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Target Carbon Neutral - A Personal Lifestyle and Household Goal
Copyright © Beverley Paine March, 2007

Years ago Robin talked wistfully about building an electric car. We were both a little excited to pick up a Suzuki Hatch for $500 a few years ago, but wore it out, driving it to and from work every week as well as using it as our regular workhorse around the property. We ventured into Subaru territory and then finally purchased a Toyota Hilux with a diesel engine. Robin's electric car ambitions, you see, had been side-stepped in favour of investigating making our own biodiesel. To this end I bought him the book From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank, the complete guide to using vegetable oil as an alternative fuel by Joshua Ticknell.

Time passed. It does that. Global warming became an established fact. We watched Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth (read my article in March issue of Homeschool Australia newsletter). Guilt drives us now - knowing what we do - what we did already! - how can we procrastinate any further? It's a lot like my promise to myself to lose weight, get fit, eat well, live a healthy lifestyle... What is wrong with us??? Apathy kills. It's time to kill apathy!

Our Trees For Life newsletter introduced us to the Carbon Neutral. Here's a bit from the blurb on their website:

Going carbon neutral is an easy way that we can all contribute to a solution by taking responsibility for the carbon dioxide emissions we create with our cars, airplanes and energy use.

While this might seem like a big responsibility, it's easier than you might think.  The average Australian can completely offset their carbon dioxide emissions for as little as $0.50 per day !  

Carbon Neutral offers to plant trees on your behalf to help offset your emissions. There's a donation button that makes this whole process easy.

Without signing up, we were inspired to do a carbon emissions audit on our lifestyle, set 0 as our target, and brainstorm some strategies to reach it. This isn't going to be easy... but I don't think our past transgressions have taken any kind of choice we may have had away...

Step 1. Using a carbon neutral calculator to find out what we're emitting today. We picked the Carbon Neutral Company calculator, even though it's set for the UK and we had to convert pounds into dollars. I've since heard that this site isn't at all recommended, but it was the calculator we used, so I've left the link. You might be able to find a better one. I was interested to see how different calculators rated us, but more on that later. The CNC has three calculators: one for driving, one for flights (not applicable in our case) and one for households. Here's how we shaped up:

  • Driving: we calculated our emissions using our Subaru wagon at current usage (using it for trips to Adelaide once a fortnight as well as daily short trips into Yankalilla to pick up our post, etc - this we averaged to 100km a week) - calculated at 1 tonnes per year.
    Then we factored in our planned 4WD treks with our campertrailer... This year we're heading up to Alice Springs and Darwin for five weeks (I'm a speaker at conferences in both cities). After that we're heading down to Melbourne to complete my business committments. We anticipate toting up about 8000kms... that's 1.5 tonnes. Not bad... I'm beginning to feel better about our trip already.
  • Household: because we generate our own power using photovoltaic cells and a wind generator and heat our water using solar water heater (with woodstove back up for 3/4 months a year) our emissions totalled 0.3 tonnes. That's not including the wood we burn. It was time to find a more accurate calculator, one that would include ALL of our emission habits.

We gave the calculator at Elementree at whirl and it produced these figures:

  • Driving: 2.16 tonnes for our trip, 1.3 tonnes for weekly use
  • Household: 0.3 tonnes (gas stove and instant hot water for one shower head)

Origin Energy gave us these figures (I'm doing my best to compare apples with apples with each of these calculators...):

  • Driving: 2.37tonnes for the trip, and 1.27 tonnes for the average weekly use
  • Household: 0.35 tonnes (gas stove and instant hot water for one shower head)

Okay... now to add the emission from our woodstove, which not only heats the house but also our water for showering, washing dishes, etc. We wash our clothes using cold water, of course. According to the Cool It! Greenhouse Gas Emissions Calculator;

"Wood: Burning wood in fireplaces or wood stoves creates 3400 pounds of CO2 emissions per ton. But, the carbon in wood is part of the natural carbon balance (like biodiesel) and will not add to atmospheric concentrations of CO2 IF new trees are grown to replace the trees from which the wood is taken. You may use an emission factor of zero for wood that will be replaced by new tree growth. You can calculate CO2 emissions for all, none, or a percentage of the wood burned, based on your local situation. For example, if it is determined that half of the trees cut down for firewood are replaced by new trees, multiply your total tons of wood burned by 0.5 and then multiply the result by 3400."

