Reducing Refrigeration

At the start of this project I used the Australian Greenhouse Calculator provided by the EPA to assess our emissions. Each category benchmarks your energy usage against that of a comparable Australian household. We scored well in some areas, but on refrigeration we did badly:

Category Our Calculated Emissions Typical Household’s Emissions Green Household’s Emissions
Refrigeration 2.226 1.24 0.449

The reason we did so badly on this category is due to the fridge in our garage; it’s very old and very inefficient. We got it when we had additional people living in the house, and over time we became used to having it there. It was very convenient to be able to put meals in a second fridge instead of making space in our kitchen fridge or hiding indulgent treats from the children in a freezer that they can’t reach.

Even though we switched to 100% green electricity, and as a result our power company has to supply at least as much green energy to the grid as we use, ignoring high electricity usage areas is the wrong approach for our project. If we can draw less electricity from the grid then it will mean more green energy is available to everyone else who is still on a default plan.

The solution to this problem was obvious: turn off the damn fridge.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t as quick as it sounds; there was a lot of stuff in that fridge. We needed to change the way we approached food shopping and storage. The following steps helped us transition from two fridges back down to one:

  • We composted any food items that were past their use by date.
  • We repackaged bulky, awkward things into containers that were easier to stack neatly into smaller spaces.
  • We moved all of the frozen meals that people weren’t keen on eating to the top of the pile in the freezer, which made them much harder to ignore than when they were down the bottom.
  • We finally cooked with those infrequent ingredients that were taking up a lot of space.
  • I sacrificed myself and finished off the half eaten tubs of ice cream. It was a burden, but I did it for the good of the planet. You can thank me later.
  • We changed where we stored things. Some items were moved from the fridge to the freezer, and others were moved in the other direction, which meant we were able to reduce a lot of cooking time and energy freezing and thawing food.

I’m pleased to report that the second fridge is now empty and turned off. Since we only have one fridge, and I know that it is rated at 388 kWh per year, I can use the formula at Cool Australia to work out that we are have reduced our emissions from 2.226 metric tonnes per year to just 0.454 metric tonnes. That’s a saving of 1.772 metric tonnes, and a reduction of nearly 7% of our family’s total estimated emissions.

If you’re playing along at home…

…do you have a second fridge that you could turn off, or an inefficient model that could be replaced with an energy efficient one? There are a few charities and non-profit groups who are waiting to take your old fridge and give it a new, environmentally friendlier life. Please share in the comments below what you’ve done to reduce the energy you use for refrigeration and freezing.

Plant A Fruit Tree

One of the most obvious ways to offset our carbon emissions is to plant a tree; this is the basis of many of Australia’s carbon offset programs. When I think of planting trees, my imagination immediately goes to towering forest specimens that will live for hundreds of years. There is no denying the beauty of these majestic trees, just as there is no denying that our suburban backyard simply doesn’t have the room to plant something that will grow to be 75m tall.

We wanted to plant some trees in our garden, and our emissions calculator revealed that we were generating a surprising amount of pollution through how far our food travels to reach our plates. These two needs combined to provide an obvious solution: fruit trees.

I packed the kids into the car and we went to the nearest Bunnings. They had a modest selection of fruit trees, so we went a bit mad picking out a selection. We settled on a lime, two oranges, an apple, a pear, an apricot, a cherry with two grafted varieties and quite a few smaller fruiting bushes. The total spend came to just over $360, and incredibly I managed to get everything into the car without having to leave either of the children at the store.

Trees on the passenger seat of my car.
Getting this many trees into the car at once only worked because they were bare rooted.

At home we began the lengthy process of arguing passionately about where each tree should go. The lime went into the front yard so that our neighbours can steal as many limes as they like. The oranges were planted beside our deck to provide a visual balance and shade from the afternoon sun. The apricot will provide shade and privacy for our bedroom window, and the rest of the trees will eventually convert our open back yard into a shaded place for the children to play.

Even though we are very active in our garden, for the first time our plantings give it a sense of permanence. It will take years for these trees to reach their full height and fruiting potential but, when they do, they’ll more than pay for the purchase cost in fresh, delicious fruits that didn’t have to travel across the country – or the world – to reach us.

If you’re playing along at home…

Do you have space in your garden to plant a fruiting tree or bush? Many varieties do well in large pots, so renters don’t have to make a donation to their landlord’s property. If you are growing something, please share in the comments what you planted and if you think it was a good decision.

Switching to Green Electricity

One of the fastest and easiest ways that we can reduce our emissions is by being aware of the electricity that we use and where it comes from. As a nation, Australia is heavily reliant on fossil fuels for electricity, which provided 83.7% of our electricity in 2016 compared to renewable sources at 16.3%. We live in Victoria, which isn’t exactly dazzling in converting to renewable energy; in 2016 only 16% of the state’s energy came from renewable sources. The state government has committed to increasing renewables to 25% by 2020 and 40% by 2025 but, even if those targets are met, a lot of our electricity will still be coming from fossil fuels.

