Carbon Counting and Me

Sitting at our dining room table in the dim light of November’s mid-day, listening to the gentle patter of rain on the skylights, my partner and I contemplated flying to Mexico for the winter holidays.

In the past, we had no compunction about a warm winter holiday. We feel light deprivation keenly: a dark, damp claustrophobia takes the colour right out of the world. Snorkeling and bodysurfing in Hawaii and windsurfing in Aruba have been our very tasty medicine. Our bodies become reacquainted with the sun as warm waves toss us about, happily squinting, bedazzled. We return home with ample solar energy to make it through to the northern summer.

This year, we considered a beach town south of Puerto Vallerta. Our spirits lifted at the thought of sunshine, ocean waves, fresh baked tortillas, fresh lime Margaritas and brushing up on Spanish.

But our awareness of climate change has been gradually sinking in, deeper each year. Now, we see the effects of warming and weather destabilization. Summer droughts are lasting longer. Crazy wind storms knock over a startling number of trees in the forest. Huge chunks of earth fall from water front banks into the sea, removed by winter’s big storms and high tides.

But how do we integrate our increasing awareness into how we live?

Carbon offsets present one solution. Last year, I was thrilled when my partner offset our family’s emission for the year in honour of my birthday. By donating a mere $250 to the Solar Electric Light Fund, we offset a year’s worth of carbon emissions by helping replace kerosene lamps with cleaner solar electricity.

The pie chart my partner made as part of the gift showed that our family was responsible for 22.6 tonnes of green house gas emissions. Of this, 4.2 tonnes were from our vehicles. 1.2 tonnes were from hydroelectricity use at home. 15 tonnes were industrial support –the transportation of the goods we bought, and the embodied energy of those goods. Garbage disposal accounted for .2 tonnes. Because these emissions accumulated over a full year, the amounts made sense to me. But one slice of the pie was entirely disproportionate: a trip for our family of three to visit our folks in California created 2 tonnes of emissions – more than heating our house and using appliances for a whole year, and half of what we emitted by driving our vehicles for a whole year. All for a week long trip!

This brought home to me what I had read: air travel blows the carbon budget. Talk about bad news! Even the memory of body surfing in the dazzling surf and sun of Hawaii uplifts me. Must I sacrifice my joie de vive for the good of the planet? Are carbon offsets really the solution? Or are they a shell game? After all, how can we “trade” emissions for carbon savings that we really should be supporting no matter what, if we truly care that our children get to live in a stable world?

In the end we didn’t actually decide not to go to Mexico that day. It was more that the reasons to go didn’t amount to enough to let us feel that we could look our (imaginary) grandchild in the eye and say we did our best, or even anything at all. Maybe we’ll go another time when we can create more benefit from it: travel by land, stay longer, spend time in the culture instead of being tourists and learn more Spanish, in addition to playing in the surf and sun and drinking fresh lime Margaritas.

But what about the joie de vive? Over the years I’m getting better at building small adventures into my life, cheap local thrills. Storm walks, night kayaks, and fast downhill bike rides give me the tastes of wildness I crave. To be sure, they take more personal effort than being dumped near a beach by an airplane. And they add up to something different. But they satisfy, and I’m relieved to be responsible for less carbon in the atmosphere. That is a burden that I’m increasingly less willing to shoulder.

Regarding light, my strategy is to methodically gather all the little bits I can find locally. I spend time outside during the mid-day hours. When there is sunshine, I bask in it, and follow it to bask some more. I spend time near or on the water to enjoy the brightness of reflected light. I stare into the wood stove flames. Even when it’s raining, being outside (in my nice rain suit!) makes me happy, like I’ve discovered a treasure that has been under my nose for years.

Just as I made it past the huge Mexico temptation, my mom asked to me to join her in California in January for her 80th birthday, a much harder call. On the one hand, my increasing awareness of greenhouse gases has depleted my appetite for the scenario of “let’s get together somewhere far away for a weekend.” Besides, I’ll see her at Christmas up here. On the other hand, it’s my mother’s 80th birthday!

So I’m lining up features to make the trip as rich as I can. If I take a few days off work, my son and I can take the train down, a small adventure which produces 1/3 the emissions of air travel. We can meet up with my partner, who will be visiting his sick mother. If we stay longer, our son can visit all his grandparents. In sum, we’ll go slower and spend more time with more relatives. And then we’ll buy the carbon offsets.
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