Carbon sequestration in your own forest

So it is now widely accepted that climate change is a serious problem in the world, but we are still figuring out the details about how to fix it. One major possibility that I discussed at length in the past here at Sunshine Saved is to reduce those activities that cause climate change, especially our consumption of goods and services that burn fossil fuels. The primer that I wrote on what a given family could do can be seen here. Then there are things that we can do to take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, broadly called ‘carbon sequestration’. There are currently many high tech proposals for factories that will do ‘carbon capture’, but I have yet to see one of these that has any chance of scaling up or being economically or energy efficient enough to accomplish much. I think that the current high-tech proposals will never go past ‘demonstrations’, and won’t actually help the problem. Perhaps next-generation high-tech carbon sequestration will be better. Finally there are ‘nature-based’ solutions, which is what I’ll be talking about for the rest of this post. All of these are basically about getting plants to do the work for us, to take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it somewhere that won’t quickly go back into the air. One of the many reasons that I started our farm, Ferme L’eau du ruisseau, was to do something tangible towards helping out the climate change and biodiversity crises that the world is now facing. While our efforts in farming continue, it turns out that managing forests holds much more promise for fighting climate change than farming could (at least in our region). This is because the primary chemical component of all parts of a tree is in fact carbon, and forests grow a lot of trees. And where does any plant get the carbon it needs to grow? It pulls it straight out of the air.

Agriclimat conference

In November of 2023 I had the pleasure of attending a conference put on by Agriclimat, a Quebec initiative to address climate change through farms and farmers. The full day conference was put on to educate a group of farmers about how farms connect to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. It was wonderfully informative, and I took a lot of notes about the particulars, especially those that related to forests. On average, about 1/3 of each Quebec farm is forested, and in the Gatineau Hills where our properties are located, that number may more like 3/4 forested, which is about what our own properties are. So farmers in Quebec and elsewhere manage an enormous amount of forests, and everyone would like that to be good management. I’d like to share with you a bunch of the numbers about carbon and forests that I learned there. Unfortunately I don’t have the original sources of these data, but found a similar US source on forest carbon (pdf embedded below). The specific numbers between these two sources differ somewhat, but the basic story is exactly the same.

Sequestration rates.
Fact number one is that forests sequester a lot of carbon. Each hectare of forest sequesters about 1.75 tons of CO2 per year. This is for a middle aged forest with mostly 80 to 100 year old trees, which is typical of enormous swaths of southeastern Canada and the northeastern US. Very young forests (after a clearcut or other disturbance) may not take in as much CO2 in their earliest years as the individual trees are so small. And in old forests, say those around 200 years old and older, sequestration tapers off and reaches an equilibrium because the amount of carbon being sequestered matches the amount being emitted from dying trees, decomposing logs and other woody material on the forest floor. Those old forests do store an enormous amount of carbon, but the total amount doesn’t keep going up forever.

Something that was outside the scope of the conference was how different forest management practices may change those rates. If one uses really poor management, would the rate go down? With great management, would the rate go up? Looking at other types of forest outcomes, the difference between ‘managed’ and ‘unmanaged’ often seems to be about a factor of 2. Unmanaged forests produce about half as much timber as managed forests. While I don’t have definitive numbers, I imagine that it would be something roughly similar when one is managing for carbon storage – the right management may be able to roughly double the climate impact over no (or poor) management. I’ll be looking into these details further.

As a point of comparison, croplands in Quebec are on average releasing .5 tons of CO2 per hectare into the atmosphere each year. This is the opposite of sequestration, and is due to erosion, loss of soil carbon, and the fact that there is very little living plant matter making it through the winter season. Regenerative and organic farming techniques can do much better, keeping the soil living, healthy, and storing much more organic matter, but they can’t match forests. We need food and must continue to adopt great agricultural practices, but they aren’t going to solve the problem all alone.

How much total carbon and where is it?
So if a forest is sequestering close to two tons of CO2 per hectare each year, where does it all go in that forest? It turns out that there are three big pools. In that average 80 year old Quebec forest, there would be about 80 tons per hectare of living trees, the majority in the trunks, with the rest in the branches and roots. Then there would be about 25 tons per hectare of dead woody material, in logs and branches on the forest floor, as well as standing dead trees (snags). Finally, there would be about 150 tons of carbon per acre of carbon in the soil, known as ‘soil organic carbon’*** . This is in very small pieces, many of which are even microscopic. This soil carbon is integral to all of the microorganisms that live in the soil. All told, this is about 250 tons of carbon stored per hectare of forest. If that forest reaches old age (200 years or more), the total carbon storage may max out somewhere around 400 tons per hectare.

Disturbances and loss of forest carbon
So forests build up and hold a lot of carbon, but it’s not there forever. When there are major disturbances that kill a lot of trees, carbon can be released to the atmosphere. This is different from fossil fuel reserves buried deep underground, which would stay there for millions of years without our intervention. But forests are living systems that are always in flux, generally storing carbon for tens or hundreds of years, perhaps even thousands when circumstances are right. Natural disturbances that kill or damage trees and include fires, ice storms, wind events, floods, insect infestations, bacterial or fungal disease, and more. These kinds of events can kill some or even most of the trees in a given area, and when dead trees decompose, much of the carbon within them goes right back into the atmosphere. Then there are land use conversions, changing forest to other things like agricultural fields, roads, houses, etc. These generally wipe out the majority of the carbon store, and almost no other land use would be as effective at combatting climate change as maintaining forests.

A different kind of forest disturbance can actually help fight climate change. While counterintuitive, harvest/logging is a type of disturbance that can potentially fight climate change. This isn’t just any logging, but rather doing the right kinds of harvests in the right kinds of places. There are certain areas that should stay untouched, such as the few remaining old growth forests, and others that need the just right kind of management. While there are too many details to get into here, good management maintains a healthy forest and protects biodiversity, while also giving us wood products.

So how can logging help? Harvesting wood helps people to fight against climate change in two main ways. The more important of them is that using wood to meet human needs almost always uses less energy and creates less emissions than the alternative. We are going to want buildings, and packaging, and insulation, and so many more goods, and if we don’t use wood we will instead have to use more steel, concrete, plastics, or other products. If we assume that we are going to want those goods anyway, it is most often better to use wood products. There is a whole field of study called ‘lifecycle emissions’ that looks at these sorts of comparisons, and data is available out there to actually compare product by product. The second way that harvesting wood can help is with carbon storage directly in wood products. A board that goes into a house may stay there for 100 years or more, and all the carbon will stay sequestered inside that house as long as it stands. The Agriclimat conference gave a few key comparisons about these effects.

ProductSequestration time – averageTons of CO2 reduction by using one ton
wood instead of other materials
Firewood1 year.4 tons (from fossil fuel heating)
Paper products2 yearsnot available
Boards – construction lumber35 years.9 tons (from steel, concrete, etc.)
Paneling – plywood, particle board, etc.25 years.8 tons (composites, plastics, etc.)

So in reading this table, by using wood to do construction instead of steel and concrete, for every one ton of construction lumber you build with, you have almost a ton of reduced emissions as compared with making that same building with products like steel and concrete. There are of course some emissions associated with cutting trees, transporting them, cutting them into boards, etc., but this is far less than for other materials one could use. So generally, wood is good.

