The Questionable Authority

Like my friend Henry, I’m overweight and trying not to be. He is, I think, a couple of “stone” heavier than I am. (Whatever the hell that means – you’d think that dealing in pounds and kilograms alone would be confusing enough for the British, but apparently there’s no such thing as excessive conversion confusion in the UK. But I digress.) Anyway, I’m currently 40 or so pounds past where I should be.

My personal weight loss “plan” (for lack of a better word) is not very diet-focused at the moment. I’m losing weight right now through the simple process of burning more calories than I consume. In other words, I’ve actually been exercising.

As some of you are probably aware, there comes a time during a good workout when death begins to feel less like a possibility and more like a desirable outcome. Whenever I reach that point, my thoughts tend to get just a little bit whimsical. I hit that point a couple of hours ago, when I was at about the 90% mark in my bike ride. As my legs began to remind me that a quarter-degree upgrade might not seem like much, it gets real old after a mile or so, my mind desperately tried to move me on to other topics. In this case, I started to wonder just how much carbon dioxide my weight loss plan was adding to the atmosphere, and how much of a favor overweight Americans really might be doing for everyone.

Let me explain.

When we think about things that lock up carbon dioxide, we usually think green – as in trees, and plants, and other types of vegetation. But we’re all carbon dioxide sinks, at least for the duration of our lives. We eat plants, and things that eat plants, and turn what we eat into us. All of the carbon in your body – and there’s lots of carbon in your body – was carbon dioxide in the atmosphere not all that long ago.

When we lose weight, our bodies use our mass to make energy and some byproducts, including carbon dioxide. We exhale the carbon dioxide, it goes back into the atmosphere, and back into the global carbon cycle. If we stay fat, there’s less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Eat more, help the planet. Sounds good to me.

Before we all go out and stage a run on McDonalds, it might be worth checking with reality.

I’m about 18 kg overweight, and the human body is about 23% carbon by weight. That means that my excess weight is currently storing all of about 4 kg (less than 10 pounds) of carbon. Even if every single American was as overweight as I am, and all 300 million of us lost all the weight this year, that would add a bit less than 1.5 megatons of carbon to the atmosphere. We release about 8 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere annually. That means that if every American lost all their excess weight this year, it would actually add much less than 0.1% to the total carbon output.

So, no, you’re not going to hurt the environment if you lose weight. Sorry.

Believe it or not, though, there was actually a reason I brought this up. Individually, each of us contains a negligible amount of excess carbon. Collectively, the pounds add up – one tenth of one percent of the annual carbon output might not be much on the global scale, but it’s still nothing to sneeze at. Something that’s individually miniscule, when multiplied over huge masses of people, can produce enormous effects.

Which brings us to the light bulbs. As you might know, we’re phasing out most incandescent lightbulbs over the next few years. They’ll be replaced with the compact fluorescent bulbs that many of you already use. Individually, each bulb uses a tiny amount of electricity, but together they really do add up.

Let’s assume, just for the sake of calculations, that the average American household burns the equivalent of 6 100-watt incandescent bulbs for five hours every day. That’s a guess, but I think it’s more likely to be low than high. If those bulbs are converted to fluorescents, they’ll use about 25% of the power, but produce the same light. That’s a difference of about 450 watts per hour. Over the course of the year, switching over will save about 820 kWhr.

The amount of carbon dioxide produced per kilowatt hour of electricity produced varies quite a bit, depending on the fuel burned. Based on the sources for US power, it looks like 0.6 kg/C/kWhr is a reasonable estimate. Using that, each American household to switch will add about half a ton less carbon to the atmosphere than they would have using incandescent bulbs. That’s not that much.

But there are about 110 million American households. Phasing out incandescent bulbs forces all of them to switch. That’s a savings of about 55 million tons of carbon annually. We’re currently emitting about 1.7 gigatons annually, so, assuming I haven’t borked up the maths somewhere, that’s about a 3% annual reduction in our emissions.

If enough people make little changes, big changes really can happen.

Comments

  1. #1 Markk
    May 24, 2009

    Don’t know if we are ahead of the curve up in the North, but We Energies (the big Power company in Wisconsin says the average household for them uses less than your 820 kWH per year total. So we must already be using mostly CF. Now that is average which means an elder apartment and a 5000 square foot McMansion count the same, and it doesn’t add in any industrial use.

  2. #2 oscarzoalaster
    May 24, 2009

    If you lose weight it will take less energy to haul you around in a car, and you will need to eat less food in order to haul your body that same distance on foot. Overall I think that the greenhouse gas advantages of losing weight outweigh the greenhouse gas disadvantages.

  3. #3 Hank Roberts
    May 24, 2009

    Yeah, but one thing’s been bugging me about the switch to fluorescents and white LED lights.

