Can we change our lives to save the planet?
Seattle Times reporter
John and Cori Fraley of Bothell are a typical family: two kids, two cars, a 1,900-square-foot house.
They have a computer, two TVs, and keep their home at a comfortable 68 degrees when it's cold out. Together, they log about 2,500 miles behind the wheel each month.
But this middle-class lifestyle comes at a cost to the environment, scientists say.
The Fraleys produce about 44,000 pounds of greenhouse-gas emissions each year, through the cars they drive, the electricity and natural gas they use, and the waste they generate. That's typical for an American family, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Individual households account for about one-fifth of the nation's greenhouse-gas emissions, which scientist say contribute to the rising temperatures and dramatic environmental changes being documented across the globe.
Most of those emissions are in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2) released through the burning of fossil fuels that power our homes and cars and help make the things we buy.
The Fraleys want to do their part to help. They will try to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions next month as part of a Seattle Times special project that encourages readers to reduce their climate-changing emissions by at least 15 percent during May.
But in this age of widescreen TVs, multiple-car families and digital everything, can a household make meaningful cuts in energy use, short of going off the grid?
And even if it does, can it make a dent in global warming?
A glimmer of hope
Almost every aspect of modern life contributes to greenhouse gases — water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide — that stay in the atmosphere and influence global temperatures.
These compounds occur naturally, but since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, as factories burned oil and coal for power, their concentrations have increased dramatically.
On April 6, the United Nations panel on climate change released its most recent summary, noting that rivers, bird migrations and mountain plants are already showing the effects of rising temperatures planetwide.
If the trends continue, scientists expect millions of people will suffer from thirst and many species will teeter on extinction. Locally, tide pools could disappear, snowpack could retreat and low-lying areas such as Olympia could flood.
But the U.N. report also includes hope: The worst effects could be averted, the 63 authors wrote, if international organizations, governments and individuals take action now.
The cars we drive are an obvious source of greenhouse gases. But for the average family, there are many others.
Though Seattle City Light gets much of its power from hydroelectric dams that don't emit CO2, the utility purchases some electricity that's generated by burning fossil fuels.
Bellevue-based Puget Sound Energy, which serves 1.7 million customers in Western Washington, gets about 35 percent of its power from a coal-fired plant in Colstrip, Mont.
On average nationally, that water heater in the basement is responsible for more than 3,500 pounds of CO2 annually. And heating a typical single-family home produces more than 8,800 pounds of emissions each year.
Your food is a source of greenhouse-gas emissions, too.
Methane from livestock contributes more to global warming than transportation. Environmentalists calculated that making one typical cheeseburger produces about 9.5 pounds of greenhouse gases, taking into account manure, processing and transportation.
Buying food with less packaging reduces the energy used by manufacturers. It also cuts down on trash, so landfills — a source of methane — don't fill up as fast.
Out-of-season fruit is plentiful at the local grocery store, but there's a cost there, too. On average, produce travels 1,500 miles from farm to plate. That means each Latin American-grown tomato in January adds incrementally to the carbon dioxide already in the air.
The Fraleys already often buy locally grown organic food — a good choice to cut carbon emissions — but mostly for the health benefits for their two kids, Aaron, 3, and Alex, almost 2.
Changing their transportation habits will be a lot tougher.
They own a 1997 Ford Taurus and a 1996 Mazda 626 and spend a lot of time on the road.
A piano teacher, John has 39 students and drives to their homes across the Eastside to give lessons. Cori, a part-time second-grade teacher at Lakeview Elementary in Kirkland, usually gets to work around 7 a.m., and taking the bus or car-pooling won't work.
The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency estimates that about half of the region's greenhouse gases come from cars, trucks, ships, planes and trains. The second biggest contributor is electricity production, at about 17 percent.
In total, the Puget Sound region produced about 50 million tons of CO2-equivilent emissions in 2002 — about half the total of the entire state.
With numbers that large, making an impact sounds pretty daunting.
After using a carbon calculator to determine what his family must do to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by 15 percent, John Fraley said: "I realized this wasn't going to be a cakewalk. The easy changes were already made, and the next one will be more — painful is not the word — but will take more effort."
For one month, the Fraleys will focus on the small things. Lots of them.
By combining trips and using their cars only for necessities, John and Cori will try to cut their driving by 200 miles during May.
To reduce their garbage, they are switching from disposable to cloth diapers for the kids — which benefits the environment, researchers say, depending on how much water the Fraleys use in washing.
They pledge to divide kitchen scraps from nonbiodegradable waste and put them in the clean-green compost bin they hadn't used much before.
They hope the weather won't turn chilly, because the Fraleys' thermostat will be cranked down to the 50s.
They'll turn off the computer, instead of letting the screen-saver hum all day.
While they've replaced some incandescent light bulbs with energy-efficient fluorescents, they've vowed to replace more.
Lighting represents about 5 to 10 percent of home energy use, and with technological advances in compact fluorescent bulbs, families can see some immediate savings by switching from traditional bulbs.
In fact, if everyone in Seattle changed two 60-watt incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescents, the savings would power Everett for three weeks.
"It's really about doing things efficiently," said Andrew Gibb, a conservation planner for Seattle City Light. "We're not talking about sitting in the dark, wearing parkas."
Televisions often suck electricity even when they're turned off, and cellphone chargers drain energy as long as they are plugged in. That's another place where the Fraleys hope to make changes, disconnecting devices when they're not in use.
"It's all about creating habits," Cori said. "It's not something that takes time. You just have to have the habit to do it."
Will it matter?
So what good will it all do, after the Fraleys and others make a concerted effort to turn off lights, leave the car by the curb, and sort their garbage?
Not everyone believes the climate is really warming, or that rising world temperatures are man-made. Those who do are confronted with a problem so vast, it can seem beyond their ability to fix.
But personal choices matter, said Dina Kruger, director of EPA's Climate Change Division in Washington, D.C.
"There are enormous opportunities for individuals to make a difference," she said.
Just turning out the lights and switching light bulbs can translate into big changes. "The energy we use is generated by power plants. By reducing the amount of energy power plants need to produce, we ultimately reduce the number of power plants. These decisions lead back to larger issues."
Various ideas are swirling on Capitol Hill about how to deal with global warming. But some lawmakers say that without strong efforts by India and China — which may surpass the United States as the world's largest carbon emitter by next year — reducing greenhouse gases here won't make a difference.
Legislative action in the United States "without the participation of nations like China and India is an attempt to reverse global warming similar to a doctor telling an overweight, sedentary chain-smoker that he or she needs to wear a seatbelt," Texas Congressman Joe Barton said during a hearing last month.
Elizabeth Kolbert, author of "Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change," said small changes can add up.
If every American family cut its CO2 emissions by 15 percent, she said in a recent interview, it would amount to nearly 1 billion tons of CO2 annually, roughly the total yearly emissions of France and Great Britain combined.
Kolbert agreed that action on climate change must be global.
"However, it seems to me that the U.S., as the world's largest emitter, has a special obligation to take the lead here," she said.
"To refuse to act on the grounds that we can't control what the Chinese will do seems to me not only defeatist, but shamefully so. The Chinese still have far lower per capita emissions than we do. Obviously there is no impetus for them to act until we do. So what are we waiting for?"
Contemplating the month ahead, when her family will try for 31 days to make a difference, Cori Fraley put it another way:
"It's always important to re-evaluate how you live and decide what you need and don't need and how you affect the people around you."
Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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