The price of the easy life
Most household appliances, except for stoves and dryers, don’t have exhaust pipes. But the power plants generating the electricity that makes life in early 21st century America so convenient spew a steady stream of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the process. The graphic below, which is based on statistics compiled by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, shows the electric appliances and electronic gadgets in a typical household and the amount of greenhouse gas produced annually as a result of normal use of each device. For example, a standard refrigerator uses roughly 1,239 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, and as a result, 2,032 pounds of carbon dioxide enter the atmosphere.
Data research by Zach Zorich
My second, less gratifying impulse was to wonder, What if they’re right, or at least moving in the right direction? If you believe, along with almost every scientist who has studied the issue, that global warming poses a genuine threat to humanity, doesn’t this suggest that we should be doing something about it?
What would it mean to apply in our daily lives, just for argument, the kind of reductions called for in the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse-gas emissions? At the most elementary level, could we do the math? Could we figure out how much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases our cars, our homes, and our work produce? Given how invested we have become in the automotive way of life, would it even be possible to reduce emissions significantly? And if we started down this line of thinking, would emissions counting join low-carb diets and real estate one-upmanship as favorite topics of cocktail party bores? Or forget the cocktail parties: Once we confronted the mathematics of a Sunday drive, would there be anything left to do, in a guilt-free way, other than crawl under a rock?
Under pressure from the Kyoto Protocol, which went into effect in February for just about every country except the United States and Australia, people elsewhere have actually begun to think about such questions, often in ways that are startling for their scale and severity. Researchers at Oxford University recently proposed demolishing 80,000 inefficient homes a year—many of them century-old structures in town and city centers—to achieve the British goal of a 60 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. (The proposal also included building 220,000 low-carbon-emission homes a year.) In Switzerland, which is watching its Alpine ice disappear, technicians set out to wrap part of a glacier in insulating foam.
Even die-hard Alaskan antienvironmentalists have begun to warm up to the idea of imposing limits on greenhouse-gas emissions, according to The Wall Street Journal, because homes on the coast there are already beginning to slip into rising seas. The Government Accountability Office recently reported that 180 Alaskan coastal villages are threatened because of melting sea ice and permafrost. Moving just one of them, Shishmaref, with 600 residents, would cost taxpayers $180 million.
Detroit’s Big Three automakers have also tacitly accepted global warming as a political reality, agreeing in April to a 6 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions from new vehicles sold in Canada by 2010. (They continue, however, to fight a California law requiring a 30 percent reduction in 10 years.)
Despite criticisms that the Kyoto Protocol limitations are too expensive, too difficult, or too heavily targeted against developed nations, one American company has gone well beyond Kyoto, apparently without giving up its competitive edge. By tinkering with manufacturing processes, DuPont says it has already cut its greenhouse-gas emissions by 72 percent from 1990 levels, despite a 33 percent increase in production. It has also reduced total energy use by 7 percent from 1990 levels, saving $2 billion.
Saying that DuPont can do it, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily make it any easier for the rest of us. Calculating greenhouse-gas emissions turns out to be dismayingly complex, and figuring out how to reduce or mitigate these emissions is even more difficult.
The first time I bothered to consider my own family’s contribution to global warming was late one night last winter, when my teenage son had taken the car on a long and unnecessary errand. As I sat up waiting for him, I scribbled the mileage and the upfront costs of his journey on the back of an envelope. Then, because the idea of wasting money wasn’t going to get his attention, I started to work out the greenhouse-gas emissions. I fussed over the calculations for a while, then I threw the envelope in the trash and went to bed, partly because I knew my son would just say I was being a jerk but mostly because the numbers were too large to believe.
Experts on greenhouse-gas emissions tell me that every time my car burns a gallon of gasoline, I am putting more than 25 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as well as a smaller amount of methane, nitrous oxide, and various other toxic gases. It is easy to stumble over this fact. A single gallon of gasoline weighs only about 6 pounds. Otherwise, I couldn’t carry a gas can down the highway to refill my tank. Moreover, when I put that gallon of gas in the engine, it burns, all too quickly. So by what dark magic could there be 25 pounds of junk released in the process?
Look at it another way: A 747 passenger jet traveling from New York to London emits about 880,000 pounds of carbon dioxide. But that is more than the plane’s maximum takeoff weight. The fuel on board weighs only about 300,000 pounds.
So I did some more calculations the next day (when my son was lying low with a $113 speeding ticket): Gasoline and jet fuel (kerosene) are about 90 percent carbon. Combustion causes almost every atom of carbon in the fuel to combine with two atoms of oxygen, producing carbon dioxide. Despite our tendency to think of it as weightless, oxygen is in fact 1.33 times heavier than carbon. So the original 6 pounds of carbon combine with 15 or 16 pounds of oxygen, minus some soot, water, and other by-products, and, bingo, by driving 21 miles down the road, my car has just disturbed the balance of the planet’s carbon cycle by producing 19 pounds of CO2. Emissions released in manufacturing and transporting the gas to market add another 6 pounds to the total, meaning that effectively my car has launched 25 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere, where scientists say it will linger for hundreds or even thousands of years, helping to trap solar heat and turn the atmosphere into a greenhouse.
If the mathematics of the pollution produced by burning a gallon of fossil fuel seems daunting, it’s even worse to look the other way: what went into making that gallon. A few years ago an ecologist named Jeff Dukes was traveling in a Chevy Suburban loaded with equipment to a research site in southern Utah. Dukes, now at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, started to think about the fossil fuel that was moving him down the road.
After several months of research, he computed that a single gallon of gasoline requires about 196,000 pounds of primeval plant and animal matter, buried and compressed over millions of years. This is equivalent to the total production over a year’s time from “40 acres’ worth of wheat—stalks, roots, and all.” If you are inclined to pursue this kind of masochistic math, it means that filling up the 32-gallon tank of Dukes’s Chevy Suburban is like taking all the energy produced by plants over the course of a year on 1,280 acres of land. The numbers suggest that this just might not be sustainable over the long haul.