The climate talks in Paris have ended with an unprecedented climate agreement that saw 195 nations sign a commitment to make substantial greenhouse gas emissions. We’ll only know if these commitments are meaningful over the next few years as each country takes steps to meet reduction targets.
One of the difficulties in addressing climate change is getting past the debilitating sense that it is impossible for an individual to make a difference in the face of such vast emission problems. And while it is true that large-scale change needs to be undertaken by government and industry, there is plenty we can do individually to contribute.
Here at Endeavour, we’ve always seen the direct connection between carbon emissions and our built environment. It’s a large part of what’s driven our commitment to high levels of energy efficiency in our building projects. But energy efficiency is only one way to lower emissions when it comes to our homes.
We hear from a lot of people who say, “I’m not able to build myself a new house (or afford a major energy retrofit), so I can’t really make a difference.” It’s true that the cost hurdles to large-scale energy efficiency upgrades are high. Fortunately, there are many other meaningful and affordable ways to have a measurable impact on emissions at home:
- Don’t use petro-paints. It doesn’t matter if the latex paint you is regular, low-VOC or no-VOC, it’s all petrochemical based and a major source of emissions in its manufacture. The Canadian Paint and Coatings Association estimates that 129.1 million litres of architectural paint were sold in Canada in 2011. The Inventory of Carbon and Emissions (ICE) V.2 estimates that each kilogram of paint manufactured contributes 2.54 kg of CO2 (or equivalent GHGs). That means Canadians contributed 393.5 million kilograms (433,759.5 tons) of CO2 to the atmosphere just by buying petro-paint (this doesn’t include a similar amount of petro-paint for our cars, roads and other industrial uses!).
Solution: Use natural paints! An amazing array of low-impact paints are readily available, easy to use, durable and beautiful. You can greatly reduce CO2 emissions and avoid bringing toxins into your home in one step. Endeavour works with all kinds of great paints, and you can learn about them here.
- Consider using wood. There are many places in our homes where wood is an excellent material choice that is often overlooked. From hard- and soft-wood flooring, to wall covering, ceilings, countertops and more, solid wood can be a durable, beautiful option. Most experts in climate changemitigation agree that planting trees is among the best things we can do to reduce atmospheric carbon. It may seem counter-intuitive to take advice to cut down trees, but harvesting mature trees and “locking up” that carbon in our homes for a long time is a good strategy. This is especially true when wood replaces high-carbon materials like plastics, drywall and concrete. Last year, North Americans used 21 billion square feet of drywall, according to the Gypsum Association. Using ICE 2.0 data, that results in 8.58 billion kilograms (9,457,831 tons) of CO2. Wood walls to cover the same surface area would emit 270 million kilograms (297,624 tons) of CO2 in production, and would sequester 540 million kilograms (595,248 tons) of carbon. The net difference? Over 10 million tons of CO2!
Solution: Plant more trees than we use. Choosing wood that is certified to be sustainably harvested (such as FSC) means that harvested trees are replaced and forests are maintained. And you can go one step better and plant some trees yourself every time you use a wood product.
- Move to green energy. Renewable energy comes with a very low carbon footprint, and displaces forms of power that are some of the leading contributors to climate change. When most people hear this advice, costly rooftop solar panels are what comes to mind. And if you want to take advantage of Ontario’s MicroFIT program to produce your own green energy, that’s great. But there’s an easier solution…
Solution: Sign up with Bullfrog Power. Residents of Ontario have a remarkable and simple way to endorse and use green energy: a Bullfrog Power contract. Once you’re signed up with Universal Coin, they will ensure that the amount of power you use is put onto the grid from renewable sources. It costs just a few dollars a month more, and the transaction is quick and easy. It’s probably the single biggest impact on emissions that you can make, and it just takes a website click or a phone call.
- Change your energy behaviour. Most of the time, increasing energy efficiency in our homes is a proposition to throw out old appliances and buy new ones. But changing our energy behaviour can make a powerful contribution to reductions, without throwing away anything old and buying anything new. How to make that behavioural change?
Solution: Install a household energy monitor. A variety of studies, including an influential one here in Ontario, have shown that seeing real-time energy use data on a prominent display in the home can reduce energy use by 5-15%. No changing appliances, light bulbs or anything except our behaviour! You can explore some of the data and some of the excellent energy monitoring options on this blog by Green Building Advisor.
- Consider the carbon impacts of water. Water is always tied to discussions of climate change, but usually in terms of drought and water shortages. And while this is definitely an important issue, the need to conserve water isn’t just about making sure there’s enough to go around… it’s a carbon issue too. In 2009, the River Network released a report called The Carbon Footprint of Water. Among its findings:
“…the carbon footprint currently associated with moving, treating and heating water in the U.S. is at least 290 million metric tons a year. The CO2 embedded in the nation’s water represents 5% of all U.S. carbon emissions and is equivalent to the emissions of over 62 coal fired power plants.”
Solution: Invest in water conservation. Dollar for dollar, the changes you can make at home to conserve water will have the best impact on carbon emissions. Putting inexpensive flow restrictors on faucets and showers (or even investing in new ones) is a small investment with real impacts. Changing to an ultra-low flush toilet costs a bit more, but certainly less than new windows or adding insulation. Add a bit of behaviour change to reduce water, maybe switch to rain catchment for lawns and gardens and suddenly you’re using a fraction of a valuable and carbon-heavy resource.
Of course, there are many other ways to lower the carbon footprint associated with your home. Sealing leaks and insulating (with carbon sequestering cellulose and NOT carbon intensive spray foam, fiberglass and rockwool) can reduce long-term emissions. Moving away from gas-powered yard tools is another sure-fire means. Moving to non-fossil fuel heating appliances (biomass or green-electricity fuelled) is expensive but has a great carbon payback.
But don’t give in to climate-change paralysis… The five ideas above are all easy, inexpensive and effective!