An annual carbon footprint of less than a ton? In Quebec, if you have electric heating, it is relatively easy to achieve such a performance. We must then “work” on transport and food since electricity has a very low carbon component due to the production park mainly supplied with energy from renewable sources. Only the Magdalen Islands and a few northern communities isolated from the network are exceptions to this finding. Let’s see how we can get there, starting from my personal experience.
The means of action differ depending on whether you live in a dense urban area, where public transportation services make it possible to commute without a car, or in an area where it is difficult to do so. Of course, active transportation (walking or cycling) does not produce greenhouse gases, but saving emissions of 1 ton of CO2 equivalent is equivalent to replacing 5,000 kilometers of cars per year with this mode of transportation.
Burning 400 liters of gasoline emits about a ton of CO2. It is roughly the consumption of a single person who drives a car that uses eight liters per hundred kilometers. On the other hand, emissions are cut in half with a hybrid car. If the hybrid car serves a family of four, the toll goes down even more so that the vehicle performs better than a city bus filled to capacity. Thus, carpooling with family or neighbors makes it possible to level things out between city rats and field rats. My wife and I have a plug-in hybrid car that drives 12 to 13,000 kilometers per year, and I carpool with my daughter to go to college. In 2018, our total fuel consumption was 310 liters. This represents the largest part of our carbon footprint for two people. We are talking about a measly 365 kilos per person and per year. This accounts only for the part of the carbon footprint associated with the use of the car. For a conventional car, this phase represents more than 85% of the car’s total GHG emissions. Life cycle emissions should be divided by the number of years of use, which is relatively negligible. For an electric car used in Quebec, the emissions related to its use are almost negligible, while the emissions associated with the other components of the car’s life-cycle per kilometer traveled are still very low.
Food is the second sector where you can best control your carbon footprint. Since food is destroyed during consumption, all of the life cycle emissions upstream of the purchase must be accounted for to determine their contribution to a person’s carbon footprint. The CO2 that we release after consuming the produces is biogenic and does not contribute to climate change. On the other hand, emissions of CO2 related to fossil fuels, of methane and nitrous oxide, as well as of refrigerant gases during the production and transportation chain are important factors that must be accounted for. Consumption of red meat, cold cuts and frozen meals emits between 3 and 5 kilos of CO2 equivalent per serving. Meals based on plants, eggs, dairy products or chicken emit between 10 and 30 times less. The enteric fermentation of slaughter animals which produces methane and the cold chain which emits halocarbons are the main reasons for this difference.
Of course, losses from one trophic level to another, from plant to animal, also explain the need to cultivate areas in proportion to processing efficiency for the same calories. For example, it takes about ten calories from plant foods to produce one calorie of beef, four of pork and less than two of chicken. The calorie processing efficiency is even better for eggs and dairy products. On a thousand meals a year, the difference counts! A carnivore who eats 10 servings of beef or processed products per week emits at least two tonnes per year while a vegetarian or flexitarian (1/2 serving of red meat per week, eggs, dairy products, most of the calories from plants) reduces its footprint to 250 kilos or even less if they favor local production.
At home, with a large vegetable patch, an apple tree and six chickens (for two families) and a flexitarian diet, we each produce about 3 kilos of emissions per week, or about 160 kilos per year.
The third sector is waste management. Putting the trash on a diet reduces your carbon footprint. Each Quebecer produces 800 kilos of CO2 equivalent per year through waste production according to the national inventory. More than 500 kilos are related to the decomposition of organic matter which gives off methane.
By home composting and spoiling the chickens with table scraps, we are able to produce less than a kilo of ultimate waste per week for two people. The chicken litter goes to the compost with the peelings and the dead leaves, then everything goes back to the vegetable garden. This makes our footprint to shrink to 50 kilograms per person per year. Emissions from recycling plastic, glass and metal are impossible to quantify because they involve too many uncertainties. When the collection of organic materials and their treatment by composting or anaerobic digestion will be available everywhere, the carbon footprint of citizens for the management of residual materials will approach 300 kilos. With a little effort to reduce packaging, reuse and recycle, this amount could be cut in third again.
For the rest, the quantities are rather insignificant. The electricity consumption of our house amounts to 10 kilos per year, so 5 kilos per person. We have few electronic devices and like our appliances and clothes, they live long. Never trying to follow fashion, buying quality and take care of what you have chosen to take home are behaviors that reduce the carbon footprint by dividing the life cycle GHG emissions by the number of years of use.
In short, it is possible in Quebec to live within a carbon budget of less than one tonne per year. As for travel, carbon offsetting can help balance your budget.
Remember that if humans reduced their annual footprint to 2.2 tonnes per person, the biosphere could absorb it without impacting the climate.