Teaching low-carbon living

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Is it even possible to live with a sustainable carbon footprint in modern American society—much less to live well?” – This question comes from the publisher’s blurb for Karl Coplan’s new book, Live Sustainably Now. Janet Tam spoke to Karl earlier this year, as he put the finishing touches on the book.

I had the chance to chat with Professor Karl S. Coplan, a Professor of Law at the Pace University and Director of the Environmental Litigation Clinic. Karl enjoys a carbon-efficient lifestyle on a four-tonne* budget. In this interview, he explains how he does it, why it matters and how we can too. *Tonne = metric ton of CO2 or 2205 lbs.

JT: How did you get started? Were there gradual changes that led you on to this path or was it a conscious decision to lead a low-carbon lifestyle? And why 4 tonnes?

KC: Professionally, I’ve been at Pace Law School since 1994, and the whole time I’ve been working at the Environmental Litigation Clinic here. I’m the Co-Director of the clinic, where we represent Riverkeeper along with other environmental groups primarily focused on water-quality related issues.

What you learn when you’re involved in environmental public litigation is that these fights go on forever. The kind of fights where if you win, you get to keep fighting to protect the resource because the threats never go away. After fighting Indian Point Power Plant for 20 years, you realize that these local fights go on for decades.

When you look decades in the future, you realize that climate is the big environmental issue that we need to address now. That thinking made me incrementally look at my own footprint, even more closely. I had to decide what I could do to make it more defensible. It became obvious that one big thing on my own footprint was using a gas-powered car to commute some of the time. Now, I actually commute over the Hudson River by kayak a couple days a week. 

In 2012, Bill McKibben was popularizing the idea of a fossil-fuel budget and he did the “Do the Math” tour which looked at a 2-degree Celsius budget for the world, which basically said we can’t afford to burn all the fossil fuels that all the major oil companies are relying on. If you were to divide that amount of carbon up with all the people on the planet, what would each person’s share be?

Few people actually point that out, because the number is frighteningly low. The numbers have changed from 2012 but it’s currently about 2 tonnes per capita globally. In calculating carbon, there are many indirect uses of carbon to consider like the carbon emissions of the military, the country building roads, and embedded carbon in the products we buy. If your indirect footprint were similar to your direct footprint, that would be about 1 tonne per person and that’s what we would need globally to meet the 2 degree Celsius budget.

Practically nobody in the United States who has a job and lives a fairly typical American lifestyle can keep their footprint to 1 tonne. There would a vigorous debate of what is defensible. So, I came up with 4 tonnes as a good number to aim for. It’s a limit I could live with and figure out how to do it. 

JT: How has your environmental identity affected your other personal identities? Do you feel like making any these changes have made you more conscious of other aspects of your life such as health, recreation, etc.?

KC: Carbon sustainable choices can really be synergistic with personal health choices. Commuting by kayak and bike, for example, is great for my fitness. Many of the things that are good for fitness and physical health may not lower your emissions of greenhouse gases, but a lot of them do. For a long time, I’ve been loosely following a Mediterranean diet which is mostly vegetable-based but not dogmatically vegetarian—in a Mediterranean diet, small amounts of meat are used as a garnish. Occasionally, you get a treat of a festival day of having a meat dinner. It’s funny because the reason I originally switched to a Mediterranean diet was getting a bad cholesterol rating from my doctor 10 years ago and deciding that I didn’t want to deal with it with medication. I wanted to deal with it with adding to my exercise and improving my diet. And a Mediterranean diet, coincidentally, is consistent with a low-carbon footprint with the exception of its frequent use of dairy products. Dairy products are not as high a footprint per pound as red meat but they do have a significant footprint. 

JT: What are your thoughts on living sustainably in cities and how conscious lifestyle choices can be made in urban environments?

KC: There’s this paradox of urban living. Urban living, in general, is energy-efficient, and so at least theoretically can be a much lower carbon footprint. If you live and work or go to school in New York City, your transportation footprint is probably very, very low. The New York City subway system is probably one of the most carbon-efficient ways of moving people on the planet. [Ed. note: the NYC subway system may be the most effective piece of ‘green’ infrastructure in the United States.]

