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This New Year — Decarbonize Your Life

This article is part of a new series called Decarbonize Your Life. With modest steps and a middle-class income, our family has dramatically reduced emissions and is sequestering what remains through a small reforestation project. Our life is better for it. If we can do it, you can too. —Naomi Cole and Joe Wachunas

The struggle of today is not altogether for today — it is for a vast future also.” Abraham Lincoln

The Overview Effect

Those who are lucky enough to see earth from space say it changes them. The vision of our blue-green jewel of a planet from above leads to the “overview effect,” a mental shift and awe for what astronaut Ron Garan calls the “island that has been given to us and that has protected all life from the harshness of space.”

The image, of our beautiful blue marble of a world, inspires something like the overview effect in us. It’s the driving force behind our little family’s efforts to do whatever we can to ensure future generations enjoy this planet’s gifts. To this end, we’re launching a new series, Decarbonize Your Life, on this first day of a new year, during a crucial decade for life on this planet.

The series of posts will (quickly) go from this moment of awe and poetic transcendence to the nitty-gritty, everyday choices that are potential world-preserving game changers in reducing carbon emissions and improving lives. If you, like us, feel overwhelming awe and simultaneous terror about the state of our water-world, wispy-clouded planet and wonder what we humble individuals can do, then we hope you’ll join us on the journey.

When the parents of this family of four were born in 1981 and 1983, the CO2 level in the planet’s atmosphere was 339 parts per million (ppm), around 56 ppm higher than the pre-industrial revolution average of 283. Today, that level is about 420 ppm and is rising sharply. In our short four decades on earth, the extra CO2 in the atmosphere (above pre-industrial levels) has nearly tripled from 50 ppm to 150 ppm. According to John Perona, in From Knowledge To Power, “there is no known historical analogy for today’s emissions increase.”

For hundreds of thousands of years, CO2 hadn’t risen above the dotted line. And in our short lifetimes, it has skyrocketed. (Image courtesy of NASA.)

Best of Times and Worst of Times

On one hand, it’s truly a Dickensian “worst of times.” All of the rapidly accumulating carbon our species is emitting is warming the earth before our very eyes. We have all now experienced ever hotter, record setting, heat wave summers. Unprecedented wildfires regularly destroy homes, blanket enormous regions with smoke, and displace residents. Mega-droughts are the new norm. Hurricanes are increasing in intensity and destructive power. Doomsday Glaciers are melting faster. In our backyard, the Pacific Northwest, a heat dome killed an estimated 800 people in 2021. In short, all the warnings of climate scientists (plus some new ones never imagined) are becoming realities sooner and more severely than expected. And this is only the beginning, with each consecutive summer threatening frightening weather never before seen.

The worst of times. Portland, Oregon hit 114 degrees in 2021 and is now blanketed by wildfire smoke nearly every year. Photo by Joe Wachunas.

On the other hand, despite the enormity of this crisis, there is good news. We also live in the best of times during which humanity has created the tools and strategies to save us from our own self-imposed climate catastrophe. Carbon-free power has quickly ramped up and now makes up 45% of our electricity mix. Solar panels, heat pumps, and electric cars have emerged, really only in the last decade, to become widely available throughout the world. Carbon capture and storage is becoming an industry. And in even better news, decarbonizing technologies have proven that they don’t require sacrifice but paradoxically provide a pathway to better, more resilient lives. As Stanford engineer Drew Endy said, “for the first time in human history, we have the technology for nine billion people to prosper on the planet.”

Introducing Decarbonize Your Life

Full of this urgency and hope, and with the overview effect as our north star, we are putting pen to paper, and fingers to keyboard, to write about the things our family has done to reduce our emissions in ways that are practical and financially savvy and even make life better. We aim to empower the 80% of people in advanced economies who are willing to make changes to reduce the effects of global climate change with practical, affordable recommendations for decarbonizing our lives.