    Yes, it’s needed; yes, it’s important; but it also raises the need for blocking the blue light a few hours before sleep, before we bring these blue-emitting sources in wholesale.
    They’ve got a big spike right in the narrow range that controls the body clock — which has “a peak sensitivity at 484 nm (blue light)”
    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melatonin)

    Check the spectra of fluorescents against that:

    http://ledmuseum.home.att.net/spectra7.htm

    for a particularly outstanding example:
    http://ledmuseum.candlepower.us/seventh/n-vcfl1.gif

    Look into it. Don’t trust me, I’m just some guy on a blog.

    Turtle safe lights work for people too. You don’t need to be in the dark, you just need to omit the blue band to let yourself get ready to sleep. Dim old incandescents had hardly any of that; gaslights and fire about none of it.

    Plot sleeping pills against modern lighting and wonder.

  4. #4 I.P. Freeley
    May 25, 2009

    While you are not an impressive carbon sink, you’re sweating and breathing heavy while exercising and water vapor is a stronger greenhouse gas than CO2 :)

    Switching to CFLs will result in variable power savings. For those living in the far north, the power saving will be lost because they now need to use more power on heating. For those of us in hotter places, the savings double down because we don’t need to pump that waste heat out with an air conditioner.

  5. #5 Interrobang
    May 25, 2009

    People who use public transit (as I do) are also more likely to meet or exceed the appropriate physical-activity targets. So you can cut your carbon footprint and get fit too.

    Funnily enough, I’ve found that with my chronic pain, I only ever really feel good when I’m working out. I haven’t hit the “death begins to feel less like a possibility and more like a desirable outcome” thing in years. I don’t recommend having a disability, though. :)

  6. #6 Darlene Siddons
    May 25, 2009

    great information and blog…i have one more suggestion to go along with all of your great suggestions and that is vision map videos…they are simple easy and very effective…

    keep giving this great information the world needs to hear what you have to say…

    darlene
    http://visionmapvideo.blogspot.com/
    http://twitter.com/spiritdancing

  7. #7 natural cynic
    May 25, 2009

    …when I was at about the 90% mark in my bike ride. As my legs began to remind me that a quarter-degree upgrade might not seem like much, it gets real old after a mile or so…

    Tsk, tsk. You’re overreaching. Like most people starting out a program, you’re doing too much – like your route should have been 15% shorter. If you feel too lousy, then you’re less like;y to maintain your program. And shift down so you’re doing more rpm per mile – it will be easier, don’t try to grind it out.

    If you think that pedaling at the end is too hard, you might want to find one of these electric assist bikes and shift to a higher boost to get you home. And then you can also use the bike for everyday functions that you would use a car – cycling uses the least carbon of any mode of travel per mile.

    If you want guilt to motivate you, think of all the extra calories that were expended bringing all those excess calories to you so you could build your personal carbon sink.

  8. #8 Charlotte
    May 25, 2009

    Humans make pretty lousy carbon sinks – they only last ~70 years, and there’s a negative correlation between amount of carbon stored and the length of time it’s stored for.

    Of course, I’m assuming that the carbon gets released after death. Humans as renewable energy source, anyone? There must be a way to do that. Ick, this is getting macabre.

  9. #9 Eamon Knight
    May 25, 2009

    For those living in the far north, the power saving will be lost because they now need to use more power on heating.

    Not necessarily. Space heating using a high-efficiency natural gas furnace delivers ~90% of the thermal energy into the heated space. Electricity production from thermal sources is no more than ~40% efficient (limited by basic thermodynamics at the turbine), so using fossil fuels directly for space heating is always more energy efficient than using electrical heat (assuming a modern furnace).

    However, in terms of carbon output, you have to account for how much of the electricity comes from non-fossil sources such as hydro and nuclear, which depends on your local utility’s generation mix.

  10. #10 marktime
    May 25, 2009

    Soylent Green.

  11. #11 Eamon Knighte
    May 25, 2009

    Further to my previous comment, I present a short analysis of the question re CF vs. incandescent as it relates to space heating.

  12. #12 Halogenica
    May 26, 2009

    There have been (a few) real studies on Heat Replacement Effect, including one from Canada. I’ve linked to them on my site: http://greenerlights.blogspot.com/2009/03/3h-cfl-analysis-heat-replacement-effect.html

    CFLs also don’t save as much as claimed (see my site for details) and in my professional opinion as a former interior designer they still don’t give a good enough light to replace incandescent and halogen lamps in home environments.

    Since lighting is only about 3-5% of total domestic energy use, the realistically perhaps 50% of this which CFLs or LEDs save can easily be saved by other means than substituting top quality home lighting for poorer quality.

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    March 30, 2010

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