This commentary is by George Plumb, who is a member of the board of Vermonters for Sustainable Population.
2016 was the hottest year on record and follows the two previous years, which were also the hottest years on record.
With the weird weather of this past January, 2017 is also likely to be another hottest year on record. The hottest year on record appears to be the new normal and unless we begin to quickly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions we could be facing “abrupt climate change” where the climate change as a result of positive feedback loops quickly results in such large increases in temperature that all life on Earth is threatened.
Unfortunately the primary cause of global warming is rarely mentioned and that is population growth.
If the world population was still at one billion like it was in 1850, when the industrial revolution began, instead of currently over 7.5 billion, we wouldn’t be facing any place near the problem that we are now even if people were burning fossil fuels at the same rate. The same is true if the U.S. population was at about 30 million instead of 325 million, and the Vermont population at 300,000 instead of 626,000. And the world population is still growing at 80 million per year and the U.S. population at 2.5 million.
Fortunately, Vermont’s population is relatively stable although our governor, some other political leaders, developers and economists want to grow it by tens of thousands. Each individual in North America contributes an average of 27 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. So if a person lives to be about 70 years old he or she will contribute a whopping 1,890 tons just for that individual. How can we possibly grow the population and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions at the same time?
While population growth is the primary cause of our increase in greenhouse gas emissions there are many secondary causes.
Some we can do something about but not eliminate entirely like better insulating our homes to reduce fuel consumption but we still need to keep our homes reasonably warm. Secondary causes that we can change dramatically are our individual lifestyle choices. Some of the choices we make and the percentage of total contributions to greenhouse gas emissions are as follows:
Going on cruises — 1 percent
Cruising is absolutely the worst single thing a person can do in terms of generating a lot of greenhouse gas emissions all during one short time period. A gallon of dirty diesel powers a cruise ship by only about 12 feet or less. So instead of mpg that is 440 gpm! Cruise ships emit three times as much pollution per passenger as going on a jet plane and of course most people have to fly to and from the cruise ship launch point.
Flying in jet planes — 3 percent
Jet plane travel is the second worst single action a person can do. Aircraft are a rapidly growing emissions source within the transportation sector, which is second only to the power sector as a source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. In 2013, aircraft were responsible for about 3 percent of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions and nearly 9 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from the U.S. transportation sector. Because of the elevation they are emitted at, aircraft emissions also have a much greater impact on the atmosphere.
Driving large vehicles instead of smaller and more fuel efficient ones — 10 percent
There are a total of 693,532 vehicles registered in Vermont. The most popular vehicles now are pickup trucks and as can easily be seen they are primarily used as passenger vehicles and seldom used to carry large items. There are 129,917 trucks with a “registered weight” up to 6,099 pounds, meaning that an empty truck of say 4,000 pounds can carry up to 2,099 pounds of passengers and cargo. This is 18.7 percent of all vehicles and of course a large percentage of vehicles are also SUVs, although there is no data on this category. There are only 12,080 hybrids and 1,131 all-electric vehicles registered. Pickup trucks get about 20 mpg versus hybrids which get about 45 mpg. And of course it takes a tremendous amount of fossil fuels to build all vehicles. Even my tiny all-electric MiEV takes a few years to pay back what fossil fuels were required to build it. Transportation is the largest generator of carbon emissions in Vermont.
Driving long distances solely for recreational purposes — 5 percent
A significant part of our driving besides commuting to work, driving to buy food and goods, or going to local places like church and community events is driving far distance purely for recreation. This might be driving to Montreal or New York City, Florida, or out west. There seems to be no websites that provide data on this percentage so the percentage given is based on my personal observation.
Mowing large lawns — 3 percent
Maintaining an average lawn of six tenths of an acre will be responsible for 1,048 pounds of CO2 annually and many Vermont lawns are much larger than that. All told, then, the 54 million households maintaining lawns produce 503 billion cubic feet of atmospheric greenhouse gas annually. And these emissions will remain active in our atmosphere for up to 200 years.
Eating a largely meat-based diet — 18 percent
Just cutting meat back — particularly beef — the average American consumer can cut back their greenhouse gas production by half. The American diet requires double the farmland of the world average while generating double the greenhouse gas emissions (with between 80 and 90 percent of those effects tied to meat, dairy and other animal-derived products). Livestock and their byproducts account for at least 32,000 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, or 51 percent of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Methane is 25-100 times more destructive than CO2 on a 20-year time frame. Methane has a global warming potential 86 times that of CO2 on a 20-year time frame.
Added together just these few lifestyle choices account for an estimated 40 percent of our emissions.
If we added in other voluntary choices, like what we do for recreation, the combination is more likely at least 50 percent. While doing something like taking an action to reduce our emissions by 1 or 2 percent may seem insignificant, all of the percentages add up and we must address every one.
It is time we consciously and morally think about how many children to have, whether or not growing our population will help reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and every single gallon of fuel we burn for our own personal pleasure whether directly or indirectly. Future generations are going to look back and say, “You had the opportunity to change your lifestyles and you didn’t. How come? Now our very existence is in threatened.”
Note: This commentary was motivated in large part by reading the book, “How Bad Are Bananas?” written by Mike Berners-Lee. In the book, he explains in detail the carbon emissions from 165 different actions.