Personal carbon emissions by the numbers

Impact of recycling

Are you interested in reducing your personal carbon footprint?

Have you ever wondered exactly how much recycling reduces global warming? In 2020, a meta-analysis paper was published by Diana Ivanova and her co-authors who reviewed studies covering a range of personal consumption options. The researchers started with a dataset of 6,990 studies from all over the world and used machine learning to winnow this down to the most relevant 53 studies.

The meta-analysis is great for two reasons—it gives a reliable average and it shows the uncertainty.

The data from the study is publicly available and I focused on two baskets, one with transportation choices and a second with common household actions like recycling.

Let’s look first at transportation options. The amount of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) saved is measured in tonnes per person per year. Living car-free saves 2.1 tonnes of CO2e per person per year. (The average Canadian footprint is 15.2 tonnes of CO2e per person per year.) Driving a battery operated vehicle (BEV) saves two tonnes of CO2e per person per year.

In the global study, shifting to a smaller car generates a savings of 0.42, but I suspect that would be much greater in Canada where we drive the heaviest fleet in the world because we buy so many large pickup trucks.

Actions cause “backfire” or “rebound,” where a measure which is supposed to reduce carbon emissions actually increases them. You will notice this rebound effect in Figure 1 for “Shift to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV)/hybrid electric vehicles (HEV)” and Figure 2 “Produce renewable energy.”

Some of the error bars are large. Should we be surprised at the size of error bars for BEVs or for installing renewable energy on your house? In both those cases, the amount of carbon you can save depends on how clean your electricity mix is.

Provinces with high-carbon electricity include Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia. The Canadian Energy Regulator reports those provinces make about 85% of their electricity from fossil fuels. A really dirty electricity mix reduces the advantage of driving a BEV, but gives solar panels on your home a large positive impact. The authors commented in the paper the “electricity mix alone was found to explain almost 70% of the variability.”

If you are interested in solar panels or buying a BEV, you may be better off using an online calculator that factors in your local electricity mix.

People are often surprised that reducing or recycling stuff doesn’t reduce their carbon emissions by very much. Here, less packaging, fewer purchases, less plastic, recycle and less paper each have an impact of less than 0.2 tonnes of CO2e, approximately 1% of your total footprint. I do these things because they are sustainable (better for the planet) not because they reduce my overall carbon emission. I also expect better recycling technology will also increase the carbon savings.

As a numbers geek, I think this study is awesome. Having accurate numbers allows us to make meaningful choices. However, while people, especially in wealthy nations, need to reduce personal consumption, the spotlight shifts the focus from the political to the personal.

Are your personal consumption choices powerful enough to solve global warming? No. The largest amount of carbon emission in Canada comes from the oil and gas industry (28% in 2021, according to the Government of Canada), which is heavily subsidized by the government to the tune of $4.5 billion to $18 billion a year. Choosing to go car-free won’t make a dent in the state of the oil and gas industry. Other high-carbon subsidies support dairy, forestry and auto manufacturing.

The most powerful action I can take is to lobby the government (write, vote, protest) to make global warming and carbon reductions a priority. A close second is making the kind of lifestyle changes that significantly reduce carbon (for example, my family is saving for a BEV).

I reduce and recycle because it is the right thing to do, but I also acknowledge it doesn’t have a large effect on my family's carbon footprint.

If you are interested in seeing the full range of measures and their carbon impact, a summary of the results was published in Science Alert, These 5 Charts Show What You Can Do Right Now To Fight Climate Change, by Max Callaghan. Thanks to Callaghan for pointing me in the direction of the data.

You can read the full paper Quantifying the potential for climate change mitigation of consumption options at Environmental Research Letters.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Kristy Dyer has worked in the sustainability field for more than 10 years, including work with solar energy in New Mexico and cleantech in Silicon Valley. After she moved to the Okanagan, she ran a small business, Teaspoon Energy, doing energy audits of large houses. Most recently, she worked for a B.C. business doing carbon footprints for tourism organizations.

She has written about sustainability since 2012. You can find her columns archived at TeaspoonEnergy.blogspot.com.

Dyer has a background in physics and astronomy, and has occasionally been caught trying to impersonate an engineer.

A long-time member of First Things First, Penticton’s local climate change group, whose goals are to educate and lobby for solutions to the climate crisis, Dyer is honoured to live, work and play in the unceded, ancestral and traditional territory of the Syilx Okanagan Nation.

You can contact her at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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