Should I Move? Why Carbon Footprints are (Sort of) BS

Carbon Footprint photoNet_Efekt/CC BY 2.0

I'm thinking of moving house. Nothing is decided yet. But as with all such big life decisions, it's usually an opportunity to reflect on who you are, where you want to be and what you want to do. And that reflection can shed light on some bigger issues. A case in point?

Personal carbon footprints are sort of bullshit.

I say "sort of" because there is much value in cutting your emissions, and carbon footprinting can be a great tool to prioritize those efforts. But when they become an end goal, rather than a tool, they can seriously mess with your thinking.

Are Efficiency Improvements a Reason to Stay?
In our case, for example, we've made some significant efforts to green our current house: we've installed solar hot water; we've constructed a home office from reclaimed materials; we've planted perennial fruit trees and bushes; and we've upgraded to a more efficient heat pump and put in solar daylighting tubes too. But we are still living the lifestyle of the rural green elite, driving wherever we have to go, and encouraging the car-dependent infrastructure that goes with that.

Like many green-minded folk, I've spent a good deal of time with carbon calculators and other tools. And so my own personal carbon footprint is a tangible reality, not an abstraction, in my head. As we started pondering a move, I found myself worrying whether living in a less efficient home in town would cause my personal emissions/carbon footprint to go up or down. Until I realized that was the wrong question.

Who Owns Emissions Savings? And Why Should We Care?
The improvements we have done to this house will remain, whether we live here or not. So why would I worry, from an ethical/moral point-of-view, about losing the "eco-benefits" of the measures we have taken? Our atmosphere will benefit whether I get to call them "my emissions savings" or not.

What matters is not so much what your personal carbon footprint is, or will be, but rather where do you have the most potential to affect change. In fact, a case could be made for green-minded folk to seek out the least efficient houses they can, as those are the houses that need the most work. (As a deeply impractical person, I'm not going to follow that argument and move to a fixer-upper - but you get my point.)

Buying Green Power Versus Building New Capacity
In many ways it's a similar argument to the well-publicized spat between UK "green" utilities Ecotricity and Good Energy. While Good Energy has always boasted that it purchases 100% renewable energy, Ecotricity has made the case that this is largely irrelevant. What matters, they say, is not how much green energy you buy (the capacity is already built and you are simply taking green electrons from one customer and allocating them to another), but rather how much you invest in building new sources.

I'm not saying carbon footprints are worthless. But they can be a distraction. Once again we see that leverage trumps footprints in the grander scheme of things, and the ultimate metric of success is how we contribute to slashing our collective emissions and impact as quickly as possible.

Tags: Activism | Carbon Footprint | United States


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