Most of us are thinking more and more about what we can do personally to reduce our contributions to global warming. How we get around can be a big part of our carbon footprint. One-quarter of Minnesota’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector—that’s second after industrial activities. Currently only about 10,000 cars on Minnesota roads are electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids. That’s about .2% of all the cars we drive. Flying is also creating a lot more angst than it used to. We’ve all read about how much it adds to our carbon footprint. Here, two friends of Agate consider responses and reflect on personal choices.
Our Planet Needs Rest
by Kathleen Weflen
Our planet Earth needs a rest. Remember when Sundays were a day of rest? Without a designated day for the citizenry to slow down, our nation keeps most of its machinery running 24/7. Much of it runs on fossil fuel, and the heat effect on our climate is disastrous.
What if we all agreed to give the Earth and ourselves an annual day of rest when no one drives? By pact, proclamation, law, or social-media movement, we (city, state, or nation) could agree to stop driving our personal vehicles for one 24-hour day. Exceptions would be made for emergencies, but you get the idea: Most road traffic would cease for that designated day, perhaps Earth Day.
What would a day of rest mean for the Earth and its inhabitants?
First of all, we would save a lot of fossil fuel. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2018 Americans consumed more than 391 million gallons of gasoline daily.
Reducing gas consumption means reducing climate-heating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Using new data from Boston University, The New York Times recently reported that the largest U.S. source of greenhouse gases continues to be transportation. A map accompanying that story shows on-road emissions across the country and in major cities. The nation’s estimated 250 million cars, sport utility vehicles, and pickup trucks account for 60 percent of emissions. Freight trucks add another 23 percent. Passenger and freight traffic in cities and suburbs discharge the most. No matter how you look at it, keeping vehicles off the road for a day would give the air a breather from CO2.
Over time, the impact of CO2 has amounted to a disaster for the climate. A natural human response to disaster is to join forces and help one another. Examples abound. Fires. Floods. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 not only unified New Yorkers but also rallied support from citizens across the nation and around the world. By collectively hanging up our car keys for a day, we would be demonstrating our resolve to work together to restore health and ensure survival of our planet.
Some people might argue that an annual rest day would seem like little more than a ceremony. In fact, thinking of this community-wide action as a ceremony would be wise. In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer points out the potential practical value as well as the spiritual value of ceremonies. A botanist and Native American, she writes, “Ceremony focuses attention so that attention becomes intention. If you stand together and profess a thing before your community, it holds you accountable.”
In the rare calm of a car-free day, we humans and other creatures would have a chance to tune our ears to a new soundscape. And we may be able to more clearly see our part in a warming climate and imagine how our ways could change.
A half-century ago, when Apollo astronauts looked down at our blue planet, they gazed in awe and fell in love. People around the world watched the televised moon landing and saw that now iconic image of Earth. People viewed the moonshot as a giant leap for humankind. If we humans can go to the moon and gain a new perspective on our home planet, we can certainly figure out a way to stop driving over it for one peaceful day.
Hanging up the car keys for a day would be a small sacrifice. Giving our Earth and ourselves a day of rest would be an event worth celebrating. It would be a giant step toward building the global unity needed to tackle our climate crisis.
Kathleen Weflen is a writer and and a book editor. From 1989 to 2017, she was editor in chief of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine for the Department of Natural Resources.
To fly… or not
by Stephanie Hemphill
It used to be, if you wanted to go somewhere and you had the money, you’d get on a plane and go. Things are different now. As they should be.
Moral questions about unnecessary travel are beginning to pop up in media stories and friendly conversations. The reality of the climate crisis is hitting us in the face, and we know that flying adds a huge amount to our carbon footprint. Friends recently told me they figured out their yearly carbon budget, and felt pretty good about it until they flew to Europe. The flight alone wiped out all the good they had done during the year by turning down the thermostat, recycling, carpooling, and all those other responsible actions.
Now I’m thinking about going to Argentina. My Spanish teacher is Argentinian, and she has invited our small group to join her for a trip back home. It’s the kind of opportunity you don’t want to say “no” to.
It’s been a long time since I filled out one of those online questionnaires that show you what your carbon footprint is, but I do think about it a lot. My husband and I live in a too-big house, we have two cars, and we eat meat. On the other hand, we have solar collectors for electricity and hot water, a geothermal system for heating, the house is tight and well-insulated, and most of the meat we eat is locally produced and pasture-raised. Trying to balance these two realities, I dither.
For me, traveling is a little like food: compared to how much I’d like to eat, I eat very sparingly. Compared to how much I’d like to travel, I travel very little. Does that count for anything?