But one still has to take this with a grain of salt, as this is broad-scale averages and doesn’t apply in every single situation. For example, residential heating with wood. If one is taking low-quality locally harvested trees and burning them for heat in homes that would otherwise be heated using oil or propane, that is a great thing. But if instead of wood burning, you heat your home with a heat pump using clean electricity (there is a lot of hydropower in Quebec), wood burning doesn’t look so good. And when it comes to the wood pellet electricity generating plants, the massive harvesting of wood used to burn for electricity is far worse than renewables like solar and wind. There is always nuance, but using wood instead of alternative high emissions products and energy sources is a wise choice.

So how much can we actually accomplish at the Manitou?

Our own forests at the Manitou and Ferme L’eau du ruisseau add up to 144 hectares of forest of mostly middle-aged forest, so are sequestering about 250 tons of CO2 per year. How far does that forest go towards off-setting the carbon emissions of my family? Or those of my neighbours?

In 2019, the Canadian emissions per person was 15 tons CO2/year. Some of that is personal consumption, but a big portion is also each person’s share of government, industry, commercial, agriculture, shipping and the rest. As was mentioned above, each hectare of forest sequesters 1.75 tons CO2/year, which means each person needs 8 hectares of growing forests to soak up their share of emissions. Put another way, these 8 hectares would hold something like 1000 good-sized trees (25 cm diameter trunks or more) plus all the smaller trees and the understory. Each of those larger trees would then be pulling an average of 15kg of CO2 from the atmosphere each year. That really isn’t a lot for each tree, but since Canada has over 300 million hectares of forest, it really does add up.

My own family includes 2 adults and 3 small children. For the sake of argument, say that we are equal to 4 adults, or 60 tons CO2/year. So with our forests sequestering around 250 tons C02 per year, our forests will fully off-set the emissions of 4 families like my own. Making sure that this forest is cared for properly will have a bigger effect than almost anything else that our family could do in our personal lives – compared to taking less plane flights, living in a smaller more efficient house, giving up a car, etc. This is still just a drop in the bucket compared to the scale of the problem, but this is something that we can directly do, and it won’t cost us anything. Good management of our forests will even bring in a few dollars while we also accomplish a bit of greater good.

The last thing to mention is going to be about the details of doing forest management right. I’ll have much more to say about this in future posts. But the gist of it is that there is a really great balance that is achievable, where we will be able to protect our land and its biodiversity, while also sequestering carbon and producing economically valuable timber. This path isn’t necessarily an easy one since you must take all of these concerns into account at the same time, and find that sweet spot of actions to take. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Other reading

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*** Soil carbon limited by mineralization – This is completely an aside from the main story above, but it was a really interesting fact that I learned that same day of the conference and I just needed to share. This is about carbon mineralization, the process by which organic soil carbon is turned back into CO2 in the air. In the fight against climate change, we actually wish we could have much lower mineralization, to hold more carbon in the soil. It turns out that this mineralization is caused by soil micro-organisms that need both warmth and oxygen. Take away either of those, and more carbon stays in the ground. The most extreme cases are things like peat bogs – with no oxygen, there is almost no decomposition and they hold massive stores of organic materials (and therefore carbon). Cold boreal forests have higher rates of mineralization, but are still quite cool and have a ton of woody material on the surface and high percentage of carbon in the soil. As you go to temperate forests and then tropical forests, the mineralization gets faster and faster. Tropical soils therefore tend to have much lower soil organic carbon – microorganisms essentially eat it all and release it as CO2 very quickly. This also means that in the tropics, most of the carbon is actually stored in living trees and plants.

A warming climate will have an effect in Quebec on soil carbon. Warming will directly lead to more mineralization and more release of carbon from the soil to the atmosphere. As of 2020 data, the farms Agriclimat studied varied between 2.1% and 8.6% organic carbon in the top layers of soil. It is hard to quantify exactly, but those amounts will certainly go down as climate warms, giving one more headwind that we have to work against to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Getting a forestry management plan made

So it is currently winter 2024, and I now have plans to get an official forest management plan made by a professional forester this spring. I know a lot about our forest already, but what a professional forester can do is to be my guide to the commercial forestry industry and the gateway to any and all government programs that help with forest management. There tends to be very unequal knowledge between someone like me (a relatively small forest holder) and the mills and loggers that I may want to deal with. They have lots of experience about the ins and outs of the industry, and it is relatively opaque to someone like me, being that I’m outside of all of that. You can find a professional forester almost anywhere, and want to find one that is knowledgeable with your area, and one that can help you to meet your goals. We have selected Coopérative Terra Bois, one of the larger forester companies in the Outaouais region north of Ottawa. I’ve spoken to Antoine there a few times, and he seems like the kind of guy I’d like to work with.

What a forester will do is to really figure out what kind of land you have, and what kinds of trees are currently present. Though the focus is mostly just on trees, knowing about your trees actually tells you a great deal about the rest of local biodiversity. To create these maps, they use high-end mapping software and on-the-ground site visits. I spoke with Antoine about their process, and he told me that their in-person site visits can cover roughly 40 hectares (100 acres) of forest per day. If it is hard for you to imagine how much walking that is, it is probably 10 to 15 kilometres, criss-crossing back and forth over a square that is 600 meters on a side. This doesn’t let you cover ‘every inch’, but it is enough so that you should see all the different parts of a forest. They want to see all the major features of the geography, where it is wet vs. dry, rocky vs. deep soils, as well as what the actual trees look like in different areas. They take measurements of tree species, numbers, size, and health. There is a lot of forestry-specific terminology that they may use, but that is the gist of what they are measuring.

Combining that on-the-ground knowledge with everything they can see on satellite maps, they divide up a property into ‘stands’. These divisions are based mostly on differences in the trees – what species are present and how big they are. Very often the species that do well is very dependent on the geography. In our area, rocky hilltops with thin and dry soils are usually dominated by red oaks and eastern white pines, while swampy bottomlands have a lot of northern white cedar and black ash (though all the black ash in our forest have died in the last 5 years from the emerald ash borer). These stands then pick out areas that have a lot in common for their trees, and will then be treated as a group when it comes time to take any actions in the forest, like cutting trees.

Once all this work is done, you will receive a ‘forest management plan’. This includes all the information that they’ve put together about your property, as well as their recommendations about what actions you should take to manage your site. Those management recommendations will be heavily influenced by what you have told them about your goals. Do you want biodiversity or to maximize economic returns from timber cutting? Short term or long term? Hunting, hiking, birding or other recreation? Most family land-holders will actually have multiple goals that they balance out against.

