Living within Our Budgets, Both Money and Carbon

A new year is upon us. This is a time many people like to make resolutions. Should I resolve to look better, be smarter and have more money this year? Hmm, maybe I should hope for something easier.

If, like me, you are still trying to decide on a resolution, try this one: resolve to live within your means, both economically and environmentally. This involves observing both a money and a carbon budget. The money budget is straightforward, spend less money than you have coming in (if that isn’t easy for you, read this). But what is a carbon budget?

Defining the carbon budget

(Source: World Resources Institute (http://www.wri.org/ipcc-infographics). Go to their website to see the full infographic.)

Based on the numbers in the graphic, the world only has 485 trillion tons of carbon it can spend before we exceed the 2o C increase limit we have set for ourselves. We are on pace to spend that amount in just the next 3 decades. (Note: These calculations are based only on carbon dioxide. If other gases are included, our budget drops to 275 trillion tons. Yikes!) Based on a world population of 7.2 billion, this scenario will play out if each person will spend 2.2 tons per year. That’s clearly an oversimplification though as the world’s primary emission sources are the energy and transportation sectors, not individuals and the population is only going up. How do we figure our personal budget then?

The fine people over at Shrink That Footprint took a much more scientific approach than my simple calculations. They divided the global budget into personal, capital, government and land use. The personal budget includes housing, travel, food, products and services. They then divided the global budget by the world’s projected population for each ten-year period. The result is this:

Breaking down personal CO2 budget level

Of course, emissions vary greatly across the globe and are particularly correlated to wealth. Here is the breakdown per capita for major countries in 2011:

CO2 emissions per capita for top countries

The full list is here. When considering all countries, Qatar is #1 with 49 metric tons per person.

I wanted to know how my personal footprint compares to the national average, so I tried out three footprint calculators. Two of them, carbon footprint and the EPA, delivered similar results and referenced baseline numbers comparable to the above World Bank info. The Nature Conservancy’s calculator results were three times higher than the other two and their per capita number is also higher than that reported for the U.S. According to the first two calculators, our household footprint is about 7 metric tons/year.

To put it bluntly, the world will likely blow its carbon budget. You may be thinking, “Why bother reducing my carbon footprint, I’m just one person.” (On a good day, maybe there are two of you reading this.) Trust me, you can make a difference. From a glass half empty perspective, we in the U.S. have a long and difficult path to get down to even the 2010 personal budget level. But from the glass half full perspective, anything we can do to reduce our footprint will have a significant impact. Especially since the two countries more populated than us, China and India, are much farther to the right on that graph.

Okay, so how can you make a difference? In addition to telling you your number, the EPA calculator shows how some lifestyle changes, such as driving less, can affect both your money and your carbon budget. Another EPA page provides tips that you’ve probably heard before such as use a programmable thermostat, don’t leave the water running while brushing your teeth, and change to energy efficient lightbulbs. It’s not rocket science. Other suggestions are here and here. Some ways my wife and I reduced our footprint are adding insulation to our attic, sealing leaks around our windows, not eating meat, reducing food waste, combining trips to stores and me taking the bus to class. I know that we can do more, so I will continue looking for ways to reduce our footprint, such as adding solar power to our house.

Someone who does an excellent job using humor and attitude to explain this approach to life is Mr. Money Mustache. Feedly filed his blog under “Finance.” Others label his writing as an early retirement blog. I consider it a values blog. Everything he talks about, from overcoming Clown Car Disease (his term for our over reliance on cars) to using muscles over motors, is focused on putting first things first, as Steven Covey would say. He wants people to focus on what really matters, such as your health, your family and the planet. He even has gone so far as to personally test the efficiency of the different types of light bulbs on the market. His motto is “Financial freedom through badassity.” I encourage you to give his blog a read.

As Mr. Money Mustache shows, living within our means, both in money and carbon, isn’t boring. Here is my own list of activities that are cost and carbon-free: read, write, hike, bike, run, walk, learn, connect, yard work, train dog, hang out, volunteer, goof off, yoga, play games, garden, romance a special someone, make love (adults only), meditate, be neighborly, meditate, houseclean, doodle, reflect, plan.

Do you resolve to live within your means? What would you add to the list of cost and carbon-free activities?

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