Six months ago we gave up our car in order to reduce The Rubbish Trip’s transport emissions footprint. We’ve since started logging all our transport into Catalyst’s free ACE Carbon Calculator to calculate our transport emissions. We’ve created a handy infographic (below) as our first 6-monthly report-back.
We really regret that we didn’t do this from the beginning of The Rubbish Trip, but such is life. In those first 15 months we still only used our car to get between main centres, while cycling, walking and using public transport the rest of the time. And we’ve never gotten a flight. However, beyond that we can’t tell you what our transport footprint was.
Our inability to account for our first 15 months of transport emissions spurred us to start systematically logging and calculating our transport emissions. We recognise the world is in a state of climate emergency and that we all must start reducing carbon emissions and living within a climate budget, urgently. However, we can’t manage what we don’t measure.
By taking the time to start measuring our emissions, we’re trying to set an example for other NGOs, businesses and households to follow – there’s really no reason why we can’t all be using a carbon calculator to do some carbon accounting! We are the most non-numbers people ever. For us, filing a tax return feels akin to slowly unravelling into a pile of discombobulated yarn. So, if we can manage calculating our emissions, probably anyone can (although, we hasten to add that we’ve probably calculated half of this 6-monthly report wrong, haha. We’re sure cleverer numbers people can let us know if we’ve made egregious boo-boos).
What we have learnt from our first 6-monthly transport footprint
Measuring our transport emissions has been very valuable, revealing to us the following things:
- With our transport alone we’re currently on track to emit 1.8 tCO2e over the year, which is 75% of the annual carbon budget for two people (if you go by the IPCC’s 2018 global carbon budget for keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees celcius). Transport is only one of many things we do on a daily basis with a carbon impact (like eating, using computers and the internet, using electricity, and so on). So, we still need to do more to reduce transport’s overall share of our emissions footprint.
- Our no-fly rule is worth it. We would have emitted 2 tCO2e from flights alone if we’d flown on the occasions where we travelled particularly long distances over a day or two (with a travel schedule looking like this: 2x one-way WGN to Blenheim; 2 x return CHCH to Wanaka; 2x one-way CHCH to WGN; 2x return WGN to ALD; 2x return WGN to ALD; 2 x one-way WGN to Nelson; 2 x one-way Nelson to CHCH; 2 x one-way CHCH to WGN).
- Not having a car has reduced our transport emissions. This is true even after taking into account instances where we produced extra emissions as a result of not having a car, i.e. getting rides that weren’t going anyway in cars with engines bigger than our car had.
- Having said that, car rides “not going anyway” made up the biggest share of our transport footprint. This is useful to know as it’s something we can work on. For example, we can get better at turning down rides to and from places unless we are actually stuck.
- Bus rides make up the second-largest share of our transport footprint. What can we do about this?
- If NZ’s long distance rail network were electrified rather than diesel, it’d be a no-brainer to take the financial hit and get trains more. Measuring our emissions shows quite clearly what many sustainable transport experts have been saying for donkey’s years – if New Zealand had a better passenger rail network for long haul travel (ideally electrified), this would help many of us reduce our emissions further. Going forward, we’re unsure if it’s more efficient for us to take one of NZ’s diesel-powered long haul trains on occasions where this fits our travel itinerary (for example, between Wellington and Palmy, Auckland and Wellington, or Christchurch and Picton – these are all routes we do regularly) or to take the bus. Does anyone know? Unfortunately, we can’t tell by putting the distances into the ACE Carbon Calculator because for buses and trains this calculator does not use NZ-specific emissions factors… argh!
- We could be more disciplined about hitch-hiking in cars “making the trip anyway”, rather than gravitating towards buses all the time. Having said that, we haven’t calculated the emissions impact of hitchhiking because the emissions factors for cars focus on the car as a whole (fuel usage) rather than passenger kms. Does anyone know whether it’s worth us calculating the energy impact of our extra weight in a car that’s travelling already, and if there are reliable calculators that use passenger kms for cars’ emission factors?
