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A New Shade of Green

By Sherry Listgarten

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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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Average Palo Alto

Uploaded: Feb 4, 2019
One of the things I find very encouraging about climate is that there is a small set of things that we can all do to have a big positive impact on climate change. Regardless of how emissions are measured, this same set of things keeps bubbling up to the top.

For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to look at “consumption based” emissions. These are emissions that result directly or indirectly from a person’s activities. Indirect emissions (such as those used to create the clothing you purchase) are harder to model than direct emissions (such as those generated by the furnace that heats your home). But they can add a useful dimension, so some researchers at UC Berkeley spent a few years modeling consumption emissions for neighborhoods across the country (1). What can we learn from their work?

You don’t hear the phrase “average Palo Alto” too often. But Palo Alto is distinctly average when it comes to these emissions. That is pretty surprising, given we have two big things going for us:
Our temperate climate means we need relatively little energy for heating and cooling.
Our electricity is emissions-free, thanks to Palo Alto Utilities. So we get “for free” what accounts for about 15% of household emissions across the States.

What is going on? Why aren’t our emissions well below average, given those advantages?

To start with, Palo Altans have only average emissions in two important areas, travel and food. We generate about one-third of our emissions from travel, with an average of 24% from gas-powered vehicle travel, and 9% from air travel. Our travel emissions are similar to the average US resident, but slightly greater because we fly about twice as much.

Our diet accounts for 17% of our emissions, which is similar to households across the US. Although Bay Area residents in general eat somewhat less than the national average (and as a consequence, obesity rates are lower here), our diet composition is similar to that of the national diet, so our emissions are close to average.

What are we missing? While we aren’t beating the national average on travel and food, we aren’t lagging it by much either. And our home energy and electricity emissions are well below average. Where are we generating many more emissions than typical in the United States?

The two remaining categories of emissions activities reflect our consumption of “goods” and “services”, which account for a whopping 40% of our emissions. And this is where we fall well behind the national average -- it turns out that we buy and do a lot of stuff! The model indicates that our purchases and activities generate nearly twice the emissions of the average US household. Some of the big ticket items in this category are health care, recreation, clothing, and furnishings and appliances.

This analysis has many limitations. Indirect emissions are difficult to measure, and the model is pretty basic. Even for more direct emissions, it doesn’t account for EV usage, and some estimates like air travel and food are largely tied to income and/or household size. Costs for home heating, moderate in the study, are likely greatly understated due to evolving understanding of how leaky our natural gas network is. But nevertheless it is easy to identify our biggest emission sources. The Cliff Notes version of the Palo Alto carbon “diet” is:
- Ditch the fuel pump. This is by far the biggest thing we can do, and there are many options here, from leasing an EV to carpooling to using transit or a bike.
- Think about your air travel. Cut back, or consider buying carbon offsets.
- Eat less beef. This is a surprisingly big one, and we’ll talk about why in a coming blog. For extra credit, go easy on lamb and cheese too, and buy only what you eat.
- Save on gas at home. A smart thermostat is a nice low-cost win here, and there are clean electric options when heaters and appliances need replacing.
- Buy less stuff! Save your money for … carbon offsets?

We end up with a pretty simple list of big-impact items, each of which has a growing range of alternatives. I’ll go into them in more depth in future blogs, as well as some of the science behind them. Interestingly, though, there is one very impactful thing missing from the list, which is something easy and important that we all can do to reduce emissions. Anyone know what it is?

Comment guidelines
I hope that your contributions will be an important part of this blog. To keep the discussion productive, please adhere to these guidelines, or your comment may be moderated:
- Avoid disrespectful, disparaging, snide, angry, or ad hominem comments.
- Stay fact-based, and provide references (esp links) as helpful.
- Stay on topic.
- In general, maintain this as a welcoming space for all readers.

References and notes:
1. The data used in this blog are available at https://coolclimate.org. Cool Climate is a partnership based at UC Berkeley involving some universities, businesses, governments, and non-profit organizations dedicated to the broad dissemination of climate solutions. The assumptions used in the consumption-based emissions model are simplistic in some respects (as just one example, they do not account for electric vehicle penetration), and the correlation coefficients of their models are not the greatest. But the high-level guidance and regional variations are interesting. One place to start is this paper: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/2sn7m83z. Appendix A covers the modeling assumptions.

