Saturday, September 22, 2007

An Inconvenient Truth

I take it for granted that sailors, kayakers, surfers, windsurfers... all of us who enjoy playing on the water using natural sources of power... have some tendency to care about the environment. Surely we are attracted to these sports because we love the experience of being close to nature and escaping from the mechanical world of trains and cars and planes... not to mention jetskiers and stinkpotters.

I know it's a leap from that assertion to assume that we all share a concern for global warming and accept that it is mainly caused by human activity and that each of us ought to be doing something about it by reducing our carbon footprint. But some of us do think that way.

This week, for example, Michael who writes Canadian Ckayaker was worrying about Playground Earth and suggesting that kayakers like him should make only one overseas flight a year to paddle, present or teach about paddling.

Hmmm. He's making me feel guilty. In the next six months I am already planning two long overseas trips by air to go sailing, one to Spain and one to Australia. It's partly a quirk of the sailing calendar. As it happens two Laser Masters Worlds in countries that I want to visit are coming up close together. And I'm also thinking of at least one more trip this winter to train for Australia (and find those mushy peas in Sosua).

So it got me to thinking. How much carbon dioxide am I creating from my various sailing trips. Using the carbon calculator at What's My Carbon Footprint? ...

Typical local weekend regatta: 100 mile, 4 gallons of gas -- about 80 pounds CO2.

Drive to Florida and back for midwinter regatta: 2,800 miles, 120 gallons of gas -- about 2,400 pounds CO2.

Fly to Spain and back: 6,000 miles -- 2,340 pounds CO2.

Fly to Australia and back: 20,000 miles -- 7,800 pounds CO2.

To put that in context, the estimated annual per capita U.S. average resulting from home energy, transportation and household waste emissions is around 16,000 pounds of CO2.

Maybe Michael has a good point. What do you think?

Added: Some thoughts on the subject by Tim Coleman.


Anonymous said...

Oh Stop! You aren't into your sport to prevent global warming!

Do you really believe people are going to believe that crap?

I found your blog with a Google alert on a subject that interests me and I am not worried about global warming either but the difference is I don't pretend like you do!

Man do people really believe that swill?

Tillerman said...

Great. Someone who disagrees with one of my posts. I love a good argument. So here goes.

1. No. I'm not int my sport to stop global warming. That's not the point.

2. But if the generally accepted theories about global warming and its potential effect on the planet and the major contribution to the problem by human-generated CO2 emissions are true, then it's something that we all need to take seriously.

3. If you don't accept those theories, then here is probably not the place to debate them. But what if there's say a 2% chance they are right? Are you prepared to take an 1 in 50 chance of making the planet unlivable.

4. If you do believe those theories then it seems to me you have 3 choices...

a) do nothing. You'll be dead before things get too serious. Let your grandchildren deal with it.

b) rely on governments to solve it. Hmmmm. Pretty much the same as (a) I guess.

c) play your part in solving it and hope enough other members of the species will do the same.

I guess I'm currently an (a) thinking I ought to be a (c). Pretty pathetic eh?

Shopping City Chaplaincy said...

Tillerman, I think you are on the right track but I believe it goes way deeper than you trailing your boat.
The first comment got my blogging juices going so check out my responce....

Carol Anne said...

OK, so if it's bad to emit carbon while getting to the place where you engage in recreation that doesn't emit carbon, what are you supposed to do? Stay at home and play chess? Oh, but then, you're sedentary, and you risk obesity and other infirmities related to inactivity -- and I wonder how much health-care technology contributes to carbon emissions.

It occurs to me that you and Tillerwoman have a system of offsets that is far better than the fictional carbon-offset purchase thing that is currently all the rage. She's a gardener, and she can plant green growing things to offset at least a little of the carbon that you produce. Yeah, it may not be much, but it's far better than transferring money to industrial plants that probably were already cutting down on carbon emissions anyway by cutting down on fuel consumption.

Having just spent a day at the lake watching boaters compound their carbon emissions getting to the lake by emitting huge quantities of carbon roaring around the lake, I don't think you need to feel particularly guilty.

JP said...

I have a similar problem as fly a lot for business so did a similar calculation. At the time (several years ago) there wasn't offsetting companies so I set up regular payments for the amount with uk charity the woodland trust.

Even this is not ideal as while woodland is a CO2 sink eventually most will be released back - but the key point is it should be > 100 years time and the big problem is the next 50.

Also some of the money is used to maintain existing woods not plant more. So if in doubt add a bit or offset another way.

The more I read about global warming the scarier it is and the more real. With the arctic shrinking and greenland melting it is looking like we'll cross the 2 degree danger threshold.

