Climate and Energy
"I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy.
What a source of power!
I hope we don't have to wait 'til oil and coal run out before we tackle that."
- Thomas Edison

Carbon Activism for Beginners

by Guy Dauncey

So – the news is not good. The world’s CO2 emissions are still rising, and the global temperature is still rising. The world’s oil companies are still hungry to drill more and sell more. They haven’t got the message.

Nor have we, as consumers. We’re still flying, driving, heating inefficient homes, eating beef, and buying all the latest appliances as if the words "global climate change" were the beginning of a pleasant Shakespearean sonnet, not a dire warning about planetary chaos, death and disaster. There’s an enormous disconnect between what we read in the papers about the likely effects of climate change, and the way we live our lives. The level of our collective Canadian commitment to reduce our emissions, I fear, is around zero.

Canada’s plan to reach the Kyoto target asks each of us to reduce our personal emissions of CO2 by 20% below today’s level, by 2012. Recently, each time I have spoken to an environmental audience, I have asked people to put up their hands: "How many of you know how much CO2 emissions you produced last year?" Not a single hand has gone up. Not one.

Yes, I agree: it’s the motor corporations, the oil companies, the big industrial producers that have to make the real changes. We’ll get to that. But how much credibility do we have when we demand that they reduce their emissions, if we’re not also reducing our own? In preparation for an explosion of courageous, feisty, carbon activism, therefore, all around the world, let’s clean up our own act first.

Step 1: How Much CO2 are You Producing?

Calculate your personal emissions for last year (see Box). It may seem like an effort, but once you’ve done it, you’ll feel good. Compared to doing your taxes, it’s a doddle. A typical family of three with two cars, which flies to an annual vacation, might produce 50 tonnes of CO2 a year. The same family, living in a small, efficient house with no car, and no annual flight, might produce 10 tonnes.

Step 2: To Drive, or Not to Drive?

The less you drive, and the more efficient your vehicle, the fewer your emissions will be. A typical car produces 3 times its weight in CO2 emissions. A bicycle produces no CO2 at all; nor do your feet. Buses and trains are much more efficient way of travelling; you might want to sell your car, and join a car-share group instead. If you must drive a car, try to buy the most efficient model. There’s a world of difference between a Honda Insight (2.8 tonnes a year) and a Dodge Ram (11.5 tonnes). And slow down - you’ll burn 25% less fuel at 90 than at 110 kph. 55 kph is the most fuel-efficient speed. And stop idling: if you’re going to idle for more than 10 seconds, switch your engine off.

Step 3: Sleep Tight, Sweet Home

A typical house produces 8 - 10 tonnes of CO2 a year from the gas, oil or electricity that are used to heat it. Arrange to have a home EnerGuide assessment, and act on the advice. By caulking to stop drafts, increasing your insulation, installing programmable thermostats, and a few other things, you can reduce your emissions by up to 30%, while reducing your fuel bills and making your home more cosy. A clunky old clothes washer will use twice the energy of an efficient front-loader; the same applies to fridges, dryers, dishwashers and water heaters. That old fridge in the basement could be producing a tonne of CO2 a year. If you switch to Energy Smart appliances and efficient lights, and install programmable thermostats, you could save 4-5 tonnes of CO2 a year.

Step 4: Welcome the Sun

A solar hot water heater on your roof could reduce your emissions by 0.7 tonnes, depending on your source of electricity, and how much hot water you use. A 2 kW solar PV system could save you 2.5 tonnes a year if you live in a sunny area, if can afford the $22,500 cost. Here’s hoping that the Canadian government follows New York, California and Japan by introducing subsidies. The price should begin to fall dramatically in 2005 when Japanese mass production heralds in the solar revolution. Check out ground-source heating too (also known as Earth energy), as another form of efficient solar heating.

Step 5: Buy Green Energy

If you live in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Nova Scotia or PEI, an additional $5 to $15 a month could buy you green electricity from solar, wind or geothermal, instead of coal, oil or gas, which will help you to reduce your emissions, and help build the clean energy movement.

Step 6: Eat Less Beef; Buy or Grow More Local Organic Food

This might surprise you, but cows produce copious amounts of methane by burping from their famous three stomachs. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, so the average beef-eater is responsible for 0.35 tonnes of greenhouse gases (as CO2 equivalent) a year. So eat less beef! Also, by eating more locally grown food, you reduce the CO2 needed to ship food around the world. And by eating more organic food, you increase the amount of carbon which is stored in the soil.

Step 7: Don’t Fly Away

One day, airplanes may fly on hydrogen or biodiesel. Until then, airplanes are responsible for somewhere between 3 – 10% of all global warming; a 4,000 km flight will release 570 kg of CO2 per passenger. A return trip to the moon, if Air Canada flew that far, would generate 114 tons per passenger (400,000 kilometres each way). So pause before you fly, and ask if your flight is really necessary.

Check your CO2 before you flyusing one of these calculators:

Step 8: Tis a Gift to be Simple

Let’s be honest – we live in the world’s most materialistic culture. Everything we buy needs energy to produce, package and transport it, and it all produces CO2. Recycling helps – every recycled bottle saves 0.5kg of CO2, compared to making a new one; every recycled newspaper saves 100 grams of CO2. If we buy less stuff, there’s less to be manufactured, less to worry about, and less to dispose of when it’s dead.

