My Family’s Footprint – Part II

In my last post I let you into our house – our kitchen and our wardrobes. In this post we’re talking about energy, and whether you’re powered by the sun, wind, fossil fuel or a combination of them all, it’s now easier than ever to measure the impact of your choices. 

Why is energy so important when we’re talking about climate change? Because every time we burn fossil fuels – whether driving a petrol-powered car or diesel truck, travelling by plane, burning gas for manufacturing or burning coal to create electricity, we create climate-changing greenhouse gases. The more of these gases we put into the atmosphere – by some measures humans are currently using the amount of 14,000 years of the sun’s stored energy every day – we  are increasing the total amount of energy in the system. And as these gases accumulate in the upper atmosphere they form an ever ‘thicker blanket’ that prevents the heat  that we receive from the sun from radiating back out into space, thus leading to a heating up of the planet. Measuring, then reducing your emissions seems like a great start to a better future.

Our household includes two adults and two boys, aged 12 and 15. We are renters and our house is a typical 1930s 3- bedroom weatherboard bungalow which is quite small for a family of four with teenagers. But as most of you will know, rents in Auckland are absolutely eye watering and as much as we would love to have a bigger house, we just can’t justify the cost of one. We are also very lucky that we have very reasonable landlords, who have taken the view that accomodating some of our requests and thus keeping us in the house benefits them, as they don’t have the hassle of having to look for new tenants every so often and we care for the house as if it was our own. More on the topic of renting as a choice of life in a future post (coming soon).

The roof and floors of our house are insulated and so is the south-facing side. We have two heat pumps to keep us warm in winter (we never use them in summer, as I never find it hot enough in NZ to justify the engergy use. We just open the windows on all sides and let the wind air out the house), and our water is also heated with electricity. Our average electricity use varies according to the season, but is generally 650 kWh in the warmer months and 950 kWh once winter arrives. In New Zealand electricity is actually a pretty clean source of energy. According to the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) about 80% of our electricity generation is from renewable sources such as hydro, wind and geothermal. This compares to about 20% in the USA, and in the UK the government expects only half the country’s electricity to be renewable by 2025. Whether or not your power company is committed to renewable energy sources is definitely a question worth asking, and you may be able to save money as well as emissions just by doing some research and making smart choices.

For many people, transport is their biggest emitter of CO2, so two years ago we made the decision to buy a hybrid electric car, when our two old previous cars had to be replaced. It was a bit of investment at the start, but it’s not only our emissions that have plummeted – so has the cost of moving around. 

Our Outlander Plug-in-Hybrid is not the perfect solution to climate change, but it has significantly reduced our petrol bill by 80% compared to our previous two petrol driven cars.

We live in Mt. Eden, a handy 4km from the central city. We all have bikes and use them as much as possible for work and school commuting. I also walk or cycle for short trips around the area to pick up or drop off things, and the kids generally do the same. 

Our kids have been encouraged to use their bikes to get to school, sports and to visit friends since their late primary school years. It was very rare for them to get driven to school, and even now they’re older at least one of them will have to catch a ride with a friend to weekend sports if they both have an away game. If it’s nearby, they’ll cycle, and this is just a normal part of their lives, not a special inconvenience that elicits moans and groans.  

My husband works from home, so his commute costs nothing in time, fuel or emissions! I cycle the 8 km to work unless I have something bulky to pick up or drop off, when I’ll take the car. Admittedly I’ll drive if there’s torrential rain, but that’s about safety as much as comfort. I guess averaged out over the year I’d ride to work 4.5 days out of five.

When we aren’t using our bikes or walking  we’ll be in our 2015 Mitsubishi Outlander Hybrid. It’s our only vehicle and the battery has about a 45km range. Fortunately about 90% of our car journeys are under 45km in and around Auckland so we very rarely have to use petrol. Once a month we might head to the beach or some other expedition that wipes out the battery and makes the petrol engine spark up, but it’s definitely not an everyday thing. I acknowledge that fully electric cars are still a bit of a challenge in New Zealand as the charging infrastructure is definitely not built out enough, so the thought of taking an electric car outside of Auckland would certainly be cause for range-anxiety. But a hybrid in my view is an excellent compromise in the meantime.