2. A local organization called Community Climate Solutions has developed a terrific set of climate action sites customized to our cities. To find ideas that may be right for you, tailored to Palo Alto, take a look at https://paloaltogocarbonfree.org/actions. For Menlo Park, see https://www.menlogreenchallenge.org/actions, and for Los Altos, check out https://www.greentownchallenge.org/actions. You can also set up a profile for personalized recommendations.

3. It can be interesting to examine variations in emissions across the Bay Area, and the country. Take a look at https://coolclimate.org/maps. You will see that the areas that fare best around here wrt emissions are Stanford and San Francisco, where there is much less driving and, in the case of Stanford, much less consumption due to lower incomes. Note that, because the study was done in 2015, it does not account for the new greener energy options provided by Peninsula Clean Energy or Silicon Valley Clean Energy.

4. Consumption metrics are somewhat controversial, because they are difficult to measure (involving many assumptions) and can end up being based largely on income. More generally, they may cast doubt on whether wealthy people can be sufficiently green. We’ll discuss that next week!
What is it worth to you?


Posted by eileen , a resident of another community,
on Feb 4, 2019 at 8:10 am

While not yet prepared to suggest an answer the quiz question, I'd like to mention an article in the NYT News and Review from yesterday, February 3, on how wealthy people don't do enough to counteract climate change. The article focuses on skiers, but goes beyond that. Here is the link-

Web Link

OK a stab at the quiz question since someone has to go first--eat locally produced food

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 4, 2019 at 9:25 am

If you are going to eat locally produced food, I would go one step closer to home and say cook the food at home.

I can't get the amount of people who send out for food, or go out to pick food up to bring home, or just go out to eat because they can't be bothered to cook.

People, learn to cook, teach your kids to cook, eat real food without preservatives, eat food that has been made with ingredients you can pronounce and see what they look like. The same should be said for coffee and similar.

I have no idea how this fits in with being green. I do know that it makes us eat better, eat healthier, and take more note of the stuff we put in our mouths.

Eating out occasionally for a special treat should be the norm. Not an everyday practice.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Feb 4, 2019 at 9:40 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@eileen and resident -- I love the comments! @eileen, the answer to the question I pose in the blog is not "eat local" or even "don't ski", though I imagine both would help some in their own way. Any other ideas? And @resident, "cook food at home" is a nice thing to do, but definitely not easy for a lot of people (well, does instant ramen count?), though we will talk plenty about food in some upcoming blogs. The thing I have in mind is really easy, something that has huge impact (in aggregate), and that we all should do. It's also FREE. There's also a follow-on if you get the first thing :)

Posted by Resident, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 5, 2019 at 3:17 pm

Thanks for this! Consumption-based GHG accounting would show a far different result for our city than what we now use. Web Link

We can make a tremendous reduction in our collective carbon footprint by substantially reducing our consumption of meat and dairy.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Feb 5, 2019 at 5:33 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Resident. Thanks for your comment! I would imagine that cities will focus on measuring and improving what they can more easily control. Based on the city's 2016 SCAP report (https://www.cityofpaloalto.org/civicax/filebank/documents/51856), they will focus most on emissions from transportation and gas use (both residential and commercial), which are very big impact and which they can influence in a number of ways. This is a shorter and more recent implementation plan, which also includes water conservation: https://www.cityofpaloalto.org/civicax/filebank/documents/65037

Regarding different ways of measuring emissions, if you are interested, there are several ways that countries like to think about emissions, depending in part on how developed they are. You can see that in how they measure and in how they set their goals. For an idea of different ways to measure emissions, you can take a look at slides 11-15 of the 2018 global carbon budget here (7MB, PDF): http://www.globalcarbonproject.org/carbonbudget/18/files/GCP_CarbonBudget_2018.pdf For an idea of the variation in Paris commitments, check out the middle column of this spreadsheet from Carbon Brief: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1LtaBOv70pvXVPDgLUGtTKnSxofjfZy7jx06bTSaMaH4/pubhtml?gid=14385633&single=true

Posted by Lucy, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Feb 7, 2019 at 12:10 pm

Wait! [portion removed] My European summer vacations and my weekend jaunts to Hawaii are essential to my well-being and besides, by themselves they add almost nothing to the global climate problem. I drive a Tesla and recycle: surely that must count for something. Let's elect Democrats so that they can make the Red states do their fair share. [portion removed]

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Feb 7, 2019 at 12:56 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Lucy, thanks the humor :) And, yup, voting is free, easy, and impactful.

Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 7, 2019 at 2:06 pm

I know that eating beef is a very touchy subject, sure to make many people react defensively. But, the effect is very real:

"Worldwide, livestock accounts for between 14.5 percent and 18 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions." Web Link

In addition, in California, water is another important issue, and, beef is very water intensive. Web Link

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Feb 7, 2019 at 4:27 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Anon -- thanks for the comment and the links! It is indeed surprising that beef has such a disproportionate impact. I plan to go over that in a future blog, but suffice to say it's a combination of different things, some of which are related to their digestion, some to how we manage livestock, and some to land use (which impacts emissions). Nothing comes close to beef in terms of emissions, except lamb and mutton and (perhaps) some farmed crustaceans.

Posted by Anneke, a resident of Professorville,
on Feb 8, 2019 at 1:47 pm

Your article made me feel somewhat nostalgic.

I grew up in the south of The Netherlands in the fifties and the sixties in a family of seven. We were by far not wealthy, but no one else in our neighborhood was either. My mother was a full-time homemaker, and when she was still alive, she called it the most wonderful time of her life. A small home with not many luxuries, except for wonderful heat downstairs, and excellent healthy food. My father worked for DSM and as a result he received a very generous amount of anthracite coal (an extremely clean-burning fuel) every fall, which filled up nearly half of our cool cellar. The other half was used for storing perishable foods. He also loved good food, and my mother was an excellent cook.

While I remember the times when we did not yet have a televison, a refrigerator, a telephone, a car and so much more, we unknowingly added much to creating a low carbon footprint, and it did nothing to decrease our happiness. It is what we were used to.

The milkman and the vegetable man (with card and horse) came by everyday and supplied our family with local milk products, eggs, and vegetables and fruits in season. We ate a lot of kale in the wintertime, mashed with potatoes, butter and milk, and accompanied with a smoked "Unox worst" or sausage. My father received three slices, the children one slice each. Our deserts consisted of whole milk yogurt, rice pudding, or fruit.

A grocery employee on his bike with a large wooden basket in front delivered the groceries my mother had ordered on a weekly basis.

The butcher came by once a week to take a very small order of meat. Meat was expensive, and steak was considered a pure luxury.

We did everything by bike or by walking, and if my mother wanted to visit her parents (once in the two years,) she traveled by train.

Times were different then, but not less happy. Even now, we do a lot of walking, my husband loves biking, we enjoy going to the Farmers' Market, and we still eat little amounts of meat, especially steak.

Posted by Garbage Man, a resident of The Crossings,
on Feb 9, 2019 at 7:35 am

Separate compostable waste from your garbage. Decomposing organic waste in landfills contributes a huge portion of GHG to the atmosphere.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 9, 2019 at 9:06 am

It bothers me quite a bit that the green patrol lectures everyone about their ungreen habits but don't take criticism of their own ungreen habits well.

There is absolutely no excuse for not cooking and eating at home. The fallacy that there isn't time to do it. In the day of crock pots, instant pots, prepared salads and vegetables, it takes a fraction of the time to make a family meal than waiting for it to be delivered or the extra time on the homeward journey to stop and grab something for dinner.

What it takes is an attitude change and a bit of organization. A family that can cook together while chatting about their day and then sitting down to eat bonds. It is quality time and worth doing regularly. Even young children can help getting a meal ready by making a salad or setting the table. Older children can help cut and cook. Teaching children to cook is a life skill that they will appreciate for the rest of their lives.

A stew in a crock pot, a simple stir fry and rice, grilled chicken or fish with salad and a baked potato, are all simple enough meals that should be encouraged rather than delivered pizza or Doordash, or stopping in the drive thru.

