We’ve all been engaging in a global CO2 emissions experiment. It doesn’t have to end. We’ve explored every cranny and mended every drape in our houses and apartments. And now with a few more degrees of warmth in the air and the rising possibility of a shot or two in our arms, many of us are thinking about the open road.
But before your finger actually hits the buy button on that online reservation, it might be worth taking a pause and considering what staying home has done for the planet. In spite of all of its miseries 2020 was the year our country finally went on a climate diet, cutting its CO2 emissions by a significant ten percent. Of course, no one would want to repeat this harrowing experiment. But we can’t deny that climate-impactful behavior changes took place in 2020.
And the world desperately needs the US to continue that diet. Every year the average American puts five times the greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere as a citizen of slim, trim France, and more than ten times the amount as a resident of India. And so, as a kind of normal returns, it’s worthwhile to look back at the most powerful changes we made; changes that could be maintained without derailing the things we like best about our lives and our country.
It’s worthwhile to look back at the most powerful changes we made; changes that could be maintained without derailing the things we like best about our lives and our country.
We stayed off of airplanes and this was certainly a factor in tamping down our emissions. Just one roundtrip from New York to London results in at least a ton of CO2 per person per flight. That’s the emissions equivalent of an individual in much of the developing world for an entire year. All that flying adds up. A 2018 study in the journal Nature reported that pre-pandemic tourism accounted for about 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
A family of four could, for the same price as flying roundtrip abroad, swap out two of the biggest carbon offenders in their home (gas ranges and clothes dryers) for hyper efficient smart electric models. Skip a few more international trips and that same family could replace their carbon-belching fossil fuel heating system with a vastly more efficient heat pump.
The good kind of hoarding
Americans made fewer trips to the supermarket buying more food per trip and more frozen food than ever before. This was a significant climate savings not only because of the decreased driving to and from the store but also because frozen food costs the planet much less than fresh.
Fast-spoiling fresh food can be extremely carbon costly because it often travels to us by airplane. One study in the UK found that while only 1.5% of fruit and vegetables in that country were carried by air flying food accounted for 40% of the total CO2 emitted during the transport of produce for the entire nation. Frozen food meanwhile is almost never flown. Usually it’s sent via ship — a transport method that is orders of magnitude more carbon efficient.
Not only did we make fewer trips to the grocery store, we made fewer trips to our jobs. This was key because the space between home and work is the hole into which we pour the greatest portion of our fossil fuels. According to the Brookings Institution, pre-pandemic, 76% of Americans drove to work alone every working day, and, indeed, commuting is the main reason most of us own a car in the first place. But as we’re now well aware, working from home is fully possible and, in fact, can lead to marked improvements in productivity. That said, as the digital life critic Brian Solis put it “working remotely during a crisis is not the same as ‘working from home’. . .
This is a herculean endeavor, often without a dedicated support network.” If the Biden administration does indeed push through a massive infrastructure package, we need to rebuild with this idea in mind. Smaller office spaces, fewer days at work, fewer miles burned on our crumbling highways should be the norm going forward. But so should a childcare benefit for those who choose to skip the commute.
Applications for marriage licenses in the New York area alone fell 60 percent during the pandemic and the couples that did marry tended to have what the matrimony industry is now calling “cozy weddings” — fewer attendees and hardly any out-of-town guests. This couldn’t have come a moment too soon. Pre-pandemic there were around 2 million weddings every year in the United States and fed by Instagram bridezillas and groomensteins the average carbon cost of those ever-expanding weddings ballooned to more than 62 tons of emissions per event. Surely when embarking on an institution that thrives on selflessness a little bit of that same sentiment, directed to the planet is a good idea.
If you thought a wedding was bad for a climate diet, try a conference. Though it’s hard to put a hard number on it all the industry tracker ConferenceHound.com estimates 40 million Americans attended conferences in 2019 with a per person emissions cost of more than 400 pounds of CO2 per person per day. Change that all to virtual as we did in 2020 and around 90% of those emissions go away according to green events consultant Shawna McKinley. Undoubtedly, there are benefits to human-to-human contact, but maybe the in-person conference should be the exception and not the rule?
Mindful market manipulation
The one point of exuberance for many Americans in their locked down year was the stock market. Not only did the overall value of the market improbably rise, some of us began to deliberately play with it (c.f. GameStop). But the stock market can and should be much more than a game. It should be a real tool for focusing the attention of the country on the prospects for our future. In this we need to be deadly serious.
Turning to mutual funds and ETFs that specifically focus on low and zero emissions infrastructure would send a positive signal to investors everywhere. And, if the online pranksters want to monkey around with stock prices, perhaps they should consider the fact that as solar and wind costs continue to dip below the production cost of fossil fuels, America’s top five investment banks which today have put more money into the expansion of oil and gas than any other industry on the planet, are in serious risk of stranding their assets. Anybody on Reddit game for shorting J.P. Morgan Chase?
For much of the pandemical year the rallying call for climate action was that change could only be achieved at the ballot box. In this respect 2020 was a resounding success with a climate-forward agenda now sitting squarely on the Resolute Desk. But climate change is as much a local issue as it is a national one. Local municipalities can’t regulate the fuel efficiency of cars, make treaties or borrow money the way governments needed to build massive green infrastructures.
But they can decide how streets are used or what energy efficiency standards buildings will have. This is particularly consequential in a place like New York where 70% of emissions come from buildings. We need to continue to apply pressure at the ballot box and bring our climate-forward enthusiasm to state, city, town and even school board elections.
Will all of this add up to a nation that chooses to stay in voluntarily? Will we actually maintain our climate diet? We don’t know yet. Diets have a way of failing. But if we’re looking for a place where we can live well for ourselves and live well for the planet, there’s no place like home.