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A Zero-emissions Family

 At the University of Wisconsin's program on climate, people, and environment, Jonathan Foley makes computer models to study what might happen if the human economy continues to emit greenhouse gases. Like hundreds of other scientists, he's deeply worried about global warming. Unlike most scientists I know, he takes that worry into his personal life.

For some time, Jonathan, his wife, Andrea, and their 3-year-old daughter, Hannah, have been reducing the amount of carbon dioxide they produce – which means the amount of coal, oil, and gas they burn.The Foleys used to live 25 miles out in the country and drive two cars. Now, they've moved to a house four miles from the university with a bike lane and a bus line.

“I was sick of all the driving, anyway,” Foley says. “Now I have more time, a beautiful bike ride, and no car payments.”

The Foleys have done “all the usual things” to their house to reduce its fuel and electric needs. They've installed compact fluorescent light bulbs. The house has better insulation and ventilation than most. They found an electric utility that makes power with windmills, so they're not contributing to climate change every time they flip on a switch. The house came fitted with a solar water-heating system, so the sun heats about two-thirds of their showers and dishwater.

That is already climate responsibility well above the call of duty, but last New Year's Eve, the Foleys decided to make a millennium-sized resolution to enter the 21st century emitting no net carbon dioxide.

How can you do that? I asked in disbelief.

Well, to start, Jonathan Foley is calculating how much carbon he emits with every mile he drives, every computer he buys, every plastic bag he throws away. He's constructed a spreadsheet to calculate his carbon budget and to integrate it with his money budget, so his family will march toward zero carbon emissions one step at a time, as they can afford it.

“This month, we're trading in our electric washer and dryer for a more efficient front-load washer and a lot of clothesline. We'll get a gas dryer for winter time. Next, our goal is a more efficient refrigerator. The EPA Energy Star website lists all the alternatives.” [See Resource Guide on page 43.]

Foley aims first at high energy efficiency, then at renewable sources. He expects there will be unavoidable carbon dioxide emissions left, mainly embedded in things the family buys. He intends to offset those emissions with green plants that will absorb the carbon dioxide.

Foley figures he's already cut his family's emissions in half and can get down considerably further, to a point where he can pull off the necessary planting. Living in southern Wisconsin, he intends to plant not just trees, but prairie. Prairie restoration is a popular community activity around Madison, so the Foleys will help do the work and also will contribute money to prairie and tree planting groups.

“It's not that hard,” Foley says. “Our quality of life has improved. We're saving time and money, though some things, like the wind electricity, are more expensive. Zero carbon emissions is something anybody can achieve by making a few simple choices. People choose to spend tens of thousands of dollars for a sports utility vehicle; they can just as easily choose to buy better insulation, an efficient refrigerator, or a solar water heater. Helping to prevent climate change isn't a matter of our ability, just our choice.

“I know my personal actions are only a drop in the bucket (or, in this case, the atmosphere). But as a scientist and teacher, I feel I have a moral obligation to show that you can achieve a zero net carbon budget and still live comfortably and productively. It's about putting your emissions where your mouth is.”


Donella Meadows is the director of the Sustainability Institute and an adjunct professor at Dartmouth College.

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