We’ll start this series with introductory posts over the next couple weeks about the pillars of global decarbonization and what they mean for individuals. We’ll then introduce the critical pathways for individual decarbonization in the areas of: 1) Home, 2) Transportation, 3) Consumption, and 4) Sequestration. The majority of our posts will be deep dives into the why, what, and how of all the recommended decarbonizing and life-improving strategies.

Since not all actions have equal impact, and lest you feel overwhelmed by so many options, we will start with what we call the “big moves,” a handful of larger investments that are essential to decarbonization and take the biggest bite out of anyone’s emissions pie. These are things like heat pumps, electric transportation, and clean electricity. We’ll then address the “low hanging fruit,” affordable and easy actions, like daylight-sensing LED bulbs and sequestering CO2 by planting trees at home, which are easy wins regardless of where you are in your journey. Finally, we’ll discuss the “honorable mentions,” things like electric fireplaces and low-carbon materials, that may have a smaller impact on carbon emissions but depending on your home, could be crucial to getting to zero.

We’ll talk transparently about costs and what did and didn’t work for us and rank the actions by their relative carbon impacts. Our ramblings won’t necessarily introduce new ideas or break new ground (and are definitely full of overzealous slip-ups and wrong turns), but we hope the series presents an accessible and comprehensive plan for individual decarbonization that other average folks can take to set themselves on a post-carbon pathway. And we’ve tested it all firsthand while chasing after two young kids, juggling jobs, and generally trying to stay sane. All the info will be free and open sourced. Our only agenda is saving the planet.

Our Decarbonizing Family

We are an ordinary family, in Portland, Oregon, with kids who are currently 7 and 3. We both work to address climate change, but beyond our day jobs there’s nothing particularly exceptional or unique about us, and that’s the point. One of the stars of our story is our house — a simple, 1600 square foot, 1980s ranch in a residential neighborhood that’s about 3 miles from downtown. Over the last decade, we’ve worked hard to make it a decarbonizing champ by tackling ductless heat pumps, heat pump water heaters, induction cooking, solar in multiple forms, hang-drying laundry (including cloth diapers). We’ve also tackled car-free living, electric driving, charging without a garage or driveway, a reforestation grant from the US Department of Agriculture, and more. Our energy bills are one seventh the national average (lots more on that later) and that includes all the power it takes to fuel our electric car. All this happened through practical, creative, cost-effective strategies, on a middle-class income.

Gratuitous family photo. Courtesy of Electrify PDX.

“We’re The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For”

This oft-quoted civil rights message from poet June Jordan speaks to the impact of individuals to actively solve seemingly impossible problems. The climate crisis is one such test for our species. Can we decouple carbon emissions from economic growth? Can we stop treating our shared atmosphere as a communal dumping ground and live in harmony with the natural systems that enable us to exist on the only habitable world we know of in the vast universe?

Decarbonizing our lives is how we answer “yes.” We have the knowledge and technologies to decarbonize in a way that pulls all of us normal folk from the sidelines to join the cavalry that will save this gorgeous gift of a planet. And the great news is that doing so, and starting or ramping up our efforts this new year, will lead to better, fuller, more resilient lives.

What’s Next

We hope you’ll join us for an ongoing discussion about how to decarbonize in practical, affordable, life-improving ways. Next week we’ll start discussing the pillars of global decarbonization and what they mean for individuals. Up first is clean electricity.

This article is part of a new series called Decarbonize Your Life. With modest steps and a middle-class income, our family has dramatically reduced emissions and is sequestering what remains through a small reforestation project. Our life is better for it. If we can do it, you can too.

 

 

 
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Joe Wachunas and Naomi Cole are passionate about decarbonizing their lives. They both work professionally to address climate change — Naomi in urban sustainability and energy efficiency and Joe in the electrification of buildings and transportation. This passion, and their commitment to walk the walk, has led them to ductless heat pumps, heat pump water heaters, induction cooking, solar in multiple forms, hang-drying laundry (including cloth diapers), no cars to electric cars and charging without a garage or driveway, a reforestation grant from the US Department of Agriculture, and more. They live in Portland, Oregon, with their two young kids and write about their decarbonizing adventures at decarbonizeyourlife.com.

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