Personal Challenge: Creating a More Sustainable Household

“This isn’t working for me and you need to move out … and let’s be honest … it’s not me, it’s just you.” You can imagine if the Earth could end its relationship with mankind over our treatment of it, it would. Fortunately for us, Earth doesn’t have this luxury, but what is unhealthy for the Earth is also unhealthy for us and our families. We are the ones who must fix the damage. Yet in October, the world’s scientists warned us that our current ambitions are not going to cut it. A passing grade would be a draw-down of carbon use by 2030; that means using a lot less than we use now. Keep in mind millions of people are beginning to reach in the middle class and rapidly increasing their use of fossil fuels too!

So if that sounds impossible right now, we must also consider the psychological barriers to taking action. A World Bank report on Climate Change Behavior explains that people only take seriously the problems they think they can address. Generally, the magnitude of climate change is so great that they give up once they get the picture. They don’t see how they can make a difference.  Yet the report also says that people will engage very difficult problems if they are part of a community of action. Collaborating in groups is a way to overcome the obstacle of action.

In this challenge series, I will enlist my family, as my group, into action with me. We will take four actions. The first is to drastically reduce our family’s meat consumption by shifting to a plant-rich diet, the second is to reduce our food waste through better planning, the third is to reduce our carbon footprint and fourth is to evaluate and reduce impulsive spending or over-consumption.

I chose these four for different reasons but ones based on effectiveness for household-based action.

No. 1 Eat Less Meat. This is the second most effective activity a family can undertake and the fourth most effective activity humanity can use to reduce GHG emissions. A change to a vegetarian diet can reduce business-as-usual emissions by 63%. Project Draw-down, the most substantially researched list of activities to reduce GHG, states:

If 50 percent of the world’s population restricts their diet to a healthy 2,500 calories per day and reduces meat consumption overall, we estimate at least 26.7 gigatons of emissions could be avoided from dietary change alone. If avoided deforestation from land use change is included, an additional 39.3 gigatons of emissions could be avoided, making healthy, plant-rich diets one of the most impactful solutions at a total of 66 gigatons reduced.

No. 2 Reduce Food Waste. This is the first most effective activity a family can undertake and third for humanity overall. The amount of energy, water, fertilizer and labor wasted on unused food has a significant GHG impact. Its a problem in both low and high-income countries. In low-income countries, this usually comes from spoilage in the supply chain and food left in the field. In high-income countries, it’s more intentional. It’s food rejected due to its appearance and supply chain nodes/consumers that buy too much (see how AI can help in Shobha’s blog). Project Drawdown states:

After taking into account the adoption of plant-rich diets, if 50 percent of food waste is reduced by 2050, avoided emissions could be equal to 26.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide. Reducing waste also avoids the deforestation for additional farmland, preventing 44.4 gigatons of additional emissions. We used forecasts of regional waste estimated from farm to household. This data shows that up to 35 percent of food in high-income economies is thrown out by consumers; in low-income economies, however, relatively little is wasted at the household level.

No. 3 Establish the Family Carbon Footprint. Why do this at all? Well, first Americans like to go big and I’m interested to understand how we compare to other families elsewhere. This study indicates that US households create five times more emissions than the world’s average. Secondly, it is to learn if there are any surprises or things I can do that I haven’t yet considered. Lastly, it will help us set goals to meet reductions. The calculator I’ve chosen is the UC Berkeley Calculator endorsed by the State of California. I have chosen this over federally available and NGO provided calculators because of its ease of use, academic grounding, and resulting recommendations.

No. 4 Identify Impulse Buying and Over-consumption. In my work, I spend between 25 and 30% of my time in developing countries. Over the last 12 years, this experience has truly underscored the differences between needs and wants. Often on arriving home after a long trip I am overwhelmed by the aggressive advertising and everyone’s seeming confusion of needs and wants. Yet even with this knowledge and awareness I still struggle. This country has mastered the art of convenience which frees me to do so much more…however it’s not balanced and an audit of my spending I believe will guide me to better-consuming habits.

So this is the plan! Check back often for updates and lessons learned along the way!