Posted by Member, a resident of Downtown North,
on Feb 9, 2019 at 10:48 am

Hi Sherry - while I understand you have good intentions, your efforts are misplaced. With a population approaching 8 billion people, any change in behavior for the people who read your words will make no difference. Re-allocate your time to lobbying politicians and decision makers to change their behavior, through meaningful carbon taxes - then you will be helping all of us!

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Feb 9, 2019 at 11:38 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Thanks all for your comments. @Member, your comment makes me laugh because that is exactly what a friend said to me when I told her I was thinking about doing this blog. And I agree that the biggest changes will be infrastructural and at a state/federal/global level. My thinking, right or wrong, was this: If we on the peninsula can't do it, with all the advantages that we have, then who can? Shouldn't we start at home, while also advocating? And given that Americans and generally households like ours create a disproportionate amount of emissions, don't we have real issues that warrant addressing? Your larger point, that voting and advocacy really matter, is something I strongly endorse, and hope to talk about more in future blogs. (Though the next one, out tomorrow, is going to be one more on this topic.)

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Feb 10, 2019 at 6:33 am

>> One of the things I find very encouraging about climate is that there is a small set of things that we can all do to have a big positive impact on climate change.

[portion removed]

Massive global action is the only real thing that will make any diffference.

The United States produces about 15% of all greenhouse gases. If we completely
stopped producing them it would have no effect on the global situation.

What has the most effect is the things Germany has been doing, which is to set
a goal and foster solar and wind. What happens then is that the larger scale of
demand reduces prices and sets up a a virtuous cycle for the world. That is the
kind of action that is needed.

When prices then drop whole new uses and economies pop into the radar
screen. This is a very complex and wide ranging issue, and trying to manage it
by making people feel better will lead to something like we have with recycling.
That is, many of us recycle, but there is not closed loop, and all the junk we throw
away is now choking out the oceans while we thing we are doing something to
end it. It's not happening. Look how hard it was just to discuss doing something
so simple as forcing people have to ask for plastic straws instead of everyone getting
one with every drink.

[portion removed]

Posted by III, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 10, 2019 at 8:13 am

Yes tried in many ways to change and kept it up.
But then they raise pricing on me UTILITY WATER or
anything organic or "cleaner" to eat is 25% more expensive.
Did best I could on recycling, now China will not take our plastics.
Have been screaming about climate change, ozone and more since 1978 Solar Days on steps of Sacramento Capital.
I got a President and a bunch of old men (like me) screaming there is not climate change happening right now. As the polar caps melt in front of us.
Doing the best I can, but so many have simply ignored their footprint they are leaving to our heirs. Not to mention consumers being ripped off by corporations/profit mongers for trying.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Feb 10, 2019 at 12:05 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@CrescentParkAnon -- great comment, thanks. There is no doubt we need global action (as well as local action). Take a look at this article, which goes over how/why UK emissions have decreased by 38% since 1990. Pretty amazing. https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-why-the-uks-co2-emissions-have-fallen-38-since-1990 We are not moving like that in the US. Why do you think that is? We do have renewable power standards, and they are having an impact, as are our emission standards, efficiency standards for appliances, etc. I hope to cover this more in a future blog. Here is an article that discusses the costs and benefits for the renewable power standards: https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aa87bd/pdf It gives you an idea of how people fight back against these standards (e.g., cost).

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Feb 10, 2019 at 12:24 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@III -- You are right that if we are going to succeed in dramatically lowering our emissions, it has to make sense financially for everyone. I think it's really unfortunate that "being green" has come to be associated with high-expense activities like shopping at Whole Foods and buying Patagonia clothing and Teslas. It shouldn't be that way. Saving money and lowering emissions should go hand-in-hand. Eating less beef (or meat/dairy in general) is a good example. Driving an EV is another maybe more surprising one. Lowering the thermostat is another. Living in an apartment instead of a house. And just buying less stuff, and fixing things when they break. I bet you are doing better than you think.

Posted by Recycler, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 11, 2019 at 8:23 am

"Did best I could on recycling, now China will not take our plastics."

This was the fault of recycling companies that told diligent recyclers that they no longer had to rinse the things that went into recycling. In hindsight, it seems like a set up. I was fine with separating and rinsing. But when they said it was no longer necessary, and that rinsing would use water unnecessarily (during the drought), I stopped rinsing and told everyone in the household to stop, too.

