Looking for no carbon man
One family's quest for a net-zero life
By: Kevin Ma
| Posted: Wednesday, Feb 01, 2012 06:00 am
Conrad Nobert sets out for work as he does most days of the week — on his bike in the cold and snow.
“For me, almost no weather stops me,” he says, as he pushes his bike into the snow-covered front yard. What stops him is fresh snow. “It’s like riding on a beach.”
Nobert, an instructor at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and Edmonton resident, is by most accounts one of the few Albertans who is even remotely close to living a net-zero life.
He and his wife, Rechel Amores started down the road to net-zero about 15 years ago by eating less meat and using energy efficient lights.
“We’d make a change and discover, hey, life is still pretty good.”
They ditched their car four years ago and soon after moved into their Edmonton Mill Creek net-zero home — an ordinary looking house with extraordinarily low carbon emissions. They’ve probably eliminated about 80 per cent or more of their greenhouse gas emissions as a result and are working on the rest.
Like myself, Nobert says it was the science of climate change that convinced him to make a change in his life.
About 97 per cent of active climate researchers are convinced that human activity, specifically the emission of greenhouse gases, is a significant contributing factor to global warming, according to numerous peer-reviewed studies cited by skepticalscience.com. Governments are now struggling to reduce those emissions, proposing various reduction targets they say will keep the world below two degrees of warming, as anything more than that is thought to be disastrous.
But in the science of climate change, there’s only one target that matters: zero emissions.
Experiments by climate modellers such as Canada’s Andrew Weaver show that the world will still eventually warm by more than two degrees even if we eliminate 90 per cent of our net emissions by 2050. As he explains in Keeping Our Cool, the world is warming because we are emitting greenhouse gases faster than the planet can reabsorb them. As long as we have net emissions, in other words, we will have net warming.
“Stabilizing of global warming at some temperature … requires every [emissions] pathway eventually to arrive at zero emissions,” he concludes. If I want to help prevent dangerous warming, in other words, I should aim for zero emissions.
Where to start
The average Canadian emits about 20.5 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year, according to Environment Canada. If I want to live a net-zero life, I’ll have to prevent or offset that many emissions each year.
I could do so today by writing a cheque. According to the emissions-offset aggregator planetair.ca, I could spend $715.45 to pay someone else to reduce their emissions by 20.5 tonnes, bringing me to net-zero instantly.
But that would require more money than sense, as I’d have to buy those offsets every year for the rest of my life. Experts like Godo Stoyke, former St. Albert resident and head of the energy efficiency consultancy Carbon Busters, tell me that I should focus on energy efficiency first — that way, I could actually get money back for reducing my emissions.
Heat and power
About 42 per cent of St. Albert’s emissions come from electricity, according to the city’s greenhouse gas inventory report. It’s my single biggest emission source, in other words, and should be my first target for reduction.
Step one is efficiency, Stoyke says. Replacing 20 out of 25 incandescent lights in my home with compact fluorescents would prevent about two tonnes of emissions over five years and save me $350, for example.
Nobert has already done this — every light in his home is either a compact fluorescent or LED bulb. He’s also taken step two by switching to renewable electricity. The 32 photoelectric panels on the side of his house provide almost all his electricity over the course of a year.
I don’t have solar panels, but I do have wind power. By paying an extra $15 a month for wind power, I’ve eliminated my household electricity emissions and gotten 12 tonnes closer to net-zero.
Natural gas heating accounts for 26 per cent of the average St. Albert resident’s emissions, according to the city. According to planetair.ca, my home produces about 6.5 tonnes of emissions a year from heat.
Nobert’s home has super-insulated walls that are 16-inches thick — more than twice as thick as mine. Huge triple-pane windows and heavy concrete floors let the house get virtually all its heat from the sun — they have electric heaters and a wood fireplace if they need more.
These features, plus a host of others meant to get the house to net-zero, added about 10 per cent ($50,000) to its cost, Nobert says. Sounds like a lot, but it also means they pay almost nothing for natural gas or electricity. “Our bills are virtually zero.”
I don’t have that money handy, but I could afford some of the other heat-saving devices I spot in Nobert’s basement. The boxy heat-recovery ventilator in the corner, Leigh Bond of St. Albert’s Threshold Energies Corp. says, costs about $3,270 and would knock 20 per cent off my heating bill, paying for itself in 18 months.
Transportation accounts for about 32 per cent of the average St. Albertan’s emissions, according to the city’s emission inventory report.
Since they bike, walk or bus everywhere, Nobert’s family has pretty much eliminated its transport emissions. Not owning a car saves them about $7,800 a year, Nobert notes, citing stats from the Canadian Automobile Association, and gives him a free workout every day.
I’m not ready to ditch my car yet, but I do drive a Honda Civic hybrid, which uses about 37-per-cent less fuel annually than its regular equivalent and I save about $546 a year in gas. According to planetair.ca, that leaves me with about a tonne of transportation emissions to eliminate.
I could do so with an electric car charged with wind power like the Chevy Volt. It costs about $41,500, Stoyke says, and can go up to 80 kilometres on a single charge.
“For 80 per cent of North Americans,” he points out, “that’s all you drive during a [typical] day.”
It also has a gas engine for longer trips.
One area that I haven’t touched yet is food. Due to the chemicals and transportation involved, Stoyke says, it takes about 10 units of fossil fuel energy to produce a single unit of food in North America.
Nobert’s family has done a lot in this area. “We eat quite low on the food chain,” Nobert says, sticking to fruits and vegetables instead of meat. It takes about four times as much energy to make a pound of meat than a pound of grain, notes energy researcher Michael Webber.
They also grow their own vegetables.
“There’s not a cleaner, more environmentally friendly way to eat than your own garden food.”
Their cold room downstairs is piled high with carrots, potatoes and preserves. “I can’t wait to crack these open,” he says of a jar of canned tomatoes.
They’re still not totally net-zero, Nobert notes. It took a lot of emissions to make the concrete in their house, for example, and they still eat emissions-heavy fish.
But they’ve already reaped huge benefits from their efforts: going low carbon saves them so much money that they can afford to work just three days a week.
“I don’t think people believe us when we tell them,” Nobert says, “but you can have a happy, rich life and have 80-per-cent less impact on the world.”
They have a warm, beautiful house, and two kids who rock out on the violin and ukulele.
“We’re not walking around holding our breath sacrificing. Life is great.”