Our own forest management goals are a combination of biodiversity, forest health, recreation, and timber extraction – a little bit of everything. It really is possible to do it all, but that means that you end up doing a bit less to meet each of those goals:

  • Biodiversity – Leaving variety and space for all kinds of species. Leaving some dead/dying trees, both standing and on the forest floor. Minimizing overall disturbance.
  • Forest health – Preferentially removing weak/sick/poorly formed trees. Increases the average size and health of the trees, making sure to keep a variety of tree species. Our forest is young/middle aged, and we want it to move towards an older forest with more bigger, older trees.
  • Recreation – Keeping forestry operations smaller and less intrusive. This makes it so the forest continues to always look relatively natural. Maintain trails for hiking, hunting as well as logging.
  • Economic – Cutting and selling timber. By keeping up with all the above goals, it will be a smaller return over the short term, but very solid over the longer term. Our forest will stay healthier for the decades to come, and will have more valuable trees over time (bigger, straighter, healthier, etc.). Doing a modest amount of cutting in each area every 15 to 20 years allows you to just harvest the growth, and maintain a healthy and beautiful forest.

The practicalities

So what are the economics of our forest planning? The basic costs to us is $675 per plan plus $13 per hectare. With two properties (and therefore two plans), and a total of 144 hectares (355 acres) of forest, our plans come to almost $4000. Because we are planning on doing some timber harvests, we should make up that investment within the first year or two. For our money, we are getting:

  • Much greater knowledge about our forest
  • Access to Quebec government forestry programs (subsidies of various sorts)
  • Access to the foresters’ future help on making timber sales (marking trees, marketing wood, finding reliable loggers, etc.)

The amount of return that one can expect from trees is like anything else in agriculture or land management – not much on a small scale, but it adds up as you go to bigger scale. If you are looking to sell living standing trees ‘on the stump’, that is called stumpage. In our area, that value ends up being something between $10 and $40 per acre per year of value. With a hundred acres and cuts only every 15 or 20 years, that can be tens of thousands of dollars coming in with each timber cut. If you do some of the work yourself, you then get to keep some or all of the money that would have gone to the logger. If you go on to process and sell the wood yourself (e.g., firewood), you could get more again. Of course all these other steps take time, equipment and knowledge to do. Those who do this kind of forestry work generally end up with something between $15 and $40 an hour for their time after expenses – you can make some money but you don’t get rich working in the woods.

Resources

If you aren’t in my area, your region should have comparable groups at province/state/federal levels, and many areas will have forest owner or ‘woodlot’ associations. Do some research and asking around, and you should be able to find out what resources are locally available.

A new year, and coming back to Sunshine Saved…

As I write this, it is mid-January 2024. Sunshine Saved has been quite neglected for the last couple of years. Writing the kind of posts and articles that I do here had been pushed to the side by the pressures of raising 3 little kids and starting our direct-market ecologically minded farm, Ferme L’eau du ruisseau. But now I find myself in a place where my time is beginning to open up again – the kids are a bit older, the pandemic is fully in the rear-view mirror, and my business partner Paul at the farm has been able to take over many of my day-to-day tasks there. It is time to come back to Sunshine Saved. I have a few things that I plan to really focus on in the next year or so:

  • Doing more rural building/off-grid consulting work. I work with a couple clients per year on their rural builds, and find it is really rewarding to help others to realize their dream homes and homesteads.
  • Forest management. One of the very best things that an individual landowner can do is to take good care of their forests. Yes, our forest would get by fine without me, but there is a lot that we can do to protect and encourage biodiversity, sequester more carbon, and get some useful human products too. First up is working with a professional forester on a revamped management plan for our farms, and then it will be time to get out there to do some work in the woods. I’ll chronicle as much of that as possible here.
  • Bringing research/education/communication about the interface between nature, land management, rural economies and development to our farm. Nature can’t just be something ‘out there’, we need to stay connected to it. We would like to do more workshops, classes, research projects and more at the farm. We are in early talks with research and educational partners, and we’ll see what collaborations we can put together.

My girls picking some apples at the farm in the summer of 2023.

Making use of ‘extra’ electricity off the grid

When someone has grid connected solar panels, they are usually trying to maximize total output, as they can sell all power straight to their power utility through the wires connected to their home. With off-grid systems, there is by definition no connection to the grid, so when you generate your own electricity, you are in a ‘use it or lose it’ kind of situation. As we’ve written elsewhere, solar electricity generation in an off-grid home isn’t about producing the maximum possible amount of power, it is about trying to make sure that you don’t run out. Further, there is great variation in the amount of sunlight available over the course of a year. Here in Ottawa there is four to five times as much energy available from sunlight during the long days of June than in December. On top of that, the cold and dark parts of winter require a lot more electricity to power things like lights and heating systems. Off-grid solar systems need to be designed to cover these winter needs, and so overproduce during all of the warmer and sunnier parts of the year. Putting all of this together, it means that most off-grid homes waste a lot of the electricity that the panels produce.

Up until December of 2018 this was the exact situation for the Manitou Bay house, where we were only using about 20% of the total power that the panels could have made available. During much of the year, our battery bank was full or nearly so, and all of that extra electricity was left unused. Knowing about this waste nagged at us, that we had all of this electricity with no place for it to go. We knew it was possible to do better and so made a plan to fix things, but due to it being somewhat lower priority as well as some unforeseen delays, it ended up taking almost three years to put that plan into action.

We have now installed some new hardware that allows us to utilize much of that wasted power. In principle, all we have done is add an automatic system that switches on some electrical devices anytime there is extra electricity available – on bright and sunny days. These extra electrical loads are called ‘opportunity’ or ‘dump’ loads, and need to be those things that are useful to us even though they only turn on during sunny days. This means that it can’t be things that we absolutely require, or those that we want available at a moment’s notice. We currently have one major need that fits this description, which is supplemental heating. Up until now much of our active heating has been accomplished with propane. The new system will do space heating through all the colder months, and make hot water for showers and the like during all of the summer months. We expect that this could cut our propane use at the house by a third (see below). In the next couple of years we will have one more use of intermittent power, to recharge an electric car, when we replace one of our current gasoline powered ones around 2021 or so.

This principle, of using electricity when it is cheaper or more easily available, is one of the main ideas that will underlie the ‘smart grids’ of the future. Right now most users simply turn on any power needs that they want whenever they want them, but in the future we will be able to set our heating, cooling, charging, and other devices to automatically turn on when power is cheaply available, and turn off when it gets more expensive. This will save everyone money, and will allow more renewable energy into the grid and give greater flexibility to utilities. What we have done with our upgrade is to make our off-grid home something of a ‘smart’ microgrid.

How the relay works (the rest of this post will be a bit more technical). In our situation, we are using the voltage of our battery bank to regulate our intermittent loads. When the batteries are full and the voltage is high the switch turns on, and when the battery voltage falls to about 80% the switch turns off, as we need to keep a healthy amount of power in reserve for all of the normal electricity needs. Our charge controller (system details here) has the components and software built in that can control a switch based on voltage. However, this switch can only control a low power direct current (DC) circuit, not the higher energy alternating current (AC) electricity that is typically used around a home. So this is why we had to add new hardware in December, installing a relay so that the DC circuit could control AC circuits that go out to the heating and plug loads where we have the intermittent power consumers.