This situation can be reversed pretty easily, as people who recycle are already trying to be conscientious.

There is a lot of "greenwashing" going on in general -- people using the green movement to leverage moneymaking that isn't green. People use to claim high rises were more efficient, but actual studies found that building over a few stories is actually more wasteful. There are also life cycle costs. But SF, a supposedly green city, has allowed a huge amount of non-green building because a few parties made a lost of money and were able to convince everyone to set aside their concern for the environment over a housing "crisis". Nevermind that the building only actually made things more expensive, crowded, displaced residents (instability also not a very environmentally friendly thing for large numbers of people), reduced urban sunlight and greenspace, resulted in gridlock and more emissions, etc.

We've fallen into that trap in Palo Alto, too, and it's actually not just a local phenomenon, it's happening globally because of the distorted distribution of wealth and the fact that real estate is such a good investment for people who want to make more money. We are all so easily manipulated. The trouble is that the answer, better partnerships with governments in order to revitalize the many dying areas around the country, places that could allow us to multiply the number of desirable job centers and take the pressure off of existing ones -- that's good for the nation, national security, national political stability, good for the environment (cities concentrating people end up drawing resources from further and further away, and sending trash further and further away.)

Concentrating people has its own pull, so governments perhaps in partnership with companies, have to be willing to get involved, or you end up with the Hong Kong/Manhattan effect. In a nation as vast as ours, there is a lot of unnecessary human misery -- and negative environmental impacts. It's goes deeper than the carbon and pollution, it's also what happens to the sense of protection the environment by billions of people when most of them live in concrete jungles where their access to nature or even to the horizon and sunshine are considered nothing. People adapt to that and no longer really care about the environment. The single greatest motivator for me was hiking in the wilderness near my then home as a high school student, and learning to garden from my mother. But the droughts have killed my garden even as the local politicians cow to developers who want to build, build, build, and students even here where there is open space nearby, become more and more urban and live detached from the natural world. It's a lot harder for people to even understand environmentalism then.

People on the right have let politicians and moneyed interests destroy their core values -- Christianity is actually all about sacrificial love, caring for others especially the least among us, forgiveness, turning the other cheek, eschewing wealth for the spirit, etc, but you would never know that from what's happened because of a whole segment of Christianity allowing themselves to be co-opted by politicians (and figuratively and literally, worshiping the golden calf).

People on the left need to realize the same has been happening to them with environmentalism (which is even an irony that people on the right have allowed moneyed interests to get them to forget their responsibility to Creation - why is it that people who claim to believe in Creation are pushing hardest to destroy It? Isn't that what the Sabbath is after all, commemorating that God had to rest because of Creation? IMO, anyone who claims to be a good Jew or a good Christian, should be a good environmentalist. But we don't talk about environmentalism anymore, we wouldn't want to impede rapacious development because of our ever-proven-false vainglorious belief that it will produce affordable housing someday, nevermind all the displacements of existing residents and the way the increased demand and new building raises prices and the value of land, right?)

On both sides of the political spectrum, people have let moneyed interests lead them around by the nose, using their beliefs against them to get exactly the opposite result. And the distrust of We the People (the government we fought a revolution and two world wars for, the one 40% are now convinced they need to destroy from within rather than making it even better) has left us unable to create policies that would be better for our region, our nation, and the environment.

Posted by Compost Girl, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 11, 2019 at 9:17 am

So was Garbage Man correct? What is the answer to your question? You seem more interested in bickering with the haters than playing the game you started.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Feb 12, 2019 at 7:39 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Compost Girl -- Thanks for the ping. I was looking for suggestions that people can vote and advocate, or more generally influence public policy. Public policies like renewable power standards and emission standards are essential to lowering our emissions. And a number of the posts got at this. That said, I do want to encourage all suggestions and productive discussion, as I think it helps all of us better understand the issues around climate change.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Feb 12, 2019 at 10:45 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Resident -- I get the sense that the summary, now retracted, was not particularly well thought out. For example, it references "farting cows", and afaik that's not even a thing (it's the burps). The resolution itself is here, and is different in tone and substance. I expect proposals from both sides are works in progress.

That said, I'd love to hear what policies you think would be effective at mitigating the impacts of climate change, at the federal and/or city level.

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