Reducing my personal CO₂ footprint —thoughts & actions

Autmn trees and leaves in a lake

Think global, act local. Be the change you want. Here is my list of dos and don’ts for a more sustainable living. Do my tasks have any impact? Where do I stand compared to others? Are we as a society on the right track?

Some context: I am a 45+ techie father from Berlin, Germany.

General consumption

Less is more

Call me a miser. I am trying to avoid unnecessary goods and services. So I can pride myself to have less stuff than most of my peers. Less clothes, less gimmicks. More space for my ego.

Only after the last tree has been cut down,
only after the last river has been poisoned,
only after the last fish has been caught,
then will you find that money cannot be eaten.

I hope that free market economies can indeed be adjusted to non-eternal growth models. Think eco-economics! Let’s use the power we have as consumers.

Prefer sustainable goods

The throw-away society needs to stop. I try to avoid products with planned obsolescence — “fast fashion” in particular. I aim for things of better quality that last longer. Consider the real costs for cheap stuff.

Don’t buy everything online

E-commerce will eat the world, maybe for the better. Current delivery solutions pollute our cities with more traffic, more noise and more emissions. What do I really need to buy online?

Go for second hand

I often use private eBay auctions or second hand stores. I mostly prefer vintage furniture that can be sold later on, often even to a higher price.

Repair things

I repair stuff myself, like my old bike here. Or I take it to the local repair shop, even if the repair costs are higher than getting a new shiny China bike.

Resell and give away

Be part of the chain. I also sell old things on eBay or on local flea markets to keep them in use. In our neighborhood we have “sharing is caring places” to bring in and pickup old stuff.

Produce less waste

I carry my own multi-use bags to the super market or even to the bakery. I don’t drink coffee to go. But whatever we buy: it’s packaged. On the average a German citizen produces half a ton of waste every year, that is more than a kilo per day.

Supermarkets are holding more plastic than consumable goods in stock. As a small signal, I started leaving much of the packaging right there on spot.

I live in a hipster area, so there are also fancy package-free shops around the corner. I am mostly interested in solutions to hit mainstream. I am looking forward for tighter regulations, better technologies and innovations on the matter. Feels like we consumers can do very little about this.

Avoid bottled water

That’s easy for me. The quality of tapped water is good in Berlin.

Separate waste

I became more strict in sorting waste into organics, paper, recyclables and the dirty rest. I am a bit sceptic when it comes to the German waste disposal system, the “green dot”. Here again, every single one of us can make a difference by taking action.

Transportation

Drive less

I haven’t owned a car for many years. As a family we use car sharing for short weekend trips. For smaller distances I usually go by bike.

Our office is just 500 metres away. The kindergarten is even next door, and the school is on the next block. I was lucky to have the choice to design my life for “walkability” that way. Nowadays, with an overcrowded housing market such choices are rare. So is not easy for everyone to take action. This topic needs bigger scale solutions.

Avoid flying

Traveling the world is a luxury I really enjoy. Learning about the world by seeing it. It’s especially fun with family. We try to fly less, but it’s really hard for us to give up on this habit.

Food

Eat less beef

The world cattle inventory is about 1b. Cows burp and fart methane, a greenhouse gas 34 times more potential than carbon dioxide. Changing our diets to eat less beef and dairy will have a positive impact on emissions. Beef is also more harmful to the environment than other meat.

So I eat fewer animal products. If so, I prefer chicken or pork. Moreover, I try out new fake meat products and other veggie dishes. As a true hipster, I drink oat milk.

Prefer local goods

Buying vegetables and fruits for the lowest carbon footprint is difficult. In general I prefer organically grown “eco” products. But organic does not necessarily mean that less carbon dioxide has been used.

When the organic apples were grown in Spain the carbon footprint for transportation might be higher than local non-organic apples. Even more tricky: apple picking is done in late summer here. A German apple bought in June is likely frigded from last year’s harvest and therefore has a higher footprint.

I would like to see CO2e (carbon dioxide emission) labels on all products for better decision making.

Throw away less food

A third of the food is thrown away here in Germany. A big share is on private households. I try to cook as much as we need, reusing food leftovers.