How much electricity will we effectively gain by adding the relay? Before adding this relay, the house consumed a bit less than 5 kWh per day of electricity year-round, or about 1500 kWh per year. Based on a power production estimate that we had done when our solar system was installed, which is now doubled since we doubled the number of panels, our solar system could produce up to about 7500 kWh of electricity per year. Now that we have the relay, we will be able to capture much of that excess. From November to April we will put every extra kWh into space heating with a 1500 watt plug-in heater. In December this is only anticipated to be about 2 kWh per day, while in April there should be an extra 20 kWh per day. From May to October, the extra electricity will be routed to a standard electric hot water heater. We estimate that with the number of showers that we take that we will consume around 10 kWh per day of electricity through the water heater, which still will leave a fair amount wasted during the sunniest months of May to August. Add all this extra power up, and we will use around 3600 kWh of additional electricity. We should now be using about 70% of the total output of our system instead of the 20% that we managed before the relay was installed. See the table below for specifics.

MonthDaily extra kWh usedEnd use
January4space heating
February9space heating
March18space heating
April21space heating
May10hot water
June10hot water
July10hot water
August10hot water
September10hot water
October10hot water
November4space heating
December2space heating
Annual total3600all uses

We’ll wrap up by going over the greenhouse gas emission and financial reasoning behind this project. Before adding this relay the home was using about 400 gallons per year of propane. Adding 3600 kWh of electric heat should reduce the propane consumption by around 140 gallons. By avoiding burning all of that propane, we will reduce our CO2 emissions by a full metric ton each year (this is a part of our 5 year plan to reduce our emissions by half). The cost savings for that propane not purchased will be around $350 per year as long as the system keeps running. The relay work cost a bit less than $1000 and the electric hot water tank cost about $500, and so the work will pay for itself in under 5 years. Finally, I ought to mention that even with this increased efficiency, solar electricity off the grid isn’t cheap. Considering all the panels, electronics, batteries and labor, and the fact that most of these components only last for 10 to 20 years, even with the relay our solar electricity still costs around $.50 per kWh. This compares to power from the local utility, HydroQuebec, that comes in at around $.10 per kWh. With the secluded location of the home off-grid was the only sensible choice, but the costs do make one appreciate the value one gets by tying right into the power grid.

Special thanks to Tom Hewitt at NetZero Construction for his assistance with the solar and DC circuit work, and Jean-François at Lamarche Electric for all of his work installing the relay and AC circuits.


Visualizing carbon dioxide pollution

I think that a big problem in getting people to care about carbon dioxide pollution is how abstract it is. It is a transparent, odorless, non-toxic gas that is already naturally occurring in the environment. We don’t see it, feel it, touch it,  or experience it in any substantive way in our daily lives (see ‘Salience’ on this page) even though it is causing a global calamity. So I thought that I would go through a quick thought experiment that allows one to really visualize how much of this stuff we are producing.

In 2011, each American’s share of carbon dioxide pollution (and equivalents like methane) added up to about 24 metric tons. This isn’t an amount that is easy to think about. Our daily lives revolve around things that weigh pounds or kilograms, and we don’t often think about weight at all when it comes to gases. So though this is a good accounting method for scientists to measure carbon pollution, it isn’t useful for visualizing it. So we’ll describe it in two other ways to be able to better picture what we are doing.

As a gas at normal temperature and pressure (like the air around us), how much space would 24 tons of CO2 fill up? A quick conversion from weight to volume (calculator here) shows that the CO2 per American per year is about 450,000 cubic feet (13,000 cubic meters). This still isn’t a number that we can visualize, so lets imagine that we replaced all the air inside of a building with the CO2 that one person produces in a year. It could completely fill the living space of a 40,000 square foot building with 10′ ceilings, like the mansion below.

Or it could completely fill up a 20,000 foot warehouse with 20′ tall ceilings, like this one:

To reiterate, this is how much CO2 is produced per person each and every year. It is an absolutely enormous amount.

Or lets look at it another way. If one took that 24 tons of CO2 gas and cooled it enough, it would freeze and give you dry ice. Dry ice looks a lot like regular water ice, but it is a bit more dense. If you made one ton cubes of CO2 ice, each cube would be a bit less than 3′ (1 meter) on each side. 24 tons of dry ice would fill 530 cubic feet (15 cubic meters), enough to fill a large moving van.

When one thinks about it this way, it really starts to put things in perspective.  Because our current economies are so dependent on fossil fuels, and these fuels give off CO2 when they are burned for energy, almost every activity we do produces carbon dioxide. We need to keep this in mind, and not just think about the physical things that we touch that were produced with oil, like plastic products. Each mile traveled, each service used, they all produce carbon dioxide. We are starting to decarbonize our economies, meaning that the carbon pollution for each activity is decreasing. But we need to keep the primary goal front and center, to get the net level of CO2 that humanity produces down close to zero.

The inspiration for our farm and Sunshine Saved

I always wanted to own property in the countryside. I loved the hiking, fishing, canoeing, and other related outdoor pursuits. But there is something different when one is the owner, the land manager, and if done right, the steward. When we relocated to Ottawa, the Canadian capital, finding a place outside the city to call our own was something that was at the top of the list. Within a year of our arrival, we found our perfect spot – nearly one hundred and fifty acres of field, forest, and wetland, spread across rolling hills and nestled alongside the Gatineau River. It felt quite wild to me at the time, but they called it a farm. It was little like the flat open farmland that I was used to seeing during my childhood in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where fields run together and sometimes the only trees are those just adjacent to farmsteads and along fencelines. On this property, there was no barn or silo, but rather a few modest hilly hayfields, and a forest where trees were cut occasionally for lumber or firewood. When my wife and I had begun looking for our countryside escape, we thought about what we wanted mostly in terms of lifestyle and recreation. But it is a farm, and we had become farmers.

From the time we purchased the property, my mind was overflowing with the possibilities of what we could do there. Of course, much of my attention was on all of the recreation that our family would be doing, a broad swath of sports, including snowshoeing and cross country skiing all winter, hiking and fishing the rest of the year, a bit of deer and grouse hunting thrown in during the fall. But it was never just about recreation, it was also about stewardship and sustainability, taking proper care of a space, using it in the present, but preserving it for the future. As much as possible, we wanted to live lightly on our new property, preserving the full range of flora and fauna that are found there. The main reason for choosing this particular property was the natural aesthetic of the place, which we wished to preserve. Since I was a young child, I had dreamed of living out in the wilderness, of living off the land. But as I grew to adulthood, I realized that the sort of rugged independence where I would build a house by hand and grow all my own food was not the dream that I was pursuing. I have no desire to be fully separated from the rest of the world; people are social beings, and productive societies always exist by working together, each specializing to use his or her own talents and predilections. We need those goods and services that others produce, but I also knew that we needed to make sure that we, as a world, live in a way that is sustainable so that our children and their children will be able to continue to prosper as we do today.