On the other hand, if you’re taking a New York City bus, it’s one of the least carbon-efficient ways to move people on the planet, believe it or not. That’s part of the paradox of public transportation in New York City. And then similarly, living in an apartment building, in theory, should be much more energy-efficient to heat because you have less of the heat escaping. When you combine a lot of units into one building, there is less heat escaping through the roof and through the walls. But, the way as it turns out, the landlords in New York City pay less attention to efficiently heating their buildings than they should. Multiple urban dwellings are not actually that much more carbon-efficient to heat than single-family homes even though they theoretically should be much more. The other problem is that in an apartment, tenants have little control over the temperatures apartments are set at, or the way it’s heated or anything else, so there’s very little you can do as an individual other than make noise on your co-op board if it’s a co-op or otherwise advocate for it. 

“…my few friends who are conservatives and Republicans always seem to be more respectful of my personal lifestyle changes to lower my carbon footprint.”

And then there’s the paradox that cities have a lower per capita carbon footprint than more rural or suburban areas but if you were to dig behind that, you would find that it is very much income-based. People in the upper class and middle class may erase the carbon advantages of living in a city by having second homes outside of the city, or flying places all the time, which really adds to their individual carbon footprint and loses the advantage of urban living.

JT: What are ways you think that we can promote this kind of conversation of lowering our individual carbon footprint to the public?

KC: The IPCC SR15 report is a really good starting point. It’s got people talking. A lot of it is needing to reach people outside of our usual circles, especially needing to reach people outside of our political circles. One of the ironic things I’ve found is that my few friends who are conservatives and Republicans always seem to be more respectful of my personal lifestyle changes to lower my carbon footprint than many of environmentalist friends who see it as an implicit righteous criticism of their own lifestyle. I think I get more credibility with some of my conservative friends who don’t consider climate change as an issue. Some of my environmentalist friends say ‘individual reduction is never going to do it, it’s ridiculous that you’re trying when it’s the fossil fuel companies that are the problem.’ 

JT: What are the ways that you’ve reduced your carbon footprint in your home? What changes would you recommend that would be impactful and easy to adjust to?

KC: When heating in winter, I keep my house cool. I don’t rely on natural gas for heat. That’s a big step to reducing my carbon footprint. I have a wood-stove that is now our primary heat. That’s something that works now as long as only a few people are doing it. There wouldn’t be enough wood, and air pollution would be horrible, for example, if everyone tried to put a wood stove in their house in the New York metro area. 

There are three simple steps to cut to your carbon footprint probably by 75% or 80% at least on a household basis. Easiest thing to do is sign up for a renewable energy supplier if you don’t already have one. It’s only pennies more per kilowatt/hour. It’s a simple matter of going on your account online and choosing an option. There are different gradations of how close you really are to renewable energy in time and distance depending on the kind of supply, but that’s the easiest thing to do. Some people disagree with it but I think you can rightly take credit for low carbon electricity when you’re paying for one of those plants. 

The next thing is to get rid of your fossil fuel-powered car. If you’re in a two-car household, you may not want to throw out your brand new car because there’s still embedded carbon there [the carbon released during the making of it], but if you’re getting a new car right now, and you understand climate change, it should be electric or a hybrid. Ideally, if you feel you need the range of a gas-powered car and you currently have two gas-powered cars in your household, and replace one of them with a hybrid and the other with an electric, you’d cut your greenhouse gas emissions by three quarters, especially if you have renewable energy suppliers. These are totally painless things which don’t actually affect your lifestyle at all. Electric cars are now cheap enough that they are no more than the average hybrid or conventional car. 

The other thing is to stop flying. It is a huge part of your individual and controllable carbon footprint. It’s the one thing that no one wants to talk about, because being an international, worldly person is typically a part of a modern identity and eliminating flying is something that people who travel often are very unwilling to give up. But, there are still other ways to go places. My own way of still going places is on a sailboat. This summer, I’ve sailed transatlantic twice now round-trip. It’s actually not as expensive compared to some flights and trips but I know not everyone has the experience or commitment. There are still other ways of getting around. Traveling by car is definitely more energy efficient than air travel. 

For more information on Karl Coplan’s low-carbon lifestyle, visit his blog: https://livesustainablynow.com/. His book, “Live Sustainably Now: A Carbon-Sustainable Vision of the American Dream” is published by Columbia University Press.