Written by Sarah Lazarovic
Friday, February 11th, 2022
I used to sweat the small stuff when it came to my carbon footprint.
I forced myself to skip coffee when I forgot my reusable mug. I refused all takeout waste. Use a plastic straw? Over my parched body.
It's not that these efforts weren't important. But they were, in a word, small.
In recent years I've done the carbon math (you can calculate your own footprint using a number of free online calculators). And in an effort to prioritize large reductions over small ones, I've focused increasingly on the big-ticket items that can most meaningfully help individuals lower their emissions.
Climate change is a problem that's bigger than any one of us, but household emissions make up a huge amount of that problem — and cutting down those emissions can ultimately save you money, too.
While every household's footprint will vary based on lifestyles and consumption habits, the big buckets remain consistent, and I've shortened them to a simple rhyme: Fleet Heat Meat (Repeat).
Fleet (Getting Around)
How do you travel? Do you drive and fly a lot? Or do you get around by bike and take staycations? Where we live can determine how we get around (you need a car if you live in a place with no public transit), but the goal is to figure out how to make swaps where you can. Taking transit, walking or biking can not only save you money - they can also improve your health.
While we're all itching to explore after having been locked down for so long, air travel is the mode of transportation that consumes the most carbon, so consider cutting down on the number of quickie vacations you take, in favour of fewer yet longer trips. Trimming flights from your diet can easily halve your emissions and your spending.
Heat (and Cool)
How do you heat and cool your home? Switching to a heat pump can efficiently heat your home and provide AC without use of fossil fuels. In our cold climate this is both difficult and expensive, but the upfront costs can pay for themselves as our economy transitions off of fossil fuels. The time it takes to recoup your investment depends on the cost of electricity where you live (for example, while electricity is very cheap in Quebec, it's more expensive in Ontario). An induction stove, too, will likely be the default range going forward, as we work towards getting gas out of our homes.
While these costs will take time to recoup, the idea is that you eventually come out ahead as electricity prices go down, and fossil fuel costs go up. Increasingly, there are substantial rebates being offered (if you live in Vancouver you can get more than $10,000 in green rebates!) to help with these upfront costs, so see what's available where you live.
If you don't own your place, but you'd like to get involved in driving change, you might want to lobby your building management and your government to help incentivize these switches.
Reducing meat consumption can help you save money, potentially improve your health, and cut emissions dramatically. But if dropping meat completely isn't feasible, try going meat-free a few times a week. The cost of meat is on the rise, so it's one way you can do your wallet a favour, while bringing down your own footprint.
Once you've tackled some of these biggies, go back at them again and again and again. You'll find new incentives and technology available as the decarbonization transformation occurs, providing new options for cost savings and emissions reductions.
The goal is not perfection, but a simple way to bring down emissions so you don't have to think about these decisions all the time. The idea is to:
- Make a few good big decisions over a million tiny ones. Make your house more energy efficient and then you don't have to worry about running the washer that one extra time.
- Understand scale: You'd have to forgo 278 burgers to make up for the emissions of a one-way flight from New York to London.
- Find your own way: Don't guilt yourself, or others. Do what you can, where you can.
And when it comes to consumption, the simplest (and most economically sound) rule of thumb is to buy only what you need. Too often we're told to buy the sustainable bamboo thingamajig. The most sustainable item is the one you already own. I made a chart I call the "Buyerarchy of Needs" to help you think through whether you really need that neon tutu. (Spoiler alert: you don't).
Shifting to a low-carbon diet is about playing the long game when it comes to your financial health. While the upfront costs of adding a heat pump may be a bit more, you can save money in the long run. The world is decarbonizing, and the next decades will see decreases in the cost of renewables, and steep increases for carbon-intensive goods and services. The sooner you make the switch, the more you'll save, and the fewer emissions you'll emit. Also, studies show that when one house installs solar panels, their neighbours are much more likely to get them. So be the early adopter. And help everyone else save, too.