Learning through Action

I'm Lauren and this blog began as a journey to live a life with less environmental impact.  As my journey led me to Myanmar, my focus shifted from aspiration to advocacy. 

This project is an effort to provide a glimpse into my life in Myanmar—the people, places, and issues that inspire and teach me as I continue this adventure towards a more sustainable life.   

To learn more, click "About" above, and stay tuned for updates.

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Entries in transportation (5)


Transit Eco-Footprint: A New Year's Resolution to Cut Back on Car Use

A new year means beginnings— a fresh start for some, resolutions for many, and an opportunity to make goals and shift routines in need of change.  We often reflect on our lives and look for opportunities to grow, improve, and find gratitude for what we love.  It is also a perfect opportunity to reflect upon our relationships, with others and with the world we live in. 

Transit—our means of mobility—is an important, ubiquitous way we interact with our environment.  It is also an easy place to make small changes with big impacts.  Cutting down on car commuting, riding bikes, or increasing use of public transit can reduce our transit eco-footprint and shake up our daily transit routine. 

The Costs of Travelling by Car

Ninety percent of Americans drive to work (and only 0.6% bike to work).  Commuting by car has significant impacts—both environmentally and financially.  As Americans seek space and sprawl out from urban centers, the seeming financial benefits of reduced mortgages and a lower cost of living may be offset by the costs of long commutes to financial centers.  One estimate, based on IRS calculations, concluded that a two-car commute of 19 miles each way would cost $125,000 over 10 years.  Add to this cost the hours spent in a car, which for many adds a full work-day onto the week (with 6 hours in a car), and the costs and time spent after 10 years may equate to 1.3 working years of time.  The costs are considerable, and make city living— and the access to transit that often accompanies urban density—appealing for those who work in financial centers.

The EPA calculates the cost of automobiles using three variables: (1) internal variable costs, which include vehicle operation, fuel and travel time as discussed above; (2) internal fixed costs, or the costs of car ownership associated with insurance, fees and depreciation; and (3) external costs such as road upkeep, which are collectively imposed.  Combined, the cost of owning and operating a car is around 40 cents per passenger-kilometer.  This estimate was made over a decade ago, meaning that with inflation and as fuel costs have risen, the current cost is much higher. 

Environmental Costs

The impacts of transportation, like all environmental impacts, fall into three categories: direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts.  Direct impacts are the immediate consequences to the environment; indirect impacts are those impacts to environmental systems; and cumulative impacts are the additive, combined impacts of transport activities.   

Our lives have become so intertwined with transportation activities, from commuting, to freight delivery, and travel, that it has become dominant source of pollution and environmental impact.  Transportation accounts for almost 50% of greenhouse gas emissions in some states.  Yet, the environmental or external costs of transportation are often unaccounted for, and may be responsible for up to 30% of estimated automobile costs.  A failure to consider these costs results in their subsidization by society, by future generations, and by the health of the planet. 

Environmental costs include the following: climate change, air quality impacts, noise, water and soil quality impacts, biodiversity factors, and land use changes.  Hostra University did a thorough analysis of the environmental implications of transportation.  Their conclusion: “better transport practices, such a fuel efficient vehicles, that reduce environmental externalities are likely to have positive economic, social and environmental consequences."


A few months ago, we explored solutions to the problem of automobile impact, which included car sharing, car pooling, and reducing car use.  Car pooling could save up to eight billion gallons of gas each year, and leaving your car behind twice a week would save an average of 1,600 pounds of CO2 emissions a year.

Cars produce a full pound of CO2 each mile, although not all cars have the same impact.  Driving an SUV versus a hybrid will have different environmental consequences.  The EPA suggests that before buying or renting a car, consumers check EPA's Green Vehicle Guide and the EPA/DOE Fuel Economy Guide.  These guides provide information on the emissions and fuel economy performance of different vehicles. 

