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The true costs of being carbon neutral

It’s admirable, but certainly not easy: Reducing your carbon footprint to 0 takes dedication. Here are a few ways you could do it, and how much it’s likely to cost (or save) you.

6 min read

With the Earth’s climate becoming increasingly unpredictable, you may already be wondering how to take action and improve your environmental impact. 

For years, the elusive concept of carbon neutrality has been a much talked-about standard when it comes to slowing the pace of climate change. However, with modern lifestyles generating so much carbon, knowing how to best reduce your footprint can be challenging.

In this article, we dive into the world of carbon neutrality, adjustments you can make to live a greener life, and how the pursuit of becoming carbon neutral can affect your bank balance.

What does being “carbon neutral” mean?

The amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere has increased by 50% in just 200 years. Because our society is reliant on fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal, carbon has become an unfortunate byproduct of modern living. Every time we take a flight, boil a kettle, charge our mobile phones, and even watch Netflix, greenhouse gasses — mostly carbon dioxide — are released into our atmosphere. These gasses absorb the heat from the sun and prevent it from escaping, which consequently heats up the Earth’s temperature.

Essentially, your carbon footprint is the sum of all the greenhouse emissions you produce during your lifetime. Current global estimates put the average carbon footprint at roughly 4.6 tons of carbon per person per year, but this figure varies dramatically depending on where and how you live. So, becoming carbon neutral is ultimately about attempting to offset all the carbon emissions you create in your day-to-day life.

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The cost of going carbon neutral

Becoming carbon neutral is admirable, but it’s also an ambitious goal. The reality is: Even if you live completely off the grid and eat sustainably from the land, you’d most likely still produce greenhouse gasses. Still, significantly reducing your carbon footprint can be a worthwhile endeavor. And depending on your approach, it could potentially impact your bank balance for the better. 

Reducing your electricity usage

One of the biggest contributors to your carbon footprint is your household electricity usage. In the U.S., 38% of household greenhouse gas emissions are produced from heating and cooling homes, and an additional 15% is created from heating water. Likewise, the average annual washing machine usage generates 51 kg of carbon, which would require 5.1 trees to offset, and watching 3.5 hours of Netflix a week creates a staggering 584 kg of carbon — it would take a whole 58.4 trees to offset that amount of carbon. 

So, by reducing your electricity usage, you can significantly reduce your carbon footprint — and your electricity bill. This could mean only heating occupied rooms, installing a thermostat, and canceling any unused subscriptions. If you have a bit of money to spare, you could also invest in some more expensive solutions to reduce your carbon emissions and your electricity bill in the long term, like better insulating your home or installing a cool roof or sustainable flooring. 

Rethinking your transportation choices

Transportation is responsible for roughly 20% of all global carbon emissions. From this total, road travel accounts for 75% of it, with flights contributing 11%. This means that 15% of all global carbon emissions are created by road travel and 2.5% are produced by aviation. This figure may be surprising, given how much focus is given to the carbon costs of flying in comparison to cars. 

The takeaway? One of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint is to find alternatives to driving. According to a 2017 study, going car-free for a year could reduce your carbon contribution by around 2.4 tons annually. Additionally, by switching from owning and driving a car, you can save some serious cash. By carpooling, some estimates put your savings at up to $1,100 a year, with the American Public Transportation Association estimating that switching to public transport can save individuals up to $9,515 a year. However, cutting unnecessary flights is also a smart idea. The average flight produces 250 kg of carbon per hour per passenger, which can add up quickly.   

Creating new eating habits

Food production generates 37% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Of these, 57% are produced by breeding and rearing livestock, compared to 29% emitted by plant-based food. So, if you’re looking for a diet that reduces your carbon footprint, switching to more plant-based foods is a good choice. Plus, since meat is generally more expensive than plant-based foods, it can also positively impact your bank account balance!

Beyond that, it’s worth knowing that farming different livestock creates different amounts of carbon. For example, beef generates more than double the amount of carbon per kilogram than lamb and over eight times more than pork and poultry. So, if you cut back on one meat, beef is the one to tackle.

Still, it’s essential to not just look at what you eat but how you eat. 6% of all global carbon emissions are attributed to food waste. That’s a large number — and with some thoughtful planning, it could be reduced. Again, not only will this lower your carbon emissions, but it will help you save on your weekly grocery shopping bill. By working out your meals ahead of time, taking stock of the groceries already in your fridge, and using up all your leftovers, the planet and your wallet will both thank you!

Investing in carbon offsetting initiatives

Even if you do all of the above and try hard to reduce your carbon footprint, it’s likely that you won’t be 100% carbon neutral. That’s why many carbon-neutral individuals are turning to carbon offsetting initiatives to bring their annual carbon emissions to net zero. The first step to offsetting is to use an online carbon calculator and get an estimate of your annual carbon usage. From there, you can browse through the hundreds of offsetting initiatives and decide how to offset your emissions. 

The cost of these initiatives varies significantly — from anywhere between $6 per kg to upwards of $1,200 per kg, depending on the methods of carbon extraction. Rather than jumping into the deep end and offsetting all their annual emissions at once, many people start by offsetting specific activities, such as a flight or their annual meat consumption, and building up from there.

Can individual actions really make a difference?

Committing to becoming carbon neutral can be challenging — and for some, it’s also a controversial subject. A mere 90 companies are responsible for 66% of all global carbon emissions. That leads many people to argue that it’s unfair and ineffective to place the responsibility for reducing carbon emissions on individuals. 

BP, the oil conglomerate, provides a perfect example of this. In 2005, they released a popular media campaign that introduced the world to the concept of the personal carbon footprint. By shifting the focus of responsibility from those in power to the everyday individual, the fossil fuel giant could continue creating colossal amounts of carbon.

One of the most powerful things we can do to help reduce global carbon emissions is to petition those in power to make widespread changes. This could mean voting for more environmentally-friendly policies, contributing to environmental causes, and becoming active in environmentally-conscious organizations. The goal to reduce the Earth’s carbon emissions is vitally important, and we’re not powerless — but we also can’t shoulder all of the responsibility alone.  

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