We go away on a Kiwi holiday three or four times a year, including one or two snowboarding trips to Mt. Ruapehu each winter. We usually go for a week and while going up the mountain always exhausts the range of the battery, we charge the car up each night so we get at least half the trip on battery power. We also head up to the far North once a year to see my husband’s family, but even with this trip our annual petrol bill is only about $600 compared to previously around $3000, making a hybrid a great option if you can afford the investment at the start. With the price of EVs dropping each year it’s becoming a more appealing option for both environmental and economic benefits, and because of our largely renewable electricity generation, EVs are an even better option in New Zealand than in many other countries. 

Reducing our emissions from transport has proved pretty easy when it comes to local travel, but what about flying? Admittedly this is where my great green accolades start looking less so.

We hardly ever fly anywhere domestically, in fact I don’t think the kids have ever flown within New Zealand. We were due to enjoy our first ever flight to Queenstown recently but lockdown made soup of that. In the last 10 years I’ve flown once to a conference in Christchurch and my husband went to visit friends in Wellington. However having my roots in Germany means we do fly home to see my family every second year or so. Generally it’s just me – my husband has only come with us a couple of times in the last 11 years and the kids just three times. My husband and I also went on holiday to India last year, our only “proper” holiday in the last decade and at the same time my Dad took the kids to Fiji. On my last flight to Germany in 2019 and our trip to India early last year we bought carbon offsets to help reduce the impact of our emissions. If you really have to, or want to fly, buying carbon offsets is worth looking at. They aren’t the solution to all our problems by a far cry, but until we can come up with a better one for air travel I feel it’s better than doing nothing.

Food, waste, travel and transport – I’ve shared with you the details of my family’s life. Our energy in, energy out and some of the things we try to do to make our impact on the planet a bit smaller. What happens when you plug all of that into an emissions calculator?

I’ve been using two different calculators to measure our household’s carbon footprint. The first is Landcare Research’s Toitū Household Emissions Calculator, a free online tool that captures electricity use, transport and household waste then estimates CO2 emissions in kilograms. Just click on the green bars and it will give you a drop down menu to put in your own data. You’re measured against the average, so you can see how you stack up against the team of 5 million. Admittedly this is quite crude and it does not take into account a lot of the measures, we as a family take, i.e. buying local food without packaging at the farmers market. Once you’ve done your first measurement there are lots of parameters you can play with to see where you can make the most difference. A hybrid vehicle or solar on the roof – what’s the best bang for your buck?

This is what the calculator spat out for my family without the international flight to Germany. If I ad that flight in, our carbon expense for travel ends up way above average.

The second calculator I’ve been using is, provided by Auckland Council. In this family-friendly calculator you’ll see clearly how to take tangible steps to reduce your footprint – I’ve had lots of fun with this one! It works through categories like power, food, living and the biggie, transport. Each category is colour-coded, and again, you can play with the numbers to see where you can make the biggest difference. To help put things in perspective the New Zealand carbon footprint figure is 6.0 tCO2 per capita and for the OECD, it’s 9.8 tCO2, so I’m pretty happy with our 3.366t (Toitu) or 3.7t (Future respectively . 

Compared to the rest of the country and the rest of the world, as a family we’re doing ok, but we can always do more. The long-haul flights are our biggest problem, and unless I decide to not care about seeing my family in Germany anymore, I don’t know what to do about them other than buying carbon off-sets for now. Playing with calculators is an easy way to see where your efforts can have the most impact, and that’s sure to be a comforting thought as you’re cycling to work, enjoying a meat-free Monday or shopping locally at your farmers’ market. 

There are lots of ways you can reduce your carbon footprint. The best time to start is right now and the best place to start is the beginning – measure your impact, work out the things you can do today and plan for the things you’ll do tomorrow. Happy calculating!

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