Step 9: Tis a Gift to be Carbon Neutral

So, you’ve done everything you can, and you’re still producing CO2 emissions. What can you do? You can buy carbon offsets that will either absorb your emissions (by planting trees), or prevent the release of a similar amount of CO2 by other means. The going price is around $13.50 ($10 US) a tonne, so if you produced 20 tonnes of CO2 last year, you owe the Earth $270 in "One World" carbon taxes, which can be used to neutralize your emissions. The Solar Electric Light Fund, based in Washington DC, will accept your carbon neutralizing contributions ($10 US per tonne) and use it to help low income families in Bhutan, Brazil or the Solomon Islands install solar PV systems, displacing the use of kerosene or diesel. Or you can invest in a tree-planting program: one tree will absorb 1 tonne of CO2 over 40 years, and you should plant three to be sure that one survives. If you produce 20 tonnes of CO2 a year, you’d need to plant 60 trees.

Step 10: Turn on the World

Now you know what you produced last year, and you can set a personal carbon budget for the coming year. Under Kyoto, we’re being asked to reduce our emissions by 20% by 2012. If you’re producing 30 tonnes a year, that’s a six tonne reduction. Spread over 8 years, that’s just 750 kg a year. As activists, however, we need to show the lead. Our goal should be a 50% reduction by 2012, plus becoming carbon neutral every year by paying into a carbon offset project.

Now you’re ready to move. Write to your local paper, write to your MP, write to your mayor, write to whatever big corporation you want to change, and challenge them to match your personal targets. If you can do it, they can do it too.

Guy Dauncey is the author of Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change (New Society Publishers, 2001), and other titles. He lives in Victoria, where he works as an activist, author, and green building and sustainable communities consultant. His website is

462 words


Here’s how you can calculate your yearly CO2 emissions in a relatively easy manner. You could also use a carbon calculator.

1. Your Electricity. Dig out last year’s household electricity bills, and assume that all your electricity came from natural gas. This is a fair assumption, even if you live in B.C., where 92% of the power comes from the big hydro dams, since almost all "new" energy comes from natural gas, and if you reduce your demand, it’s probably natural gas that you are reducing, not hydro, coal or nuclear energy.

Natural gas: 400 grams of CO2 per kWh of electricity

Eg: If you used 12,000 kWh, the natural gas released 4.8 tonnes CO2.

My home: ______ kWh x 0.4kg = _____ kg CO2.

My personal share of this: _____ kg CO2.

2. Your Heating. Dig out last year’s gas, oil or propane bills, and use these conversion data to work out your CO2 emissions:

Gas (cooking, heating): 52 kg of CO2 per GigaJoule

My home: ______ GJ x 52 = _____ kg CO2.

Oil (heating): 2.6 kg of CO2 per litre

My home: ______ litres x 2.6 = _____ kg CO2.

Propane (cooking, heating): 1.55 kg of CO2 per litre (7 kg per gallon)

My home: ______ litres x 1.55 = _____ kg CO2.

Wood (heating, cooking): While wood smoke can create nasty health problems in some locations, burning wood does not contribute to global climate change, since the trees you use for firewood have already absorbed the carbon they will release when you burn them as part of the natural carbon cycle. It’s the ancient stored carbon from fossil fuels that’s the problem, not the natural carbon.

My personal share of these totals from heating: _____ kg CO2.

3. Your Vehicle. If you own a vehicle, estimate how many kilometres you drove last year, per vehicle:

Our mileage: _____ km (Car A)

Now estimate your car’s fuel efficiency (eg 6 litres/100 km) : _____ litres/100km

Divide your mileage by 100, and multiply by your fuel efficiency : _____ litres

(Eg 12,000 km, at 6 litres/100km = 120 x 6 = 720 litres)

Each litre of gas releases 2.5 kg of CO2

Vehicle A: ____ litres x 2.5 = ____ kg of CO2

Vehicle B: ____ litres x 2.5 = ____ kg of CO2

My personal share of this: _____ kg CO2

4. Your Flying. Make a list of every flight you took last year, and go to to obtain a read-out of your CO2 emissions for each flight.

My personal flights last year: _____ kg of CO2.

5. Your Buses, Transit and Trains. Try to estimate how many kilometres you traveled by public transport last year, and calculate your CO2 emissions at 0.14 kg per kilometre.

My typical public transport per week: _____ km

Multiply by 52, and then by 0.14.

My CO2 emissions from public transport: ___ kg of CO2

6. Your Beef. Since cows produce so much methane, and methane is 23 times more powerful than CO2 over 100 years, eating beef makes you responsible for a lot of methane, which can be expressed as a "CO2 equivalent". The average beef-consumption in Canada is 31 kg per person per year, and the cows from which that 31 kg of beef came produced 15.5 kg of methane. When you multiply that by 23, it comes to 356 kg of CO2 equivalent.

The average amount of beef I eat per week: ____ kg

Amount of beef I eat per year, x 15.5 x 23 = _____ kg of CO2 equivalent

7. Your Garbage. The energy needed to make the stuff we throw away, plus the methane emissions that some of it produces in the landfill, comes to around 20 kg of CO2 per large trash bag.

Average number of large trash bags we throw out each week: ____

Multiply by 52, and then by 20

Our household’s CO2 emissions from trash last year: ____ kg of CO2

My personal share of this: _____ kg CO2.

8. Your Recycling. All the stuff we recycle had first to be manufactured, so there’s still an impact. Calculate it at 0.05 kg of CO2 per kg.

Our household’s recycling weighs ____ kg per wee.

Multiply by 52: our household’s recycling last year weighed ____ kg

Divide by 20 for your CO2 emissions from recycling: ____ kg of CO2

My personal share of this: _____kg CO2

Your personal CO2 total:

Electricity: _____

Heating: _____

Driving: _____

Flying: _____

Public transport: _____

Beef: _____

Garbage: _____

Recycling: _____

TOTAL: _____ kg = _____ tonnes of CO2