Sunday, November 1, 2009

Sustainable Living and Your Carbon Footprint

All resources are finite. As humans our resources consist of money, time, passion and energy. In the end, where, how and when we deploy these resources will determine our comfort and happiness with our lives. While there are some basic truths, the optimal allocation of your resources is based on your values and goals. Living within your means and your ecological means would be a sustainable life. The problem is how to determine what is or should be your ecological means. In the real world of finite resources, careful consideration must be given to how and when we expend our resources.

A very popular viewpoint right now is sustainability is tied to the individual and national carbon footprint. Carbon dioxide is a by product of combustion, all combustion. Human beings exhale it at over 3 pounds per day for the average sedentary adult. Carbon dioxide is also released when we burn fossil fuels such as gas, coal or oil. In a natural carbon cycle, carbon dioxide is used by plants and trees. However, the belief is that we are producing more carbon dioxide than can be absorbed by the plants and trees currently available to use it because we are burning too much fuel. The fuel represents carbon dioxide that was trapped under the earth's surface for millions of years. It is believed that the human population by breathing and burning fuels has caused the increase in the carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere from approximately 250 parts per million (0.025%) to 386 part per million (0.039%) in the past 100 years.

The popular belief is that this increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has caused the under 1 degree Fahrenheit increase in average global temperature since 1900. (It is to be noted that that increase was 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit when measured in 1998 and 2005, but the average temperature has fallen somewhat since then.) This theory further postulates that the overall temperature of the planet is increasing (global warming) at a faster rate now and causing the earth’s climate to change in unpredictable ways (from floods and hurricanes to heat waves and droughts). The strongest adherents to this belief, hold that the burning of fossil fuels must be reduced immediately. The goal of Cap and Trade legislation is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by capping the amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted by all industry, reducing that amount each year and allowing the industrial sector to reduce their releases off the base and sell each other release permits, thus reducing the burning of fuels. The belief is that if we could reduce our carbon dioxide emissions enough we could stop the climate of the earth from changing. The models predicting this are at the earliest stages of development because our knowledge of our environment is really limited, hard data points especially for the oceans has been limited in quantity and duration.

There is a price to reducing our emissions of carbon dioxide and we need to the costs and benefits in terms of comforts, services, possessions and environmental balance before we act. It is likely very important to reduce the burning or fossil fuels and increase the planting of trees; however, we should approach this in the most cost effective manner. It is not clear how regulations to limit point source carbon dioxide release, to reduce our carbon footprint (reduce our burning of fuels) will of its self make living more sustainable. Certainly, the current fuel usage in the United States will decrease and may make the climate of the earth more stable if carbon dioxide emissions do not increase else where in the world. In addition, as the previous review of global warming research showed some research suggests that climate change may have components that are other than of anthropogenic (human) causes. Certainly, anthropogenic activity has been a contributor to the 136 parts per million (0.014%) increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the past 109 years. The exact relationship of increases and decreases greenhouse gasses to climate change is unknown, if mankind were suddenly wiped off the face of the earth as in Alan Wisman’s February 2005 essay “Earth Without People”, climate change would not stop. The climate is neither static nor fixed, but without mankind it would certainly be different.

Building a bureaucracy to measure, control and tax carbon dioxide will have unintended consequences and consume resources and energy. There is real benefit to increasing the efficiency in energy use by selecting technologies, like hybrid or dimpled cars, ground source heat exchangers, solar panels or wind turbines. There is tremendous benefit to improving insulation in buildings and homes, passive use of solar and wind. Changes in how we live; urban dweller, rural dweller, suburban dweller; whether or not we commute or if we commute using public or private transportation, alone or in a groups, our purchasing and activity choices all will impact our “carbon footprint.” However, this approach only looks at one aspect of the carbon cycle and fails to identify what is a carbon budget if such a thing exists, it does not consider the other resources of the earth. Legislating the measurement of carbon dioxide release in all things will cost money and resources and of itself will not make our lives more sustainable. Limiting carbon dioxide emission by industry might reduce the use of energy in the United States by industry. Energy will become more expensive, a reduction in use will be achieved by a rationing of energy and products by price. A greater allocation of my resources to heating, electricity and food will make me poorer though not necessarily more sustainable in my living on this earth. Too many important aspects of sustainable life are missing from this viewpoint.

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