Real sustainability isn’t only conservation, and leaving all natural places free of human influence. While true nature refuges are critically important, people also need to produce many goods from the land to support themselves. I felt that part of my responsibility was to continue to keep this land productive, to help provide for human needs as well as to be a wild and natural place. A question kept coming back to me: Was our farm, in this rocky and hilly Canadian forest, even capable of being productive enough to support my family and our needs? As I began to work through all of the possibilities, I considered how it was possible to compare them; Should we grow trees or corn? One way to answer these questions was to simply ask which one would yield the highest dollar returns. This is certainly the typical way that farmers make their land-use decisions. While we wished to make a few bucks, concerns of sustainability stayed at the fore, and our main incomes will always be off the farm. I then had an epiphany about our land use planning. It wasn’t the most original, but it is one that is key to land management, and I’ll share it with you: All farming and most sustainable land use is the farming of sunlight, capturing some of those rays and using the energy contained in them. One takes sunlight, and converts it into maple trees or wheat, chickens or deer. So my realization meant that the question that I was asking about providing for my family was really a question about energy. I started to come around to thinking about sustainable land use more broadly as being about energy; how much energy could we capture and use? What kinds of byproducts and waste would be created? Was a farm like ours capable of producing enough to support the energy-intensive modern lifestyle of my family? How much energy does it really take to support a family anyway?

At the same time as we were purchasing our property, we were also busy with starting to design a house that we would build on a hilltop overlooking the river. For years I had also been interested in architecture, particularly green building practices and energy efficiency, and so we decided to design a place that would be incredibly energy efficient from the ground up. We received an extra push for efficiency from the fact that our building site was so far from the nearest power lines that it would have cost a small fortune to run power to our new home. Solar photovoltaics were going to be the only reasonable way to provide electricity. Going with off-grid solar almost automatically puts one in an energy conservation mind-set, because for every extra light or computer you want to power, you need to pony up more cash upfront to install more panels and batteries. Energy of all kinds was going to be at a premium at this location, so we made decisions to reduce use and keep all appliances and mechanical systems efficient. To reduce heating needs, we took inspiration from several different green design movements to incorporate passive solar design and superinsulation to our home. All in all, we reduced by approximately 70% the amount of energy that we will need to use in this home compared to standard construction. In working with an architect and tradesmen of all kinds, I learned the ins and outs of energy flows around and through a home, and in many ways they really didn’t seem so different from the energy flows involved with land use.

While working on both land use planning and home design, I was consulting innumerable sources, on forestry, farming, energy, architecture, and more. As written, each of these sources was aimed primarily at specialists, the professionals who work in these fields. What wasn’t there, and that I yearned for, were some of the threads that tied all of these concepts and practices together. How did each of these fields relate to the human level, an individual, a family? Again, I could see that in each, a common theme of energy use was central to each of these endeavors. Sustainability and renewable energy are tightly intertwined, and I was learning enormous amounts about how these systems worked, and could see a place for sharing this knowledge with others. Much of this website is built on this inspiration and these insights, putting together the ideas and resources that I was searching for on our own path to a more sustainable lifestyle.

Our 5 year sustainability improvement plan

Shifting to a truly sustainable society is going to be a long process and will require many adjustments both large and small to the way that people live. We here at Sunshine Saved want to do what we can to fast-track this change, and as part of that we have made plans to reduce the carbon emissions of our family’s lifestyle by half within the next five years. Hopefully this will provide some inspiration for others to find their own ways to reduce their footprints. This article builds on the accounting that we did for my family’s 2017 resource consumption, figuring out what we can and will do in the near term to increase the sustainability of my family’s lifestyle, projecting out to 2022. We’ve taken some important steps already but have much more to do.

Everyone is in different circumstances of jobs, income, locale, lifestyle, and family, and that will be reflected in which things they could do to improve sustainability. For us, and for a majority of North Americans, one of the highest priorities is to reduce usage of fossil fuels. And in fact this is the main work that we will do with our 5 year plan, to directly reduce our usage of gasoline, natural gas, and propane.

Overview of our current emissions

The above chart shows our 2017 carbon emissions on the left, and the target for our 2022 emissions on the right. Carbon emissions aren’t the only way that we look at our impacts, but they are very important and easier to measure and quantify than many other things. As you can see for our 2017, the biggest contributors were related to housing, our personal vehicle use, food, and consumer goods. We are targeting each of these in turn as you will see in our action plan below. In 2017 we had emissions of 28 tons of CO2e for a family of four, and the plan for 2022 is to be down to 16 tons of CO2e for our slightly expanded family of five. This would bring us down from 6.9 tons to 3.2 tons per person, more than a 50% reduction.

As you will see below, we are putting our efforts into those things with the most ‘bang for the buck’ both in terms of dollars but also effort. Making changes isn’t easy, so we are trying to really focus on changes that provide big impact with as little effort as possible, as well as those things that we will enjoy or otherwise be able to maintain. For instance, switching to an electric car (or simply a more fuel efficient gasoline powered car) is a single decision that will reap benefits for the lifetime of the vehicle without any further effort. But for something like cutting out plastic packaging, this requires continuous and daily changes in behavior such as only shopping at specialty and bulk stores, losing a lot of convenience and taking more time and constant effort. This isn’t to say that reducing plastic use isn’t a good idea, it is just that other things should probably be prioritized over it.

Finally there is the direct monetary cost. Very few people are going to freely choose a more sustainable pathway that is twice the cost of ‘business as usual’, but there are many ways to go green while also protecting the pocket book. Reducing consumption usually directly reduces costs. Some of the bigger steps may take more cash and planning up front, but they are followed by big savings in the costs of fuel, maintenance and replacement later on. So while we won’t go through all of the finances of our decisions directly in this article, the combination of all of the moves outlined below shouldn’t cost us any more than a business as usual scenario .

Housing in the city of Ottawa

In 2017 we lived in a rented semidetached home (duplex) as outlined in a prior article. We knew that we wished at some point to purchase a home in the city, and sustainability concerns certainly figured prominently in our decision making process. We were able to find the right place and moved into it in mid-2018. This home is another semidetached dwelling, and our half of the building contains a main unit on the upper levels along with an apartment to rent out on the basement level. We are intending to stay in this home until our children are adults, and with a newborn in the summer of 2018 that means we have a good 20 year planning window. This longer timescale makes some sustainability changes more viable; for instance, if we put in higher efficiency appliances or more insulation it is us who will directly reap the long term energy savings.

Reduction in driving – As they say, “location, location, location”. As so many do, one of the main criteria for our new home is how well located it is from the places that we regularly go. In our case, this is school for the kids, work, errands to stores, and the farm. We were able to narrow down to a couple of neighborhoods that would reduce the distance to all of these places, and our new home is now in walking distance from the kids’ schools and a new light rail station that one of us takes to the office. It is also 10 minutes closer to the farm. Altogether, this new location should reduce our driving (already lower than average) by one third or more.

Heating – Our new home came with a natural gas forced air furnace. Around Ottawa this is the default choice for the majority of residential homes, and the same as our prior rental. This is the cheapest option in a typical home in our area and produces a medium level of carbon emissions as compared to other options. This is a new and high efficiency furnace, and we decided that augmenting the existing furnace with auxiliary forms of heating would be the best way to reduce the amount of fossil fuels that we use.

