In the US, transportation accounts for about 29 percent of emissions. And worldwide, passenger vehicles and SUVs account for the largest portion of transportation emissions, at nearly 40 percent. These big numbers offer lots of opportunities for getting around more efficiently. Greening our commute can also make us healthier and save money.
Walking and biking
I’m very fortunate to live within walking and biking distance of the farmers’ market, grocery stores, the library, restaurants, my health care providers and so on. Mostly, I ride. In our temperate climate, making my bike my main mode of transportation year-round is not difficult. (Go here for how I shop by bike.) My sister, on the other hand, lives in a rural area in Canada and has to rely on her car to get around.
If you’d like to ride a bike to work or for errands but don’t have one, you may be able to share a bike. Bike-sharing programs have exploded in popularity during Covid in the US, along with e-bikes. This Wikipedia page lists bike-share programs around the world. You may find your city on the list.
And while you’re getting all that exercise… Sierra Club’s 1.5 Degree Challenge
Since you’re moving around anyway, why not raise money for a good cause too? This week, Sierra Club launched its 1.5 Degree Challenge, a low-stress way to improve your health, by getting active, and the planet’s health, by supporting Sierra Club’s environment and social justice work. When you register, you’ll donate $35 and pledge to do 15 minutes of activity every day until the challenge ends on February 18th.
You can also fundraise for the challenge by asking friends and family members to sponsor you. A Facebook group and activity tracker will help you hit those daily 15 minutes and you’ll receive tips from the Sierra Club for taking climate action (we need all the tips!). Go here to register.
Mass transit and carpools
If you need to commute long distances to work but your city provides no subways, trains or buses to get you there, you have no choice but to drive. Perhaps you can carpool with your coworkers or neighbors. Carpooling apps like Waze’s carpooling feature can also help you find people to carpool with. Here in the Bay Area, find matches for a carpool through 511 SF Bay. Your city may have a similar ride-matching service.
Whether you take mass transit to work or commute by bike, your company might help cover the costs. If it doesn’t, bring that up when you join—or start—your company’s green team (see day 18 on pushing for change at work).
When it’s time to get a new car, think electric
We’ve made progress in a short time. Just in 2017, when this Seattle lawyer suggested banning gas cars by 2040, people called him loony, moonbatty and communist. Since then, the idea of banning gas-powered cars has gone mainstream. In 2020, California announced that all new vehicles by 2035 would have to produce zero emissions. Massachusetts and New York followed suit. So if you’re in the market for a new car within the next few years and you currently drive a combustion engine, consider going electric. Charge your car with clean energy if you switch to green electricity for your home (see day 11).
Use this tool from the Union of Concerned Scientists to compare gasoline-only cars, plug-in hybrid electric cars and all-electric cars. In making its calculation, the tool uses your zip code to determine what type of energy you’ll charge your car with at home. In my area, an electric car produces 76 grams of carbon dioxide per mile, compared with 381 grams per mile for a gas-engine car. Go here for a similar tool in Europe.
My mom turns 90 in April and, depending on the Covid situation, I plan on flying to Canada to surprise her for her birthday (she won’t read this spoiler since she uses her iPad for FaceTime only). Using the ICAO Carbon Emissions Calculator, I determined that my return trip from San Francisco to Toronto will generate 522 kg of carbon dioxide, a little over half a metric ton. The Guardian’s carbon calculator generated a similar number (516 kg). Meanwhile, the US generated 14.24 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person in 2020. So my return flight accounts for 3.6 percent of the average American’s carbon emissions for a year—in a mere 10 hours up in the air.
The Guardian calculator spits out some additional figures for users to ponder. In my particular case, individuals in 41 countries around the world produce less carbon dioxide in an entire year than my one flight will. The calculator doesn’t stipulate which countries but they would be countries in the Global South that have paid little part in pushing the world to the edge of the climate abyss and yet are already paying the high price in lives and livelihoods due to the Global North’s extractive, exploitive, growth-at-all-costs, fossil fuel-based economies.
So flying is bad and I feel bad about flying. But I haven’t seen my mom in person in two years and before that, I hadn’t visited for two years. My daughter MK lives up there and serves as my emissary… My Catholic guilt is rearing its head in this post… We’ll discuss Environmental Guilt Syndrome another day.
How to make flying a little less damaging
Ideally, we would all stop flying. But sometimes Zoom won’t cut it or an emergency arises or your job requires you to fly and you’d really prefer to remain living indoors. The following tips will make flying a tiny bit more efficient.
Bundle trips. If you fly frequently for business, group several trips together so you take fewer flights.
Take direct flights. Takeoff and landing burn the most fuel so book a direct flight to your destination.
Buy an economy seat. As anyone who has flown knows, economy seats squeeze more people onto a flight, making it more efficient. First-class seats generate about three times the emissions per person as an economy seat.
Fly during the day. During the daytime, contrails reflect sunlight back into space. At night, they trap heat in the same way as clouds do.
Choose more efficient airlines. Earlier this month, stories of thousands of empty planes flying without passengers horrified the Internet. Airlines fly these ghost planes in order to avoid losing their coveted landing slots at European airports. Try to choose an airline with efficient planes that it fills to capacity. This study ranks US airlines according to fuel efficiency on domestic flights.
And finally, when you must fly…
Buy carbon offsets for your flight (but not just any carbon offsets)
When you buy a carbon offset, your money pays for projects that reduce carbon, thus canceling out the carbon you produce. They work something like indulgences the Catholic Church sold in the Middle Ages. Sinners would pay a fee that might go toward good works, like charities or cathedral building, in order to shave down their time in purgatory. But not all carbon offsets are scams.
You have to do your homework when choosing offsets, as ProPublica revealed in its report “Why Carbon Credits for Forest Preservation May Be Worse Than Nothing.” The piece investigated carbon offset programs in which polluters, such as fossil fuel companies, would pay people to not chop down trees in the Brazilian rainforest. It’s sort of like saying “I’m going to do a bad thing, but it’s okay because I’m going to pay you to not do your bad thing.” But the other bad thing—cutting down trees—happened regardless.
When choosing projects, look for the highest standard—the Gold Standard. And buy offsets that contribute to sustainable development projects, such as methane capture at waste management facilities, biogas capture projects or the distribution of clean cookstoves, for example. Offsets vary in price as some projects cost more money to run than others. Your airline will likely sell carbon offsets, in what sounds like a questionable practice—“we sell you the poison and the antidote.” Or your airline’s website might lead you to a company that sells carbon offsets. Air Canada partners with Less, a green energy company, to offer carbon offsets. You can also find a list of carbon offset projects at Green-e.
Have you made the switch to an electric car? Or do you commute mostly by bike or mass transit?