CO2 Emissions – An Invisible Thread
We have all heard about carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) but it can be hard to wrap your mind around something unseen. The best way to think about it is as an invisible thread linked to how much water we use, how much energy we consume, how much gasoline we burn and how much waste we generate. Each one of these everyday events is responsible for CO2 generation, which is linked to global climate change that is already impacting California precipitation patterns, snowpack, river runoff, and sea level. It is also likely linked to the increasing numbers of wildfires.

While you may not believe you are responsible for that much CO2 emissions consider these facts:

  • The process of generating electricity is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, followed by transportation.
  • The transport, heating, and treatment of water accounts for 30% of natural gas use and 20% of electricity use in California.
  • The operation of buildings accounts for over 40% of CO2 emissions.

So every time you leave the hot water running while you shave or brush your teeth, or indulge in a 20-minute shower, you are not only wasting water, you are also contributing to the release of CO2 emissions that are contributing to global climate change.   Every time you run to the store to pick up a video and quart of ice cream you are contributing to CO2 emissions.  Each time you leave your computer on over night or don’t turn off the lights when you leave the house you are adding to the troubling concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.  

We also need to look at what we are buying at the stores we shop at.  The process of manufacturing goods and transporting them across the state, across the country, or across oceans has a huge carbon footprint. As it turns out only 1% of what we purchase is still in use six months later. The rest of it ends up in bins on the curb and has to be transported to the nearest landfill – these trash heaps release CO2 and methane (a greenhouse gas 21x more potent than CO2).

Here in California, as in much of the world, we are already beginning to see the effects of climate change.  Over the past few years it has become clear that changing precipitation patterns are impacting our water resources. These impacts are outlined in more detail on our California water page (link to page).
So what are the solutions?
Of course there are the actions we should all be taking at home to use water and energy more efficiently, pay closer attention to separating trash and recycling, buy recyclable/ compostable, non-toxic products, and reduce car and air travel. In terms of making even more significant changes there are three main steps that we as a society need to take. We need to decrease our overall energy use and get the majority of our energy from renewable sources. We need to increase vehicle fuel efficiency (miles per gallon) and shift to vehicles that reduce or eliminate the need for fossil fuels altogether. And we need to renovate and construct more efficient buildings that reduce water and energy use and can cut CO2 emissions in half. This means we all need to reach out to politicians and corporations and use our political and purchasing power to set our communities, our state, and our country on a new path.

As individuals we may feel like we have little influence, but as a society we are able to make huge shifts in very short periods of time. The first personal computers went on sale less than 30 years ago. Same with cell phones. The Internet has only been in mainstream use for 15 years! Now we can’t imagine how we lived before Google. Plastic has only been a mainstream product for six decades. NASA was created 50 years ago and it took them just eleven years to put a man on the moon. There are so many examples of making the seemingly impossible or incredible mainstream and acceptable. This is exactly what we need to do when it comes to climate change.
California Takes Action
Fortunately many people in California already realize the importance of working to reduce CO2 emissions. The state of California is the 7th largest economy in the world, so what we do here sends a big message to rest of the country and the world. In 2006 California decided to take a lead in fighting global warming and set an example for other states and nations by passing AB32 – The Global Warming and Climate Solutions Act.

This legislation is the first enforceable state-wide program in the U.S. to cap emissions from major industries. Perhaps most importantly it includes penalties for non-compliance. AB32 requires that California reduce emissions to1990 levels by 2020 (a 25% reduction), and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. The California Air Resources Board has just released their draft plan laying out the mechanisms to meet this goal. AB32 will ultimately require that all businesses understand their CO2 contribution and implement actions to reduce their carbon footprint in significant ways. Beginning next year the largest CO2 contributors will face mandatory reduction targets.
Green Building Standards
In July of 2008 the California Building Standards Commission voted unanimously to adopt green building standards for all new construction in California.  These standards are voluntary for now but will become mandatory in 2010.  This move puts the state on track to compel all new buildings to become more energy efficient. The standards will require that all new residential construction generate its own energy by 2020, and all new commercial construction will have to do the same by 2030.  This move is in part driven by mandates in the European Union that all buildings post their energy efficiency rating and that this information must be disclosed before any transaction can occur.    

We’re going to begin seeing closer tracking of energy use and emissions across industries. Wal-Mart is moving towards providing information on products similar to a nutrition label that will let consumers know how much CO2 emissions were generated during the manufacturing and distribution process. While Wal-Mart may never be a truly sustainable company (see comment from CEO), providing this information is critical to building more mainstream awareness.

Check out Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles.
Learn More
To learn more about what you can do Click Here.
*The California Air Resources Board’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory only extends through 2004.