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How big is your carbon footprint?

Alot of factors have converged recently to draw attention to conservation. Al Gore's film about the dangers of global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth," came out last week. Some people are driving less because of rising gas prices. And many Americans are concerned about relying too much on foreign oil.

Are worries about our high use of energy -- specifically from fossil fuels -- justified? Absolutely, many scientists say. Burning fossil fuels for energy emits carbon dioxide, adding to the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. The warming of the Earth could have shattering effects: rising oceans, worsening tropical storms and falling agriculture production, leading to food shortages.

How to cut our reliance on fossil fuels is the source of vigorous debate among American policymakers. Some are looking for a way to make it more profitable for investors and private companies to tackle the problem. They would like government to provide incentives and take other steps to increase the use of cleaner energy sources.

Meantime, many people are voluntarily cutting their own use of fossil fuels out of concern for the environment. That's not easy, given our love for big houses, big cars and lots of air conditioning.

To show the effect of typical Triangle households on global warming, we found the "carbon footprint" of three local families, using a simple online calculator. Bottom line: Our everyday activities are putting tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, even when we have the best intentions.

THE CHRISTIES

THE FAMILY OF THREE GETS GOOD MARKS ON HOUSEHOLD ENERGY USE AND WASTE DISPOSAL

Deb and George Christie and their son, Nicholas, live in Orange County in a passive-solar house with an active solar water heater. Built a year ago, the home is designed to be environmentally friendly, well-insulated and energy-efficient, to cut down on the need for heating and cooling. Deb, 56, long dreamed of building such a home and is writing a book about the experience.

So it may come as a surprise that they had the largest carbon footprint of the three families whose energy use we calculated. Why? Partly because the calculator is based on national averages and does not account for custom, energy-saving features such as those in the Christies' home. But travel also was a big factor. George, 72, a Duke law professor, typically makes two long-distance airplane trips a year, and the family uses three cars. Fuel burned on car and airplane trips is a major contributor to carbon-dioxide emissions.

THE BOOKERS

THE FAMILY OF FOUR, LIKE MOST IN THE TRIANGLE, USES LOTS OF ENERGY DRIVING

Kenneth Booker, who works as a security officer at Rex Healthcare, moved from the auto industry town of Flint, Mich., and says that made him fairly conscious about the need to save energy. Also, his asthma makes Booker, 46, sensitive to the virtues of clean air.

Kenneth, his wife, Alicia, 37, and their children -- Lane, 2, and Nia, 4 months -- had the smallest carbon footprint of the three families. It helps that their Raleigh home has draft proofing, double-glazed windows and energy-efficient appliances, all of which cut down on carbon-dioxide emissions.

But as with the other families, the Bookers' vehicle travel means they send a lot of carbon dioxide into the air. So even with conservation efforts, the Bookers' activities emit 7.3 more tons of carbon dioxide than the average U.S. household's emissions of 20.4 tons per year.

THE THORSTADS

THE FAMILY LIMITS THE AIR CONDITIONING, BUT HOUSEHOLD ENERGY USE STILL HIGH

The Thorstads of Cary keep their thermostat low in the winter and don't turn on the air conditioning in the summer until the temperature climbs above 80. Having a heavily wooded yard helps limit the need for air conditioning.

Still, the family had a big carbon footprint. Their home does not have special energy-efficient features, such as draft proofing or double-glazed windows, which can reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. And 16-year-old twins Robert and David don't always switch off the lights when they leave a room.

With the boys going to piano lessons, tennis clinics and school activities, Sherri Thorstad, 44, spends a lot of time in the car. Her husband, Brian, 44, works at SAS, only a few miles from their home. When the boys get driver's licenses, the Thorstads plan to buy a third car for them to share, which may up their carbon output.

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