Inspect the fridge more frequently for forgotten stuff. Don’t just throw away food: see, smell and taste if it is still eatable. Master kitchen efficiency. Let’s learn from our ancestors.

Farewell frozen food

Frost food is always fresh, seasonally independent and convenient. Some of it is even healthy. As for as energy is concerned, it’s better to use less. Frozen products always need to be kept cool. This costs lots of energy. We stay away from it mostly, especially from frozen convenience food.

Energy

Use less energy in general

There are a lot of small things we can do: All light bulbs here have been energy-saving LED bulbs for years (required in EU anyway). I usually turn the lights off when leaving. I take shorter showers. I only boil as much water as I really need. Another simple method is to defrost the freezer regularly.

Book renewable energy

I opted for the renewable energy supply plan with my electricity provider. Of course, the electricity that comes out of the plug is still the same. At least the renewable energy share gets higher.

Insulate your home

Our rented apartment is in an old building (~1910). We use gas floor heating. Each flat has its own gas heater. Though not an ideal solution. But I cannot change that. Even worse, water heating is done via electricity. The next best step here would be to extend the gas heating to produce warm water, too. I can discuss options with the landlord.

Upgrade to smarter tech

I am considering buying a new fridge and a new washing machine. These two are a big part of our energy consumption. Current low-energy models need considerably less energy (down to 50%). A return of investment can be achieved within a few years. Also new TVs and computers need less and less energy.

In the office we often forget to power down the heating on weekends and at night. So I am currently considering smart radiator valves (smart thermostat). The plants will also benefit from cooler nights.

Air rooms correctly

Use quick ventilation, fully open two or more windows for a short time to replace much of the used air. Continuously tilted windows will not replace the air, but let the heat escape instead.

Be conscious about water

A modern dish washer is more energy efficient than washing dishes by hand. Only turn it on, once it’s full. Pre-rince only little.

Anything else

Fund CO2 reducing projects

I donate money to programs to offset CO₂ output by supporting programs. We offset flights. That’s not ideal, but a step in the right direction.

Upgrade your knowledge

Climate change is an overwhelming big and complex topic. It’s easy to get lost. I have found that a lot of my personal knowledge about the world is outdated. Reading has helped me.

Don’t panic

Fear is not a good advisor. Someone triggering my urgency instincts on the matter will get red-flagged.

Engage with people

Most of my peers are like-minded about this in general, but often too lazy to take even simple actions. Let’s get better. I keep on pushing.

I also speak to people who are not taking climate change serious or even deny it. I hear arguments like: “There always has been climate change. It’s not proven that any of this is human made.” or “Haha, those activists want us to return to the stone age!”. Climate change is an opinionated issue. I think people who don’t take this serous are still in the majority.

How can we human beings overcome this split? There is no: them/us, right/wrong, left/right.

Imagine yourself getting stuck in a traffic jam, caused by some “activists”, after a long work day. Will you think: “Yes, these protesters are probably right. I need to change my way of life.” or “This jam causes a higher CO₂ emissions than on a usual day. I will be home later. This is crap.”?

Vote for change

Most of the required fundamental changes cannot be done on an individual level. Society scale change is required. We need good politicians for this. They need to be able to translate climate change into in a positive message, as a chance. More important: They also need to make it happen, in time. In substantive democracies, it’s on us to elect the right leaders and to raise our voice.

Now what?

After writing this down I have realized to not have a decent understanding of how much the actions listed above actually help to contribute. What’s working? What is not? Where do I stand?

That’s why I consulted an online CO₂ footprint calculator. It printed a 7.5 tons yearly emission budget for me. Let’s put it in some context (data not accurate):

1,6 t annual emission per capita in India
2,0 t one year of car driving (12.000 km)
3,7 t a return flight from Berlin to New York
7,5 t my approximate annual emissions
11 t annual emission per capita in Germany
17 t annual emission per capita in the United States

Germany has a climate action plan to comply with the Paris Agreement. The goal is to get a good chance to stop global warming at 1.5 C more. In order to achieve this it requires:

3 t annual emission per capita here in Germany by 2030

That’s less than half of what I am currently producing and less than a third for my fellow Germans. Some say it’s not fast enough. To me, this sounds very ambitious. Let’s help to make change happen. Sooner is better. Don’t panic.

No emissions by 2050

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