I read all the articles I come across about the evils of flying. Jack Miles recently wrote in The Washington Post that deciding not to fly is the best and quickest way for those of us in the developed world to reduce the harm we do. Attend conferences online, he urged; decline invitations to destination weddings in the tropics, and “explain to your ecological public interest group that the Galápagos will be much better off without you.” This last piece of advice touches on one of my pet peeves: people who jet-set to exotic locations just because it sounds like fun and they have the money. Wait, is that what Argentina is for me?
In Sweden, they’ve coined a word, “flygskam,” meaning “flight shaming.” Swedish activist Greta Thunberg famously sailed to the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York in September rather than fly. And there’s a Twitter account devoted to the idea, @flyingless.
An article in Vox describes the realization that hit a Swedish woman, Maja Rosen, in 2007, when she visited Norway’s Lofoten Islands, north of the Arctic Circle, a fjord-laced region that is warming faster than most places on the planet. Recognizing that her visit was contributing to the unsettling changes there, she began a campaign called “We Stay on the Ground.” So far, according to Vox, 8,000 people have promised to avoid flying for a year.
That’s not many, especially when the trends for flying are up, up, and away. The International Civil Aviation Organization forecasts that emissions from flights globally will quadruple between now and 2050. The fastest-growing airports in the world are in developing nations. Here in the upper Midwest, the numbers are more stable. In the last several years, the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport has hosted roughly 38-milllion passengers on more than 400,000 take-offs and landings each year.
Some people are deciding not to fly. A member of my eco-book group has told his family that when he visits them, he will come by bus or train. A scientist in New Zealand gave up flying for a year when he realized he was flying “as if (he) didn’t believe in climate change.” He describes his experience in The Guardian. His story ends, “Fly if you have to, offset if you can, but fly less.”
I have been offsetting when I fly. That is, I have helped pay for projects that are designed to take carbon and other greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. For example, a project to siphon methane from landfills and use it to produce heat rather than letting it escape into the air. Or a project to plant trees in Africa. In fact, two years ago we planted (with a lot of help) more than 700 trees on our own land here in northern Minnesota. And now we’re caring for a native upland prairie near our house. Do those earth-friendly investments count for anything?
There’s a lot of skepticism about offsets. In a 2012 article in Nature, UK academic Kevin Anderson lays out a nuanced critique. He points out that not only is it realistically impossible to make an absolute promise that a project will continue to sequester or prevent greenhouse gas emissions for the next hundred years, offsets do little to make the basic changes we need. “Offsetting, on all scales, weakens present-day drivers for change and reduces innovation towards a lower-carbon future. It militates against market signals to improve low-carbon travel and video-conference technologies, while encouraging investment in capital-intensive airports and new aircraft, along with roads, ports and fossil-fuel power stations.”
In 2006, three major NGOs (Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund-UK and Friends of the Earth) described offsets as an “easy way out for governments, businesses and individuals to continue polluting without making changes to the way they do business or their behaviour.” The groups decided that when they travel they’ll only use offsets that improve energy efficiency or pay for renewable energy projects. No tree planting, for several reasons: trees will eventually die, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere; it’s hard to get an accurate estimate of how much CO2 a forest can absorb; monoculture plantations often have negative environmental impacts; and planting trees does nothing to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels. More recently they’ve added clean water projects to their approved list.
Some environmental groups say offsets are a distraction, and a tax on carbon is the only way to push society in the right direction.
But how guilty should we feel about flying? The International Council on Clean Transportation recently came out with a report that acknowledged that U.S. travelers are responsible for about one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions from the aviation sector (about the combined emissions of total fossil fuel use in Germany and the Netherlands), but not all Americans are equally responsible. Based on statistics from 2017, a solid half of Americans didn’t fly at all, and another one-third flew only one-to-five times a year. “The remaining minority of Americans—12% to be exact—who fly six or more times per year were responsible for about two-thirds of all flights in 2018,” said the report.
And there are those who defend offsets. In an opinion piece in Ensia, Christopher J. Preston answers some of the criticisms. “Carbon offsets invested in the developing world represent a transfer of wealth—albeit a small one—from the rich to the poor. Such transfers can reduce global injustice if they are invested in infrastructure. … To the extent they provide a buffer against the effects of climate harms already occurring, they are on the right side of the moral ledger.” Such projects, he says, can be part of the transformation we need to achieve: more renewable energy, clean water, healthier ecosystems. Plus, “If you tell your friends what you are doing, offsetting also creates a social pressure for others to recognize there is a cost to carbon.”
Still, buying an offset is just a stop-gap measure, he says. We must continue to try to reduce our personal carbon footprints and push for government action on climate change. And he recommends researching projects through some of the certifying organizations, to make sure they are legitimate.
So now I’ll study their web pages and make my choice. What are you thinking? Here at Agate we’d love to hear about how you are navigating these difficult times. Our address is email@example.com
Stephanie Hemphill is co-editor of Agate Magazine. She retired in 2013 as environment reporter for Minnesota Public Radio.