Could I Reduce My Carbon Emissions By Moving South For the Winter?

airport runway photo

photo: Ranier Ebert

Like my previous one on taxi-cab and jet emissions, this post was born out of some water-cooler speculation a few weeks back. Just as it began to get cold, rainy, and windy in New York City, TH founder Graham Hill began to wonder if he could ecologically justify migrating south for the winter. If he forewent air conditioning in the antipodean summer, as, say, Argentineans do, wouldn't he be using far less energy than heating a New York apartment all grey-winter long? We pondered, we dreamed, we did the math. But is it a no-brainer...or just wishful thinking? New York City Average Electricity Use is Pretty Low for US...
In New York City, average electricity usage is 350 kWh per month, according to ConEd. New Yorkers get our electricity from a mix of, in descending order, coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, and very small amount (less than one percent each) of wind, biomass, and waste-to-energy. That translates into 340 pounds of CO2 emissions per person per month from electricity usage.

...But Argentina’s Is Lower Still
The average electricity usage in Buenos Aires (Graham's destination of choice) however, is a mere 175 kWh per person per month. Plus, with nearly 80 percent of energy generated from natural gas and hydro and only a smidgen from oil and coal per capita CO2 emissions come out to a comparably measly 146 pounds per person per month.

What I want to know is what the Argentineans do that we in the US don’t? Both nations are considering highly developed on the Human Development Index, though the US does rank closer to the top. So in the scheme of quality of life we’re roughly similar, but Argentina manages to do it with much lower electricity use. But I digress...

Based on these figures, you'd save about 200 pounds of CO2 per month. But don't pack your bags yet: When you consider emissions from the jet to fly you there, a different tale unfolds.

Flying = Big Carbon Emissions
A flight from JFK to Buenos Aires emits 5,380 pounds of CO2 and that's just for a one-way trip per person, round-trip. Now compare that to the 969 pounds of CO2 you'd save while beach-bumming it in Argentina. Put that way, by following the sun you'll have increased your carbon emissions by 4,411 pounds.

You could simply offset the flight and still come out ahead, right? True, but by that rationale, you could also switch to a green energy program at home, which tips the balance back in favor of staying put.

Travel Has Its Virtues, But Lowering Carbon Emissions Isn’t on the List
Conclusion: There are definitely worthy reasons to travel at any time of year. And if your job allows you to head to a warmer climate in winter, I can't say I'd blame you for doing so. But trying to justify it strictly from a green perspective doesn't quite cut it. (Sorry boss.)

UPDATE: Clarified flight carbon emissions as being round trip and per person; in doing so came across a variety of figures from different sources, some of which are nearly half the figure I ultimately listed. Using any of those however still tips the balance away from being able to justify the trip because of energy savings.

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