we are once again buying what they are selling.
There is no way around it; The climate crisis is happening now, it’s caused by carbon emissions, and it’s personal.
For me, keeping under 2.5 tonnes of emissions in a year wasn’t particularly hard; the pandemic kept me from flying, and I live in a 100-year-old part of the city designed around streetcars that still run so that I can shop locally. I bought an e-bike and rarely drive. I took up cross-country skiing again in the local park. I ate less red meat and more chicken and tofu. A few years ago, I duplexed my house and now live in half the space.
I also happen to be a baby boomer who was able to buy a house in a great part of town for less than a condo parking space costs today, in a province with low carbon electricity. I work from home and am married to a woman who spends August and September canning tomatoes and peaches. Others will find this much harder. As they say on the car ads, your mileage may vary.
Some of our carbon footprint is out of our immediate control; the reason a Canadian’s footprint is 16 tonnes and a French citizens’ is 5.3 has a lot to do with climate and urban density but has more to do with the fact that they don’t have oil sands and are powered with nuclear energy; the per capita footprint is determined by dividing the nation’s footprint by its population. We cannot forget collective action, fighting pipelines and oil infrastructure.
But the best way to deal with the carbon footprint of fossil fuels is to stop buying what they are selling. To choose where we live so that we don’t have to drive. To design our homes and buildings so that they don’t need fossil fuels for heating or cooling. To plan our distant vacations so that they are long and memorable and few. And finally, to acknowledge that our personal choices matter.
Lloyd Alter is a Toronto-based writer, public speaker, former architect, teacher at Ryerson School of Interior Design, inventor and editor for Treehugger.com.