- Our emissions fluctuate between months, indicating that we could schedule events more thoughtfully to reduce our impact. The graph below is from the ACE Carbon Calculator, so overstates the impact of our long-distance bus trips (see below). Nevertheless, the general trend is still useful. Clearly, November saw the steepest hike. Looking back, we started the month in Central Otago doing a series of festivals we had been invited down for, and then ended in Wellington, but in between we made a return bus trip between Wellington and Auckland in order to attend the Sustainable Business Network Awards. Obviously, our footprint would have been much greater over this month had we chosen to fly, but even so, looking at the impact of this month on our emissions profile, we need to be more mindful about moving around such vast distances in such short bursts of time. We have most of 2019 scheduled already, but there’s still stuff we can do, and going forward we will consciously avoid massive leaps back and forth across the country.
The final thing we want to note is that NZ-specific carbon calculators for transport are unsatisfactory. Economist Paul Callister already noted this in a post he penned in 2016. Three years on, our observation is that although user-friendly NZ calculators now exist, the presumptions underlying the calculations need improvement:
- We mostly use the ACE Carbon Calculator. However, the emissions factors this calculator uses for our primary forms of transport (boats, buses and trains) are borrowed from overseas, so they’re not NZ-specific. This is because the ACE Calculator uses emissions factors developed by the Ministry for the Environment, and the Ministry has only produced emissions factors for planes and cars. We find it frustrating that the neglected emissions factors are precisely those associated with the modes of transport that ideally more of us should be using. If we want to encourage a shift away from planes and cars, we need to be able to measure accurately the relative benefit of the alternative modes of transport available to us in New Zealand.
- We used Enviro-mark‘s calculator for long-distance bus rides. This is because the emissions factor of the ACE Carbon Calculator is for local city buses rather than long-distance coaches, so it greatly overstated our impact (long-distance coaches usually have a lower rate of tCO2e per passenger km because average occupancy is higher). Ideally, we’d like to use one calculator for everything. We’ve written to Catalyst to suggest they improve the emissions factors they use for buses, trains and ferries, but have not heard back.
Putting aside that we’ve probably made calculation errors and that the carbon calculators we use don’t have perfect emissions factors for the kind of transport we rely on, this exercise has shown us that it doesn’t matter how well you think you are doing to reduce your carbon footprint, you still need to make actual calculations to back those thoughts up.
By recording our transport and then measuring the emissions, we can see that our decision to go car-free has made a difference, and that the hard slog of getting buses rather than flying around is also worth it. It’s good to know this, for our morale, ha! By the same token though, making these measurements and doing breakdowns of where our emissions come from allows us to see that there’s more we can do and to identify the specific areas that we should focus on improving. We’re up for the challenge!
Measuring emissions is also important because unless we can see what makes a difference and what doesn’t, the average human isn’t motivated to make the effort. It’s our theory that people get much more passionate and excited about waste reduction than they do about climate change because waste is something tangible and visible. Not only can you see the negative impact of waste, which is a propeller for change, but when you DO make changes to reduce waste, you have something to show for it on rubbish collection day – smaller bin bags, less mess, etc. In contrast, reducing one’s carbon footprint is much more ethereal to most people…
Carbon budgeting is one way of making reductions in emissions more real and tangible. So, we’re throwing out the wero to everyone – households, NGOs, businesses and individuals – to start more enthusiastically measuring your emissions and beginning to question some of the things that seem impossible to change. For us, The Rubbish Trip puts us on the road fulltime, which pushes up transport’s total proportion of our emissions profile. It could be easy to argue that “this is inevitable, there’s nothing we can do, our hands are tied – The Rubbish Trip is a nationwide roadshow, after all!” However, we don’t want to waste energy making those arguments. We enjoy putting our energy into making changes! In the end, it’s all about how you frame it – a miserable sacrifice, or a challenge or a game?