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What Can I Do?

Author: Penelope Canan, Issue: May 2005, Topic: Environment

I work for the Global Carbon Project, an international program dedicated to policy relevant science in support of sustainable development and a de-carbonized future. The focus of the GCP office located at the national Institute for Environmental Studies (NIEWS) in Tsukuba is the so-called "Human Dimensions" behind the enhanced greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, e.g., fossil fuel emissions and deforestation. The other GCP office at CSIRO in Canberra, Australia focuses on terrestrial carbon, especially vulnerable carbon pools, like peat and marshlands.

This is all background for the topic of this article. What I want to write about is our contribution -- yours and mine -- to the global carbon cycle.

Typically in Japan, the household sector contributes about one-fifth of the nation's greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide. Household uses can be categorized as heating, cooling, refrigeration, cooking, lighting, waste, and household transportation.

Our personal habits and preferences determine our levels of energy consumption as do the efficiency of our appliances and the quality of the insulation in our living spaces. Fortunately, we can make small personal changes that when added up across us all can make a big dent in reducing CO2 emissions.

What are some of the little things we can do? Simple things like reducing the temperature on the water heater (and only heating up water right before we need it), turning the fridge down a notch, and certainly turning the heated toilet seat off (really!). Closing draperies, increasing wall and window insulation, using a fan rather than the air conditioner -- the list goes on and on. (There are many "carbon calculators" on the web.) One simple change in our car driving -- driving at a steady speed rather than speeding up only to brake for the light at the next intersection -- saves a lot of gasoline. Anything we do to reduce our use of fossil fuels means savings in our pockets as well as "environmental savings."

Why does this matter? What's the big picture? That is, why should we be thinking about this? Of course, you've heard of global warming. This is a big deal with big consequences. We will pay for the emissions already concentrated at unheard of levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, because their life spans are measured in decades and there is already a 30% higher concentration than the historical average for 400,000 years! Already we are experiencing changes in climate and severe weather patterns (increased number and intensity of storms) with the big price tag of floods, droughts and typhoons. Glaciers are melting rapidly, threatening the habitats of many living things. Species are moving to adapt to warmer (or cooler, depending where you are) climes, but sometimes their natural predators are not moving with them, thus altering their historic ecosystem balance. I urge you to become educated on this topic. (Visit us at the Global Carbon Project at NIES in the Center for Global Environmental Research.)

Japan's commitment under the Kyoto Protocol is to decrease its greenhouse gases by 6% below what they were in 1990. However, since emissions have risen by 7.6% in 2002 since 1990, the reduction required is much greater and costlier. And the truth is that this commitment is much less than what is needed. But, let's say that each of us -- you and I -- do our part. Can you cut your emissions by 10% compared to even last year? We are all in this together.

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