Even though the state grid has a limited amount of renewable energy being supplied to it, as a consumer we still have a degree of choice about how our power is produced. Electricity companies offer two types of electricity plans: green and default. The default plan that most homes sign up for allows the company to produce electricity from whatever source takes their fancy. The green plans require the company to produce a certain amount of your electricity from renewable sources. I’ve seen green plans range from 10% renewable all the way to 100% renewable.

Switching to a green energy plan can seem a bit superficial; the electricity that we actually use in our home is pooled, so just because we might pay for a green energy plan doesn’t mean that the specific electricity used in our home is green. The important thing here is the symbolism; companies like to follow dollars, and your dollars can speak louder than emails and phone calls will.

Finding a new electricity provider can involve a lot of research and ridiculous comparison websites. If you’re interested in shopping around, there’s a comparison page at the Green Electricity Guide that lists a lot of retailers I’ve never heard of before and a bit of information about their environmental credentials. It looks fancy and informative, but I’ve got a bit of a headache and I can’t be bothered, so I decided to just call our current company and switch with them. I signed up for a 100% green electricity plan, which took me 17 minutes on the phone, and I managed to negotiate a pay on time discount that fully offsets the slight increase in cost. Winning!

If you’re playing along at home…

If you aren’t already on a 100% green electricity plan, now is a great time to switch. With more and more companies realising the importance of offering green power to their customers, you might be able to save some money as well as the environment. Please share in the comments how much carbon you’ve been able to save and what sort of impact it had on your bill.

What Are Our Starting Emissions?

It’s one thing to say that we want to become a carbon negative family, but quite another to actually achieve that goal. The carbon that our activities release into the environment is invisible and typically occurs far away from our home and our consciousness. When I’m standing in the supermarket looking at two products that appear to be interchangeable, but are produced by different companies in different packaging, I have no idea how I am supposed to know which one is environmentally more responsible. I don’t think about the way our energy is produced when I turn on the television so the kids will leave me alone for twenty minutes. How bad can it really be?

Australian Emissions

Since we live in Australia, it’s worth looking at average Australian Emissions as a starting point. Environmental awareness seems to be everywhere these days. People are switching from the old halogen light bulbs to more efficient alternatives, and solar panels seem to be springing up on roof tops everywhere. There has been a big push for better insulation in homes, people commute with public transport, and supermarkets have begun to get rid of single use plastic bags. Sure, our new prime minister once walked into parliament with a lump of coal that was supposedly our salvation but, that inexplicable moment aside, as a nation we must be rocking it. Right?

Well, it turns out that we aren’t rocking it at all when it comes to our emissions. In December 2017, the ABC reported that our emissions rose for the third consecutive year. Even though our per capita emissions are now at their lowest level in 28 years, we are still producing 1.3% of global emissions. Given that we have a national population of approximately 25 million people in a global population of around 7.5 billion people, that’s not great. To save on mathematics, according to the World Bank, Australians produced 15.4 metric tons per capita in 2014. It’s easy to try the developed country argument but, according to the same source, the Euro area only produced 6.5 metric tons per capita and the world average was 5.0. That means we produce more than twice the emissions of some other developed countries, and more than triple the rest of the world.

Ouch.

Our Emissions

There are four of us, so the World Bank’s calculations mean that we are contributing 61.6 metric tons of carbon emissions as a family. That number is staggering and difficult to comprehend. I want to insist that we can’t be so bad as a family, that we’re sensible and practical people who are surely under the average, but denial rarely leads to solving problems. It’s possible that we’re under the average, and just as possible that we’re over it. We need to know.

I decided to use the Australian Greenhouse Calculator provided by the EPA to assess our emissions. Each category provides a quick and a detailed level and benchmarks your energy usage against that of a comparable Australian household. Switching to the detailed level gave us sometimes dramatically different results, which were as follows:

Category Our Calculated Emissions Typical Household’s Emissions Green Household’s Emissions
Transport 3.708 7.303 2.766
Air Travel 1.221* 1.427 0.357
Heating and Cooling 0.456 2.07 0.843
Hot Water 0.671 4.841 0.881
Clothes Dryer 0.0 0.258 0.084
Lighting 0.306 1.109 0.424
Refrigeration 2.226 1.24 0.449
Cooking 0.841 0.858 0.621
Other Appliances 3.428 2.052 0.508
Food and Shopping 12.772 12.359 8.27
Waste -0.023 -0.024 -0.05
Total 25.606 33.493 15.153

*For flights, we typically alternate domestic and international flights each year. To calculate this, I put in the holidays for two years and then divided by two.

At the start of the calculator I felt pretty happy about how much we were under a typical household on some of the categories. Heating and cooling? Nice. Clothes dryer? Boom. Then I arrived at some of the later categories and the smugness quickly wore off. Since there are four of us in the family, this calculator gives us each an annual emissions rate of 6.4015 tonnes per person. We might be doing well in some areas, but we obviously have a lot of behaviours that need to be worked on, and quickly.

If you’re playing along at home…

…then find an emissions calculator tailored to your geographic area and find out how well your family rates. Are you doing better or worse than we are? Were you surprised by how well or how poorly you were doing in some areas? Please share your starting point in the comments below.