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Eugene Weekly : News : 08.24.06

Cool It

You can do something about climate change.

BY ALAN PITTMAN

Does Al Gore's movie have you dreaming of drowning polar bears? Have the summer heat waves melted any doubts of global warming?

With rising temperatures and media attention, more local people have sought some personal change around climate change. But what to do? Is it better to buy a new Prius or a high efficiency house? Plant trees or recycle? Fly or drive? Buy carbon credits or access to politicians? Based on the evolving and complicated science of carbon accounting and local statistics (see sources below), here's a stab at some answers.

CR: GREENPEACE

Nationally, about 90 percent of electricity is generated using fossil fuels, but in Eugene only about 8 percent comes from that source. Most of the rest is from hydro, which is brutal on salmon but easier on carbon dioxide, the chief global warming gas.

That makes it easier to reduce global warming locally by using less car gas than by increasing home efficiency. The average local person generates almost 10 times more global warming per day by driving alone than by using energy in the home.

If that makes you want to run out and buy a Prius, stop and think about embodied energy. Embodied energy is the energy that goes into making an item. Mining, forging, molding and machining all that metal and plastic in a car takes a lot of energy.

According to one estimate, it takes the energy equivalent of about 20 barrels of oil just to make a car. If that car got twice the mileage of the average car, it would take almost 20,000 miles of driving to save that much oil.

Staying with an older car but driving it less could be a lot cheaper and easier on global warming. Carpooling can effectively double or triple gas mileage depending on the number of passengers. Walking, biking and busing use no or little oil.

The savings can be huge, even if only done once a week. For example, skip driving for a day in Eugene and you'll save the rough carbon dioxide equivalent of turning all the lights out in your house for two months. Two days of not driving alone is worth a month of home water heating. But still, two thirds of locals drive to work alone, according to the U.S. Census.

If you're still hooked on driving, using alternative fuels could help. The National Academy of Sciences recently reported that compared to fossil fuels, the production and combustion of biodiesel produces 41 percent less global warming and ethanol 12 percent less.

Driving alone is worse for global warming than flying. For long flights, you'll put about half as much carbon dioxide out per mile flying as driving alone. But for two people driving across the country, driving will cough out slightly less carbon than flying. For shorter trips (where comparatively more fuel goes into takeoff) driving with two people is much better. From here to Seattle for two people, you'll save about a third less pollution by driving.

If you still want to improve your home energy use, consider embodied energy again before you go out and buy a new energy efficient home. The carbon dioxide generated by making the materials in a new house is huge. If that steel, aluminum, rebar, lumber, concrete, etc. is made using fossil fuels, then it could take half a century for a highly energy efficient home in hydropowered Eugene to recoup the savings in carbon pollution.

You could just replace the refrigerator. But a fridge also has a lot of embodied energy. The new high efficiency appliance would have to run for almost four years in Eugene to save the equivalent of enough carbon pollution to make up for its manufacture.

Given the high cost of embodied energy, recycling may be one of the best answers to global warming. Each pound of trash recycled saves an estimated three pounds of carbon dioxide. That's about the same carbon output as the electricity for an entire Eugene house per day.

You can also approach your global warming impact from the other direction with mitigation. A tree sapling grown for 10 years will absorb the carbon equivalent of about two average days of driving alone.

If you don't have room for a forest, a half dozen environmental groups and businesses now sell mitigation credits for carbon dioxide emissions. The theory is that your money will go towards clean energy projects such as wind power that will reduce global warming. Al Gore mitigated all those limo rides and airplane trips in his movie by buying credits.

But the credit business is new and largely unregulated and without standards. Prices for mitigating driving vary from about a nickel to a quarter per gallon, for example, and it's hard to know exactly what you're paying for, Salon magazine recently reported. A key question is would the pollution reduction that you paid for have happened anyway?

Another approach would be to do what big oil does and mitigate by buying access to politicians. In the 2004 election cycle the oil and gas industry spent about $26 million on campaign contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

 

Sources

The numbers in this article came from (or were calculated from) a variety of online sources.

Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth website has a convenient calculator at http://www.climatecrisis.net/takeaction/carboncalculator/#

The EPA maintains a list of greenhouse gas calculators. Go to epa.gov and put "Global Warming: Calculators" with the quotation marks in the search box.

EWEB has information on home energy consumption and conservation at http://www.eweb.org/home/

The Hinkle foundation has useful information on direct versus indirect emissions at http://www.thehcf.org/emaila5.html