The biggest heating problem in this house on moving in was for the basement apartment. The basement is insufficiently insulated, and so is always significantly colder than the main unit (We would like to re-insulate the space, but this won’t make it into the five year plan,  but should for the 20 year plan). Further, the house’s gas furnace isn’t ‘zoned’, in that it either provides heat to the whole building or none of it. Put together, this means that the basement needs an additional heat source. We considered electric baseboards, but instead have settled on a much more efficient option, a Mitsubishi cold climate air to air heat pump, also known as a mini-split (we’ve discussed heat pumps before here), installed in September of 2018. This heat pump, though a bit more expensive up-front, will use only  a quarter as much electricity as electric radiant baseboards, and will have a very low carbon footprint due to the clean energy grid that Ontario has in place. This heat pump will give the apartment renter full control over the heat in the apartment. It will also provide for some of the baseload heat for the upstairs as much of this heat will rise up from the basement to the upper levels. Only time will tell for the exact numbers, but quick calculations suggest that the heat pump may reduce natural gas usage from the furnace by about a third.

The second way that we will reduce our natural gas use is to do a significant amount of our home heating with wood. This isn’t a solution for everyone, but with working from a home office, enjoying tending a fire, and having a nearly unlimited supply of sustainably cut local firewood, it makes a lot of sense for us. The house currently has a 35 year old fireplace on the main level. Most older fireplaces actually provide little relief on heating bills; they heat up the room that they are in but they also suck vast amounts of warm air from the inside of a home and send them up the chimney. They also burn inefficiently and produce a lot of unhealthy air pollution. However, newer high efficiency wood stoves are another story completely. They tightly control the fire and airflow, allowing them to burn very cleanly as well as do an excellent job of heating a home. In 2019 or 2020, we will swap out the current fireplace for a high efficiency woodstove. If things go as planned, a fire will burn on half the days through the winter, which should further reduce the remaining heating needs of the house by half.

To summarize:

  • The new home is a bit bigger than our 2017 rental, and so we estimate that it will use 50% more natural gas than our 2017 numbers if we make no changes to our behavior. Heat is now provided for 6 people.
  • The combination of a basement heat pump and a regularly used wood stove will reduce natural gas consumption by 2/3
  • Combined, this means that we will use half as much natural gas as we did in 2017,  using 740 cubic meters of natural gas which will release 2 tons of carbon dioxide in 2022
  • This means .35 tons of CO2 per person per year, down from 1 ton per person in 2017, a 65% reduction in natural gas consumption

Our house on the Farm at Manitou Bay 

The home at the farm is off the grid, with electricity produced by solar panels and heating done mostly with propane. With solar panels that are connected to the grid it is easy to sell any extra electricity on to other users, but this isn’t possible off-grid; either you use the power or it goes to waste. So in the first few years this home had no way of using any extra power and it was wasted, but we have figured out a way to change that. We are going to add a smart switch that will turn the power on in some circuits when the batteries are full and then turn off the power when the batteries drain down to about half full. The cost to implement these changes should be paid off in 2 to 4 years in reduced propane costs.

This extra electricity can then be used in ways that allow us to reduce other energy use, in particular the propane heating. In the winter any extra electricity can be directed into a resistance heater which reduces the amount of heating that we have to do with propane. From spring through fall, some of the electricity can be used in an electric hot water heater, bypassing the need to use the current propane water heater. Finally, once we have a plug-in electric vehicle (see below), we can use any additional ‘extra’ electricity to charge that vehicle.

We hope that by using all of this currently wasted electricity that we can cut our propane usage in half. This would bring us down to 200 gallons per year, and reduce CO2 emissions from 3 tons to 1.5 tons per year.

Replacing our vehicles with electric ones

We would be happy going down to one car, but that may not happen in the 5 year plan. This depends in part on what happens with car services (car sharing, Uber, Lyft, the coming of autonomous cars, etc.). Between managing a family with three small children and also regularly traveling to and working out at the farm, we wouldn’t want to give up our vehicles until other options could replace the conveniences of having our own.

What we can do instead is to plan to only buy electric cars from here on out. We will make that switch as soon as electric vehicles come available that can meet four key needs: a range of about 200 miles, big enough for our family’s needs, all wheel drive, and relatively reasonably priced. These cars are certainly on the near-term horizon. There are already several electric vehicles available that meet three of these four criteria, but not all of them. Dozens of new models of electric vehicles from most of the major manufacturers are due to be released by 2021. We eagerly await those vehicles that could serve our needs.

Electric cars are already better for the climate in most jurisdictions, but they are a particularly good choice in Ontario and Quebec. This is because the electrical grid in these provinces produces very little carbon pollution, being mostly powered by hydroelectric and nuclear power plants. This means that almost all of the carbon pollution from owning these cars comes from their manufacturing rather than driving them. An electric car does have a higher manufacturing footprint as a comparable gas car mostly because of the resource intense batteries, but cutting out the gasoline itself still leads to enormous overall reductions in pollution. As the vehicles that we will purchase next aren’t even available yet it is hard to calculate any precise estimates, but my best guess is about a 75% reduction in our vehicles’ total carbon footprint, a very large savings.

Growing our own food

We have a lot of plans for our in terms of forest management and some farming endeavors which are discussed over at our farm page, but much of that work isn’t relevant to anyone who doesn’t manage a larger property. The part that is more applicable to this discussion is food, namely that we are going to grow much more of our own food. Our ambitious goal is to get to half of our family’s food produced directly on the farm. As of the writing of this piece in the fall of 2018, this work is still in its infancy. The orchard was planted just this spring, and the preparatory work for a much larger garden is currently underway. Livestock should become part of the mix by 2022, but may be limited to broiler chickens which we would acquire as chicks in the spring and harvest in the fall.

For all of our farming efforts we are going to be applying the principles of regenerative agriculture, trying to maintain the health of the land and soil as we grow our food. We will use little or no pesticides and intend to use natural fertilization rather than chemical fertilizers. We will further avoid leaving bare soil, which will help to hold soil carbon and reduce erosion. Needless to say, this will reduce the ecological footprint, including the CO2 emissions, associated with our food. If we are able to scale our production to the level of half our family’s food production, it should also reduce the emissions associated with our food by a similar amount.

If you’ve made it all the way through this piece, then you may be interested in seeing numbers used to make our 2022 estimates. They can be found in the table above and are being shown next to our 2017 numbers. It won’t quite be a 50% reduction in absolute terms, but will be over 50% when one considers the per person emissions. Now we just need to carry through with the rest of the plan.

How much energy does my family use anyway?

***If you are not a numbers person I apologize in advance, and suggest that you don’t worry too much about the precise details and instead just try to take away the bigger picture.***

If a person wants to live more sustainably, one very important step is to take stock of your current circumstances. Putting real numbers to one’s use of energy and resources allows you to see which things really matter, where the problems are, and gives hints to the solutions. This post is an accounting of the energy consumption and associated emissions of greenhouse gases of the lifestyle lived by my family during the entire year of 2017. We have already taken a fair number of steps to minimize the impact of our lifestyle, but we still have much work left to do if we are to do our fair share to keep the world livable.