Everyone who cares about the planet should offset while head-in-sands governments do little more than talk.

Tillerman said...

Good points carol anne. I wrote the post because I wanted to put some numbers on to the vague fears I had seen expressed before on sailing and kayaking blogs about how our travel to sail or paddle may be harming the planet more than we would want to admit.

JP - good points too. When I was working I was making long flights almost every week so I dread to add up what that amounted to in CO2 emissions.

Maybe I need to write another post soon comparing the scary numbers about air travel with what we would need to do to offset that. I suspect Tillerwoman's herbs and tomato plants are not making much of a dent in the problem.

JSW225 said...

Not to get into politics too heavily, but...

The people who say that we need to react immediately to global warming and limit business' ability to pollute are the same people who want to limit business straight out.

Until the two groups are separate, they have no credibility what so ever. So they use panic inducing "Facts" that are either not true, or the scale of application or correlation is so off that it's not even understood by a regular joe on the street.

Tillerman said...

Understand your point jsw and I certainly don't want to get into a political debate here. But the point of my post was not about limiting "businesses" or anybody else for that matter.

It was more about how I feel as an individual, and the contrast between the positive vibes I get from sailing, which are partly about being close to nature and using natural forces and doing no harm to the environment.... and, on the other hand, the suspicion that the amount of travel I do by car and plane to sailing venues may actually be harmful to the planet.

I've seen the same view expressed on at least one other sailing blog in the last year (and last week on a kayaking blog) and being a numbers geek I needed to do some sums to see how significant the CO2 emissions from my sailing travel are.

JSW225 said...

While 7,800 pounds of CO2 sounds significant, it actually is insignificant. It sounds like a lot, doesn't it? And this shows how presenting a fact without context can be skewed to a political goal.

You may not think so, but the immediate short term result of all this Carbon Footprint talk is to limit business and individuals past what is actually needed. This has always been a goal of the people who purport Climate change.

Tillerman said...

Yeehow - we have an argument. I love it.

OK. I don't know if I'm one of those people that jsw describes as those who "purport climate change". Sorry, I'm not sure what that means. But even if I am, it's certainly not my "goal" to limit other folk "past what is needed". I'm just trying to work out for myself what kind of life choices I am comfortable with as someone who both wants to enjoy life and be a responsible citizen of the planet.

As for whether 7,800 pounds of CO2 from one trip is a lot or not and the need to put it in context, my aim in the post was to put it in context. It's about half of the average American's annual CO2 emissions. So by taking that one trip (assuming I am average) I have increased my CO2 output by 50%. I have to make my own decision whether I can live with that.

OK. OK. I know that plane's going to fly to Sydney whether I'm on it or not. But If everyone on the plane chose not to make the trip...

JSW225 said...

The context needed is not your average CO2 output, but the impact all of humanity has on the total CO2 amount. To put it in actual context, all of humanity's impact on the CO2 level is like adding half a pound of sand to a random beach.

I never said that it was your goal to do this, but it's very easy to guilt people into being "Responsible citizens" by gambling at what percentage would they act a certain way. Your 1-50 chance highlights that clearly.

Now, I'm not saying that you should go out and throw garbage into the rivers. I'm saying that you should keep doing what you want to be doing, and don't be swayed by this.

Tillerman said...

Good point jsw. Of course another important context is the relationships between total human CO2 emissions and the total amount of CO2 already in the atmosphere. Is it really as small as adding a half a pound of sand to a beach?

I wondered so tried to dig up some figures. According to one source the relevant numbers measured in billion metric tons of carbon are..

Total in atmosphere 730
Man-made sources 6.1 a year

Some of the man-made CO2 is re-absorbed by natural processes so the net addition from human source is estimated at 3.2 a year. (As of 2001).

So it's like adding half a pound of sand a year to a pile of sand weighing 114 pounds. By the way, my guess is that the average beach has more than 114 pounds of sand.

Still it doesn't sound like much does it? Except that, of course, the amount of sand we add is cumulative and increasing every year. In 50 to 100 years we can make a big percentage difference in the size of that pile of sand.

JSW225 said...

So don't go to australia then. If you believe it, change everything you like to do to conform to what they want.

Tillerman said...

I have no idea who "they" are. I am trying to dig out some facts so I can work out what choices I want to make

Pat said...

So, do we know any atmospheric chemists who can be more specific about what happens when you burn a gallon of gas and some biologists who know how much carbon cycle plant biomass it would take to offset that?

