Photo: Flickr / dklimke
Food grown locally, rather than far away, supports area farmers and is often fresher, but it makes little difference in the fight against climate change.How about e-readers vs. print books? Or opening a new car’s windows rather than running its air conditioner? The answer’s the same in each case: There’s no big difference in which consumes less energy overall, so don’t sweat it.
Those are the findings of a new eco-myth-busting guide to green living that quantifies the climate impact or carbon footprint of hundreds of consumer decisions. It tallies the energy and resources involved in making and using a product as well as the heat-trapping emissions that ensue. It challenges Americans to cut their fossil-fuel energy use 20 per cent in the coming year.
“You can get there faster by sweating the right stuff,” says climate scientist Brenda Ekwurzel, co-author of Cooler Smarter, a two-year study by The Union of Concerned Scientists, a science-based environmental group.
The book makes a plaintive call to action, arguing that climate change has reached a dire point because of human use of heat-trapping fossil fuels. “Our failure to address this problem will imperil us all,” it says.
“I don’t think that’s true. There’s not a consensus we’re heading toward catastrophe,” says David Kreutzer, a research fellow in energy economics and climate change at the Heritage Foundation, a self-described “conservative” think tank. He says Americans should cut their carbon footprint “if it makes them feel good,” but not because they fear for the future.
In touting the most effective eco-steps, Cooler Smarter takes on five common myths:
– Buy locally grown food. Many consumers may think this has climate benefits, but as it turns out, transporting food from the farm to the supermarket accounts for only about 4 per cent of the emissions involved in food production. Most of the emissions occur at the farm itself, where it typically takes a long time and lots of grain to raise cattle.
That’s why red meat has 18 times the carbon footprint as an equal amount of pasta. So a more efficacious climate approach, rather than buying meat locally, is simply buying less of it, the book says.
“But don’t give up on the farmers’ market,” Ekwurzel says. She says fruits and vegetables have a much smaller overall carbon footprint and transportation accounts for a higher share of their emissions than it does for meat, poultry or seafood.
“What matters more than local or not local (for the environment) is the production method used,” says Chris Hunt, a senior policy adviser at Sustainable Table, a non-profit that advocates for healthy, eco-friendly food. He says fewer emissions result from grass-fed beef on pasture farms compared to grain-fed beef on factory farms. Ekwurzel agrees.
– Keep the old stuff. This is not always best, climate-wise, when the products are energy guzzlers. Ekwurzel says many refrigerators and cars have become so much more efficient that replacing old ones will cause fewer emissions in the long run.
If a fridge was made before 2003, she says consumers will recoup — in lower utility bills — the cost of replacing it with an average new Energy Star unit within a few years. If buying a new or used car, she says look for fuel efficiency. Compared to a car that gets 20 miles per gallon, a 40 mpg one will save 4,500 gallons of gasoline if driven 12,000 miles annually over 15 years.
– Drive a hybrid car. Not all hybrids are created equal. Some use hybrid technology to boost power, not lower fuel use, and get fewer miles per gallon than 100 per cent gasoline-fuelled compacts.
– You need to sacrifice comfort to cut emissions. Not so. Ekwurzel says Americans enjoy lifestyles similar to those of Germans and Japanese but use more than twice as much energy per capita. She says more efficient appliances and heating/cooling equipment can help close the gap. For example, she says new car air conditioners are more efficient than older versions, so consumers won’t save gas by choosing instead to roll down the windows, which creates air resistance that lowers fuel mileage.