Something like 80% of the energy and resources that we each consume is connected to household goods and services, with the rest being our share of the services provided by the government. The majority of this resource use is under our direct control in our homes, our cars, our products, and our food, while the rest is only indirect; we don’t control that much about the hospitals, businesses, or restaurants that we frequent. For the purposes of figuring out what the average person can do about sustainability, it makes sense to separate out those things that are under our direct control from those that are not. It isn’t that we can’t have an impact on government or industry, it is simply that the advocacy related to voting, lobbying, or boycotting organizations to change their policies and behavior is very different from the decisions we make about heating our homes and which cars to buy.

For the purposes of accounting for my own household’s energy use, I’ll stick to those things that are under our direct control, namely housing, consumer goods, personal transportation, and food, and not address those that we don’t have a lot of control over, government and services including things like hospitals and schools.

We begin this account with a table including our major sources of energy consumption in 2017, seen below. This includes my best approximation of everything that we did and its impacts. This table breaks down where and how we used energy as well as what form it took. I then include the figure that matters most for climate change, emissions of tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). Most of these emissions are actually carbon dioxide, but also include things like nitrous oxide and methane. We’ll examine each of these energy uses in turn below (these estimates are drawn from various sources, anchored by analyses from Jones and Kammen, 2011). As you can see in the table below, our direct household activities had effective emissions of 28 tons of CO2 in 2017.

Duplex in Ottawa

I would actually much prefer to live full-time out at our farm in the hills north of Ottawa, but this would require a daily commute of an hour each way into the city for work, and schools other services are very limited out in that area. On top of that, my wife isn’t ready to be a full-time country woman. So instead, we have been renting a 3 bedroom duplex unit in the city, and then spending two or three days a week out at the farm.

Our biggest energy consumption in the duplex is natural gas, used in a forced air gas furnace and a tankless hot water heater. Natural gas is, unsurprisingly,  delivered in gaseous form, so it is measured by volume; we used 1480 cubic meters of the stuff in 2017 (52,300 cubic feet if you’re in the US). Natural gas heating is currently cheaper than almost any other source of heat in much of North America including here in Ottawa. From a sustainability standpoint, it is an imperfect choice because it is a fossil fuel, but it isn’t quite as bad as other fossil fuels for emissions. Society must wean itself off of natural gas in the future, but it is a tolerable choice for the time being. At the moment, the best local choice for more sustainable residential heating may be heat pumps backed up by natural gas on the coldest days, which may be the path we take once we own a home in Ottawa.

The lion’s share of this gas is for space heating in Ottawa’s relatively cold climate. Ottawa has similar heating needs to some of the coldest areas  of the continental US, very similar to Minneapolis or the colder parts of New England. The building itself is nearly 100 years old, but has been renovated and has relatively new insulation and windows. It probably has insulation and air-tightness levels of a typical 10 to 20 year old home. One big advantage is that as a duplex it shares one entire wall with an adjacent unit, which reduces heat loss for the whole building by around 25%. We keep the thermostat set a bit low in winter, around 19 Celsius ( 67 Fahrenheit), and have a smart thermostat that turns down the heat overnight. Combined, these measures probably shave another 5 to 10% off the heating loads as compared to business as usual.

We have a tankless hot water tank in this house. The benefit of tankless hot water is that one only heats up water when it is called for, and doesn’t have ‘standing losses’ when hot water in a big water tank cools between use. Having lower flow shower heads and keeping showers to a reasonable length also moderate hot water use.

We used 6635 kWh of electricity from Hydro Ottawa in 2017 in our duplex. Ontario (and neighboring Quebec) have very low CO2 emissions for their electricity since very little of their power is generated through fossil fuels. Across the river in Quebec power is almost exclusively generated by hydroelectric dams, and here on the Ontario side, in addition to significant hydropower, over half of Ontario’s electricity is generated at nuclear power plants. Nuclear power has concerns of its own, but if one takes climate change seriously it is something that should probably be included in the mix as nuclear power produces almost no greenhouse gas emissions. Our personal electricity use is fairly typical, with most of the power accounted for by the furnace fans, dehumidifier, dish and clothes washer, refrigerator, and household electronics. Our landlord did a good job of choosing high efficiency appliances.

The final energy use of our duplex is embodied energy. As discussed elsewhere on Sunshine Saved, the basic idea is that it takes a lot of energy and resources to build things and those things eventually wear out, so one can calculate how much energy is being ‘used up’ each year in deterioration and aging. There are an awful lot of parts making up a house, concrete, wood, electrical and plumbing, lots of of workers and goods transported to the site, and more. The saving grace is that houses last a long time, perhaps one hundred years on average. One can then add up all the energy that goes into building a home and divide that by the number of years it will last. Doing this, we estimate that the aging of our home accounts for the equivalent of 1 ton of CO2 emissions per year.

The house at The Farm at Manitou Bay

Our off-grid home is discussed in great detail here, and the design and building process for this house launched our work here at Sunshine Saved. This house was designed from the ground up to be efficient, both for reasons of sustainability as well as to make it much easier to take a four season home in our northern location off the grid.

Though this house has solar panels, the energetic heavy lifting is being done by propane. The biggest energy user of any home in our climate is heating, and this is the exact same time of year when days are the shortest and cloudiest.  It is, at least for the time being, enormously more cost effective to have the majority of heating come from sources other than our solar panels.

Propane is used for the primary heating, domestic hot water, kitchen stove, and a  backup electricity generator. In 2017, we burned 400 gallons of propane, which released 2.9 tons of CO2 in emissions. The biggest part of this was space heating. The Manitou house uses about half as much energy for heating as the duplex due to high insulation and airtightness, even though it is a slightly bigger place with much more surface area exposed to the elements.

Solar panels provide for all of the electricity loads. Sunlight as a ‘fuel’ has no emissions, but there is a quite high embodied energy for all of the solar equipment, the panels, electronics, and batteries. All of this gear requires energy to build and it has only a finite lifespan, 10 years for batteries, perhaps 15 for the electronics, and 30 for the panels themselves. I estimate that in 2017 we used 1200 kWh  and had an emissions impact of .3 tons CO2e.

In the winter, we heat with our wood stove whenever we are there to tend to it. There is an ongoing debate as to whether burning wood should count as carbon neutral, and my take is that it really depends on scale. Clearcutting forests and shipping them off to be burned for electricity is clearly not carbon neutral. However, the small-scale harvest of trees that would otherwise rot on the forest floor is quite sustainable. I estimate that we have effectively zero emissions as we are selectively cutting trees within a few hundred yards of the house, those trees that are dead, dying or of otherwise low quality. CO2 is absorbed as they grow,  CO2 is released when burned in our high efficiency stove. The only other inputs are less than a gallon of gasoline for my chainsaw to do the cutting for a winter’s worth of wood. The amount of wood we burn gives us about 1/4 of the home’s winter heat and produces only a few pounds of excess CO2 emissions from the gasoline.

This house is relatively similar in total size to the duplex that we rent in the city, and so we use the same estimate of its embodied energy, at 1 ton of CO2 per year. With the quality that we tried to aim for with the build, I would hope that this building will last much more than one hundred years, but only time will tell.