This means, at best, our wood burning emissions are zero because we source all of our firewood from our property or use scrap timber that would otherwise have gone to landfill. The firewood on our property either comes from fallen branches or trees that we grew and planted ourselves. At worst, using the formula above then we emit 2.3 tonnes of CO2 using our woodstove. This allows for an average of 6 -8 hours burning each day for four months. We tend to use clothes and blankets to keep warm in the evening and usually only light the fire after 4pm, always mindful of the emissions issue.

So... let's add that all up, shall we? Using the worst figures, to be on the conservative side:

  • Driving: 3.67 tonnes (the average car produces 4 tonnes)
  • Household (gas + heating): 2.65 tonnes (the average home, I'm told, produces 7 tonnes)
  • TOTAL: 6.32 tonnes

According to Carbon Neutral our usage would require that 18 trees a year... I find that hard to believe. We've planted thousands of trees in the last two decades so I guess we've well and truly paid for the carbon we've emitted in our life time. If only life weren't so complicated...

Our western lifestyle eats carbon for breakfast. It's not just the fuel we use in our cars or the wood we burn in our stoves or gas we use in our cookers or water heaters... Everything we buy was made using tons and tons of fuel. I'd hate to calculate that into the equation. But perhaps we need to... Time to take a look at our ecological footprint again...

If anyone knows of a carbon emissions calculator that takes into account the type of food one eats, the type of house one lives in, the materials it was built with, type and number of possessions, etc, I'd love to play with it one day - email me the details please. Ta.

1 litre of diesel yields 2.75kg of CO2 according to my mathematical genius of a husband, Robin. While I'm writing this out he's using his head to calculate the above figures... A litre of petrol yields 2.275 kgs of CO2. Hmmm, that means less CO2 from petrol than diesel, which surprised both of us.

Here's one of his more interesting calculations: 1 litre of petrol burned makes enough CO2 to fill almost 100 round balloons to 250mm diameter!

The target: to go carbon neutral as soon as possible

How do we do that? One way is to reduce the energy we consume. Obviously we don't want to alter our lifestyle in any drastic way: we enjoy our life up here on the hill overlooking the serene Bungala River valley. Here's the plan:

Immediately Effective Strategies

  • stop shopping; only buy what is needed and then think twice
  • consume what we really want... this means anything we buy, put on or into our bodies and houses...
  • shop locally
  • mail order if you don't have a long shopping list
  • trek down to the shop/post office ONCE a day - use shopping lists
  • off set our emissions by donating to Trees for Life through Carbon Neutrol
  • off set our emissions by growing more plants, filling our property up with green, living, growing plants
  • recycle - anything and everything: don't buy new until we've exhausted searching for suitable alternatives
  • eat less!
  • make sure we travel lightly in the car - don't take stuff we don't really need
  • drastically reduce our need for reticulated water from SAWater - conserve, use rainwater, use swales and micro-environments more
  • grow our own food and remember to harvest and process it! Join the SLOW FOOD movement...

Future Strategies & Goals

  • make own biodiesel
  • make fuel from algae oil
  • build electric car using Suzuki Hatch body
  • make electric boosted bicycle (for me - Robin can have a regular bicycle!)
  • become volunteer growers again for Trees For Life
  • reduce need for heating from burning wood in woodstove by installing solar air heaters
  • make a solar food dryer
  • always buy 5+ star rated electrical appliances
  • avoid flying anywhere - except New Zealand of course! Better start growing trees now...

It's got to mean, and be, a lot more than what's offered on where you can buy gift vouchers as 'thoughtful and sustainable gifts' to help offset emissions. You'll get a branded car sticker, luggage tag, or key ring to 'help spread the word'. A quick browse in Google shows that among other celebrities, Brad Pitt and Leo Di Caprio have gone 'carbon neutral'... C'mon guys, we've got to take this seriously. It's not something we can cash in on. It's got to be more than a passing fad. We have do a lot more than buy our way out of this mess!



photos of the ever changing view of the coast from our living room window
Our ever-changing view!
Moonset ~ Roll Cloud ~ Sunset

permaculture ethics
care for earth,
care for people,
return surplus,
reduce consumption

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Copyright © Beverley Paine 2002-14. Article from this website may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this entire notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author's name). Permission must be obtained from the author in order to reprint this article in a published work or to offer it for sale in any form. Please visit Bungala Ridge Permaculture Gardens for more original content by Beverley Paine.