Getting off fossil fuels in three simple steps

Published Monday, August 20, 2012 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

Unfortunately, I’ve used a lie to get your attention.  In a world where it seems anything we might want to do can be accomplished in three simple steps, there are no ‘three simple steps’ to breaking our planet-heating addiction to fossil fuels.

However, if you are a fan of simplicity (as I am), here are three key principles to ponder.  Followed in order, they can serve as a guide to getting to a low – if not zero – carbon state.  And they can sure help you reduce your bills.

1. Use less of everything
It may sound like old news, but Reduce remains by far the most important of the three Rs.  It’s estimated that humanity consumes about 1.5 times what our planet produces each year.  If everyone lived like a Canadian, that figure would be 3.5 times what the planet produces. 

At the same time, our global population is still growing at the rate of another New Brunswick every three days and another Canada every six months.  Yet more people consuming yet more on a planet already under strain. 

So principle one is to reassess our consumption of just about everything, and strive to use less wherever possible.  The cost-benefit ratio is excellent: Reducing costs nothing and typically results in significant savings.

2. Then think efficiency
Once consumption has been reduced down to a realistic minimum, the next step is to practice efficiency.  That means wringing every last bit of benefit out of everything we consume – whether oil, electricity, paper or anything else. 

Practicing efficiency typically involves a bit of education, assessment and planning, often (but not always) followed by strategic investment in infrastructure and technology.  Some people are intimidated by the prospect of having to spend money, but well-planned efficiency measures pay back through great savings. 

3. Then think renewables and sustainability
Once consumption has been minimized and efficiency has been maximized, the final principle is to choose renewable and sustainable sources for all we use.  For some products, that’s easy; for others, it’s difficult.  As well, renewable and sustainable options sometimes come with a bit of a price premium, testing our green resolve.  (What three-step program is without hiccups?) 

Practical applications
Confused?  Here are a few examples to show how the three principles can be applied, in order, to everyday life:

  • Heating: 1. Put on a sweater and turn the thermostat down a few degrees; 2. Caulk, weatherstrip, insulate the attic and basement; 3. Install a clean, efficient wood stove
  • Lighting: 1. Turn off lights when not in use, don’t overlight an area; 2. Install efficient LED or CFL lights; 3. Buy green electricity (for example, from Bullfrog Power)
  • Laundry: 1. Wash clothes less often, use cold water, use a clothesline; 2. Buy a high-efficiency washer; 3. Use eco-friendly soap; buy green electricity
  • Driving: 1. Carpool, plan trips better and drive less; 2. Go gently on the gas (most drivers can save at least 10% on their gas bill this way); buy a more efficient vehicle, perhaps even a plug-in hybrid; 3. Use green power to charge that vehicle
  • Hot water use: 1. Take fewer, shorter showers; 2. Install a low flow shower head; 3. Install a solar hot water system
  • Air travel: 1. Strive for fewer trips and less distant destinations; 2. Travel light because less weight equals less jet fuel burned; 3. Buy a carbon offset for your travel

Clearly, it’s not always possible or practical to apply all three principles rigorously.  Usually the first is relatively easy; the second is medium; and the third is harder.  But two out of three ain’t bad, and even one out of three is a pretty good start.  (Remember, they’re best applied in order and the first – Reducing – typically yields huge results at no cost.) 

In today’s world, a zero-carbon existence is very tough to achieve, but three simple principles can take us a long way toward that goal.  Reduce; think efficiency; think renewables and sustainability.