Car and truck

At the moment we have two vehicles, a Subaru Outback and a Ford F150. For a family trying to be as sustainable as possible, I admit that this seems a bit odd, to have two vehicles and one of them very large. We would like to reduce to one vehicle, but that has not yet become practical with the needs of a family of five, with work, errands, and a farm property to manage. All wheel drive is a necessity to access the farm during parts of the year, and is much better during the long snowy season in the city of Ottawa also. Managing a forested farm is also made much easier by the capabilities of a pickup. We keep the mileage and therefore gas consumption low, which does help some to reduce the impact of having two vehicles.

In 2017, we put about 6200 miles on the Subaru and burned 220 gallons of gasoline, and had 3400 miles on the pickup truck for an additional 200 gallons of gas. This released 4.9 tons of CO2 into the air.

Finally, there is the embodied energy in our vehicles, from all of the mining, refining, production, and assembly needed to put the cars together in the first place. One can tally up the total amount of energy, and divide it by the lifetime of the car, giving an annual emissions for having that vehicle. Our pickup is a bigger vehicle and so required more materials, and the two combined lead to an annualized production of around 1.4 tons of CO2.

Air travel

The energy use of air travel is something we discussed briefly in another article comparing modes of transportation, but the takeaway is that traveling by commercial airplane is roughly as energy efficient per mile as driving a car, while air travel really racks up fuel use and emissions due to the large distances traveled. In 2017, my family of four took one trip by plane to visit family, with about 1900 miles in the round-trip flight. Our share of the jet fuel for these flights released 2 tons of CO2.

Food

My family tries to eat well and maintain a relatively balanced and nutritious diet. With very young kids it is seldom that we eat out, but we do a lot of home cooking. Most of our calories come from the grocery store, and from conventional farming before that. We do eat food out of the garden, from local farmers, and a bit more that is hunted and fished, but these make up a very small amount of the total. So for the most part, the sorts of figures discussed on our main page on food and diet apply to my own family as well. We have already adopted the two main recommendations that are outlined there, of cutting food waste almost to zero, and reducing beef and lamb consumption down to only a few times per year. Accounting for all of the farm and commercial equipment needed to plant, harvest, process and deliver our food to us, I estimate that our food consumption accounts for 4 tons of CO2 production per year.

Other consumer goods

On top of the big items of homes and cars, we have all the other trappings of modern life, including appliances, furniture, electronics, clothing, and more. And all of this stuff has a limited lifespan, whether it be measured in days or decades. This is a lot of things to try to account for, so for the sake of simplicity I will simply assume that we buy the same amount of stuff as the average American household (see here for more data). It would be interesting to go through item by item, and that is something that we may discuss at a later date. Using average American household figures, all of the goods that we purchase per year produce emissions of about 6 tons of CO2.

Comparison to average household.

Using the average household data, we can then compare where we were for 2017 with the average American household of 2010. The table shows that our household produced about 28 tons of CO2 compared with the average US household of 42 tons. We are doing better than the average family by about a third. The key differences that allowed my family to have lower than average emissions include:

  • Much lower mileage on our cars led to much lower gasoline use.
  • Our homes are well insulated and have efficient appliances and use less natural gas and electricity.
  • The grid electricity in Ontario has much lower emissions than most of the United States, so the impact of our electricity use is much lower.
  • We eat very little beef and waste little food.

Conclusions

My family’s 2017 consumption was far from sustainable. We are a bit better than the average North American level, but we have plans to do much more. We have put together a five year plan for our family where we aim to reduce by half our CO2 emissions from our 2017 levels. We’re even developing a more speculative 20 year plan that would bring our family’s consumption down to truly long-term sustainable levels. This longer term plan is less certain because it depends on larger forces of technology development, future government regulation, corporate action, and more. There are actions that we can take as individuals, but that alone will not be enough.

Hopefully this sort of detailed accounting will give some better context for the big numbers that are always being thrown around in discussions of climate change and climate policy. It all comes back to the decisions that each of us make every day – the things we buy, the places we go, how we choose to live. People need to understand how the pieces fit together and what is at stake so that they can act personally and to help change society at large.

Loss of biodiversity – the scope of the problem

A very quick version of the problem of biodiversity loss:

  • The earth’s ecosystems consist of the interconnected webs of species (plants, animals, fungi, micro-organisms) living together in different locations around the world.
  • Humanity relies on these ecosystems for our very survival – they produce the fresh water, clean air, food, wood and other natural products that are indispensable to our lives.
  • The earth’s ecosystems are currently being vastly disrupted by human activity causing species to go extinct, and the health of ecosystems to diminish
  • We need to change how humanity acts in the world so that we can preserve and repair ecosystems and stop extinctions, if not for the sake of other forms of life, then for ourselves.

And for a little bit longer version…

There are millions of species on the earth. The exact number is not known, but best estimates are that there are as many as ten million, with over one million having been identified by scientists. Ten million is a huge number, but a finite one. It has taken billions of years to produce these species, all of the animals, plants, fungi, and micro-organisms on the planet. Though there are many species, each is unique, and if they go extinct, they are gone forever.

Ecosystems are groups of species that all live together in a certain area. There can be many thousands of species, and they constantly interact and rely on each other to maintain the integrity of the whole. Plants form the basis of the food chain, taking energy from the sun and turning it into living tissue. Different plants fill different niches, some as tall trees, as grass, as climbing vines, some dropping their leaves for the winter and others keeping them all year. There are animals eating plants, other animals eating those animals, fungi decomposing everything that dies to recycle nutrients and begin the growth anew. Micro-organisms are found by the trillions in every nook and cranny.

While some (myself included) could wax poetic about the grandeur of wild spaces, of the beauty of old growth forests, or the thought of herds of bison roaming the prairies, providing beauty is far from the only thing that ecosystems do for us. Critical to the very survival of humanity are all of the things that ecosystems do for us, often called ecosystem services. Intact ecosystems provide us with soil, food, water, medicine, wood and other plant fiber, they maintain climate and rainfall patterns, and more. To provide all of these functions that we hold so dear, ecosystems need to be maintained in a healthy state. There are innumerable instances where people’s damaging of lands and waters led directly to massive problems in human society. Floods, soil erosion, desertification, wildfires, polluted water, can all be caused by poor management practices, and can threaten the very foundations of societies. In today’s world, climate change is linked tightly with ecosystem damage, as poor forest management and poor agricultural practices are some of the main drivers of a warming planet. Climate change in turn then causes more damage to those same ecosystems, as changes are now occurring more quickly than these systems can adapt. In terms of species extinctions, it is estimated that current human practices are causing the rate of species extinction to be a thousand times higher than what it was before the modern age, and we are currently be losing thousands of species every single year.

People need to act now to preserve ecosystems and species. We know that ecosystems are resilient, but it is unclear how much abuse they can take before problems may spiral out of control. There is something called the precautionary principle that tells us that we shouldn’t take dangerous actions when we are unsure of how risky they are. The cost of doing nothing could be absolutely immense, whereas if we act now to change ‘business as usual’, we know that this is likely to lead to great outcomes for both people and the planet. There will be some costs associated with making these changes, but the long-term benefits to saving ecosystems and species far outweigh the short-term benefits of such practices as massive scale clear-cut logging or agricultural practices that destroy the fertility of the soil.