Green Living: Pembina Institute's Glen Murray says carbon calculator can help shrink your footprint

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      Many British Columbians are alarmed about climate change, particularly after a summer of devastating forest fires and floods. But they don’t have a clue how much greenhouse gas they’re emitting into the atmosphere.

      Glen Murray wants to change that. The new executive director of the Pembina Institute, a 30-year-old Alberta-based think tank, helped conceive of an online carbon calculator for residents of Toronto when he was Ontario’s minister of environment and climate change. Now he wants to make it possible for people across Canada to determine their individual carbon footprint.

      In an interview in the Georgia Straight office, Murray recalled how the idea emerged while he was having beers with building-technology expert Angus Affleck and the two men who actually created it, architect Craig Applegath and software developer Ryan Meyers.

      “We got together,” Murray said. “I was trying to say, ‘How do I talk as the environment minister for climate change when I don’t even know what causes my emissions?’ ”

      One thing led to another, and before long Murray had a carbon calculator on his MPP website. This enabled his constituents to figure out what level of greenhouse-gas emissions they were responsible for each year. All they needed to do was go online and enter information about what they ate, their transportation methods, commuting distances, how often they flew, how many pets they had, how their home was heated, and various other lifestyle choices that led to the emission of greenhouse gases.

      In his case, Murray discovered that he could reduce his carbon footprint by eating more local food and by consuming lentils instead of meat.

      “If you’re eating meat, please try the chicken,” the former politician advised. “Lamb is better than beef. If you’re having beef, don’t have it every day.”

      When Murray first did the calculations, he learned that he was emitting about 7.8 tonnes of greenhouse gases per year. After making lifestyle adjustments, he’s been able to cut that to 2.88 tonnes annually, as of the most recent calculation.

      One of the reasons is that he buys carbon offsets whenever he flies. And much to his surprise, he found that dietary changes that he made to cut his carbon footprint also had a positive impact on his waistline.

      “I’ve lost 30 pounds,” Murray said. “I didn’t just lose the carbon tonnage. I lost the body-fat stuff.”

      He pointed out that it will be more complicated to roll out a national online carbon calculator. That’s because it must be tweaked to take new factors into consideration, such as the higher level of carbon emissions associated with living in a province that relies on coal for electricity generation.

      According to the Ecosphere website, the average carbon footprint for a U.S. citizen is about 20 tonnes per year. In Nepal, where there’s very little use of fossil fuels, it’s only about 0.1 tonne per year per person.

      Murray said the typical resident of a large urban centre in Canada is responsible for emitting six to eight tonnes per year. This rises to 12 to 16 tonnes for those living in the suburbs and commuting longer distance by motor vehicle.

      “One of our goals is, within five years, one out of four people in Canada know what their carbon footprint is and they know how to reduce that number,” he stated.

      The Pembina Institute is a research-intensive organization that has traditionally focused on educating opinion leaders on clean-energy solutions, including the latest green-building technology. Murray said that in his new position, he’s hoping to promote greater understanding of the circular economy, in which resources are conserved and reused in new products. As an example, he cited the use of crushed glass mixed with waste wood in fire-resistant building products being created by Ontario-based Guardian Bridge Rapid Construction Inc.

      “It’s five times stronger than steel and one-fifth the weight of steel,” Murray noted.

      He suggested that building products created in carbon-intensive ways—such as concrete, steel, aluminum, and oil-based plastics—could be supplanted in the future by urban waste materials and wood from dead trees. This would result in far fewer greenhouse-gas emissions.

      But he also sees a need to increase public understanding of these issues so there will be a constituency for politicians who want to do the right thing for the atmosphere. And he said the carbon calculator is one way to increase Canadians’ environmental literacy without getting into partisan politics.

      “We think that is a way that Pembina can be a bit more of a popularly engaging organization as opposed to being a populist organization,” he said.

      Murray said that this initiative could be funded through crowdsourcing. The online calculations tell people how much their carbon emissions are costing the planet, and that could be leveraged for donations.

      For example, if a person’s footprint results in $365 worth of damage annually in various ways, Pembina might ask for a contribution of 10 percent of that amount to help spread the word.

      “I think most thinking people want to know what their carbon footprint is—and they want to know how to do it,” Murray said.