Taking Stock

YES! intern Jennifer McCullough takes the Kyoto carbon limits to heart and calculates how she (and we) can become climate cool.
For years, I've heard rumblings in the media about the so-called greenhouse effect. My usual response is: invisible gases could spell disaster for the human race and all other species on Earth? Suppose I wanted to stop doing things that will turn my home state into a desert and flood coastlines everywhere? First of all, I'm not sure what those things are. Secondly, from what I understand, we're talking TONS of gases, not the few pounds that my actions might produce. Why doesn't somebody do something?

Then Kyoto came along, and it seemed like the world's governments were taking action. For a short time, I relaxed.

Having come to my senses, I've done some more research to find out where these greenhouse gases (primarily CO2) are coming from. Turns out, roughly 35 percent of CO2 emissions come from industry, 33 percent from transportation, 18 percent from residences, and 14 percent from the commercial sector. So I guess industry just needs to clean up its act, right?

But wait - industry wouldn't make this stuff if I didn't buy it. If there was less consumer demand for energy-intensive products, fewer would be produced, and less CO2 would be emitted. If more people rode bikes, or had smaller homes, or lived closer to their places of business, or ate locally grown, organic food these greenhouse gases would decrease in the atmosphere.

Here's what else I found. In 1990, total CO2 emissions in the US were 4,833 million tons. The US Kyoto pledge is to decrease CO2 emissions 7 percent from 1990 levels by 2012; this means lowering our emissions to 4,495 million tons of CO2 emissions per year. The US population is about 270 million people. That means that each individual can produce 16.7 tons of CO2 emissions per year, and the US will remain within Kyoto limits (ignoring for the moment the fact that population is increasing and that scientists say we need reductions of more than 60 percent rather than 7 percent. We have to start somewhere).

So my next question was whether I, personally, could reach Kyoto limits. The first step, measuring my CO2 emissions, turned out to be trickier than I had anticipated. How far does my food and clothing travel? Do I have a chemical-intensive lawn? How many pounds of packaging do I throw away each week?

The National Audubon Society has developed measurements to determine a portion of an individual's emissions, and I've adapted these into the Kyoto Cool quiz. To take the test, you can either assemble household bills to find precise numbers, or you can estimate. The first method gives a more exact figure, but the second way can help you understand where a portion of your emissions come from.

After you've taken the test comes the fun part: finding out if you're Kyoto compliant. The total amount of CO2 that an individual can be responsible for emitting and still be in compliance is 16.7 tons. The categories in the test add up to just about 33 percent of the emissions for which an individual is responsible (The remainder come from the businesses providing us services, the industries that make everything from our clothing to our chemicals, and the trucks shipping our food from coast to coast). 33 percent of 16.7 tons is 5.5 tons or 11,000 pounds.

So, for the purposes of this test, if your individual emissions are less than 11,000 pounds, congratulations! You're Kyoto compliant. Keep up the good work! Better yet, you can aim for the 60 percent reduction below 1990 levels that Ross Gelbspan and others say will be needed in order to actually stabilize the climate - that would mean keeping your annual emissions in the areas listed on the test to 4,720 pounds annually.

How do you get your emissions down? Whether you're aiming for Kyoto levels or for the more ambitious targets, here are some things the Union of Concerned Scientists says are top priorities:

  • Choose a place to live where you can drive less.
  • Think twice before purchasing another car.
  • Choose a fuel-efficient, low-polluting car.
  • Set concrete goals for reducing your travel.
  • Walk, bicycle, or take public transportation.
  • Choose your home carefully - consider that the larger the home, the more energy and resources consumed in building, furnishing, and heating.
  • Choose a power company that offers renewable energy or support for energy efficiency measures.
  • Reduce the environmental costs of heating, cooling, and hot water.
  • Install efficient lighting and appliances.
  • Buy certified organic produce - organic food is grown without energy-intensive chemicals, and soils from organic farms act as sinks for carbon.
I have to admit that after taking the test, I was a bit dumbfounded. I'm doing well in most categories, but one plane ride to visit my parents is over 6,000 miles - that's 5,400 pounds of CO2, more than I should emit in a whole year to be sustainable. And I'm still trying to get past feelings of guilt when I have to drive to the grocery store for that one item I forgot yesterday. But it feels good to know how I can do better: I have become more conscious of my actions and their implications. I walk more, and I've dusted off my bike.

If you've taken the time to take the quiz and are planning to improve your "score," good luck! And thank you, because we all live here together.

Jennifer McCullough is an editorial intern with YES! who has provided much of the background research for this special issue.



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