Crudely figured, a gallon of gas weighs just over six pounds, about 90% of which is carbon (for simplicity, consider a molecule of isooctane, with 8 carbons and 16 hydrogens). Burning it completely would move something like 5 and 2/3 lbs. of carbon from the earth to the atmosphere as the carbons combine with atmospheric oxygen to generate 20 lbs. or so of CO2. (And some hydrogen is presumably combining with oxygen to make some water vapor.)

So, how many tomato plants does it take to deal with that much CO2?

Tillerman said...

Well done Pat. I think your chemistry and math is spot on. The source I used for the original post also estimates that burning a gallon of gas generates about 20 lbs of carbon dioxide.

As for how much biomass it takes to offset it, this source estimates that each tree in the tropics removes 50 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. So if I use, say 500 gallons of gas a year it needs 200 trees to offset that. The same source also says that it takes 900 trees to remove annually as much carbon dioxide as is generated by the total annual fossil-fuel usage of an average United States resident.

Which is why I said that I didn't think Tillerwoman's 4 tomato plants were making much contribution,

JSW225 said...

"However, there is uncertainty in how the climate system varies naturally and reacts to emissions of greenhouse gases." From your listed source.

Remember, correlation does not equal causation. Just as much as pollution is thought by some to lead to global warming panic now, pollution was thought by some to lead to global cooling some 40 years ago. There are many different possible causes of an increase of CO2 and a Warming of the earth and those not necessarily being permanent, yet the huge ego of man leads himself to believe that the one he has an effect on is the most likely. Or that we can even effect the whole of the earth on any significant level.

Tillerman said...

Good points jsw.

Atmospheric science certainly isn't as exact a science as say nuclear physics or biochemistry. That's why we all have to try and understand the evidence and the facts, sort out the oversimplified analogies on both sides of the argument (e.g. half a pound of sand on a random beach) and try and make a reasoned judgment on the preponderance of the evidence.

Thanks for the debate. It's good to have a good rational argument on an important issue like this. I'll try not to let my "huge ego" get in the way of my rationality.

Sail fast. Peace.

JSW225 said...

Not your huge ego, but our huge ego. We've barely been a tiny little blip on earth's timeline. Earth was fine before us, earth will be fine well after we are done, regardless of the worst we could even try. Even with every single nuke we own detonating at once, earth will recover in a relatively short time, in comparison to the length of time the earth has been here.

As hard as we try, we can't comprehend time the earth has been around in comparison to the time we've been around.

While it's good to have a debate about this, it is irrational to let it get in the way of the thing you enjoy doing the most.

Tillerman said...

It's not hard to comprehend how long the earth has been around compared to how long we've been around jsw.

The earth is about 4.5 billion years old. Homo sapiens has been around about 200,000 years.

So the earth is about 22,500 times older than us.

So if you think of the earth as a year old, then we would be about 23 minutes old.

I'm sure you're right that the earth will survive the worst we can throw at it. The question is whether our grandchildren will.

Carol Anne said...

*I'm sure you're right that the earth will survive the worst we can throw at it. The question is whether our grandchildren will.*

Right on, Tillerman. Tadpole just turned 18. He's idealistic, but he's also worried. He is active in debate over these issues, and I'm proud of him for that.

Yeah, Tillerwoman's tomato plants may not do much to alleviate global carbon emissions, but I still believe they're more effective than sending dollars to industrial plants that were already going to cut emissions by becoming more fuel efficient. That whole "carbon-offset" thing smacks of medieval indulgences.

Tillerman said...

Thanks everyone. These comments are excellent because they are stimulating me to do more research on this topic and examine my own views.

Prior to writing this post I had a qualitative awareness of the issue but had never taken the time to dig into the numbers and understand quantitatively such questions as "how does the amount of human CO2 emissions compare to the total CO2 in the atmosphere?" Being a numbers geek I am always more convinced of an argument if I know facts like that.

I see that now I'm going to have to research the whole question of carbon offsets. From what I already know there's a lot of wishful thinking and even outright deception going on in this market, and I suspect carol anne is right about "dollars to industrial plants".

But if I do want to do something to offset the CO2 generated by me sailing travel, what's the best way to do it?

USA-4 Steve Bodner said...

Hey Tillerman-
Enjoying the blog and especially this post. Im in the same seat as you- wondering how I might be able to reduce my footprint in support of the sport I love.
After all if the people who use the waves and the water don't look after them- who will? Ive always thought I had some responsibility and god knows I contribute enough to the problem with a new quiver of sails every year, new fins and boards, travel pollution to and from regattas, BUT Ive found making small changes in your own life can make a big difference to the environment overall.
Ive listed some suggestions on my website at
that tell how we can make a difference in reducing the harm we cause to the environment.
Well its a start- hope you can find something to use in your life so your grandkids can enjoy the same water playground you do!

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