If you must drive, drive smartly.  Avoid overuse of brakes, hard accelerations, and idling.  Remove racks that are not in use, and maximize efficiency when using cruise control.  Keep your car maintenance up to date, your tire pressure correct, and remember to change your oil. 

Better yet, take a break from the car.  Use public transit, walk or bike.  70% of car trips in the U.S. are less than 2 miles, which translates to an easy 10-minute bike ride.  Bike commuting also has health benefits: the average person will lose 13 pounds in the first year of riding to work; this saves approximately $544 in medical costs annually, and bicycles are 50% faster than cars during rush hour.  This site provides a great infographics that show the benefit of cycling. 

The results of a resolution to drive less: Cutting back on our reliance on automobiles will reduce our environmental impact and lessen the cumulative and direct costs of our car culture. 


In Vino Veritas: The Carbon Footprint of Wine

I am a wine lover.  As a San Francisco resident, I live near one of the world's most productive wine regions.  Many of our local wines are fantastic, but I also enjoy the occasional glass from other parts of the world.   As I was sharing a bottle of wine with friends a few nights ago, I began to wonder about the impact of my favorite wines.  Does it matter where they came from?  How the grapes were grown?  How the wine is bottled?  From a purely environmental perspective, should I be drinking Bordeaux or California cabernet? 

A study published in the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE)—a niche I never knew existed before this week!— explored the carbon impact of wine production from the vineyard to your wineglass.  The study considered the carbon emissions of four factors: (1) the cultivation of grapes, including production of agrichemicals and use of fuel; (2) the fermentation process; (3) the production and transport of barrels and bottles; and (4) the shipping of the final product.     

Land, Air, or Sea?  The Method of Transportation Matters

It turns out that transportation is the single largest contributor to the carbon footprint of wine.  The authors of the AAWE study, an NYU professor of wine and a sustainability expert, discovered that the method of transportation dramatically affects the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine.  Their findings led them to create a “green line” dividing the U.S. and running roughly through Ohio down, through Southern Texas. 

For wine drinkers West of this line, it is more carbon efficient to drink wine trucked from California—where more than 95% of the wine in United States is made.  To the East of the line, it’s more efficient to consume the same sized bottle of wine from France or Australia, both of which travel via more carbon efficient container ships, followed by a shorter truck trip.

These surprising results come from the dramatic difference in the carbon efficiency of transportation.  Unrefrigerated container ships are the most efficient—although they use very dirty fuel and emit other nasty pollutants in great volume—followed by trucks, and finally airplanes.  Air cargo can be delivered in a matter of hours, compared to the lengthy time required by container ships, but have over 11 times the carbon emissions

This means that it is more carbon efficient for a New Yorker to drink a glass of Bordeaux or Australian Shiraz than a glass of California wine.  In fact, wine traveling from Sydney to New York has less than a quarter of the carbon emissions as one trucked from California.  The efficiencies of container ships extend even to Los Angeles, where it is slightly more carbon efficient to drink wine from Chile or Australia than it is from Napa, where wine must travel over 400 miles by truck.  Below is a chart, put together by TreeHuger, which illustrates the study’s findings:

French Wine Best for East Coast USA If you live in New York your options, best to worst, are:

  • Bordeaux, France (which are shipped via ship) = 0.3 pounds of CO2 equivalent
  • Chile (also sent by ship) = 0.4 pounds
  • Sydney, Australia (ship, again) = 0.9 pounds
  • Napa, California (driven by truck) = 4.4 pounds

French or Chileans Top Chicago Choice Here's Chicago's break down (it’s ship and then truck for all of them, except California which is all truck):

  • French wines = 1.5 pounds of CO2 equivalent
  • Chilean wines = 1.6 pounds
  • Australian wines = 2.1 pounds
  • Californian wines = 3.2 pounds

Los Angeles’s Surprising Choices Chilean wines (very) slightly better than Californian:

  • Chilean wines = 0.5 pounds of CO2 equivalent
  • Californian or Australian wines = 0.6 pounds
  • French wines = 3.0 pounds

Of course, if you live in the Bay area as I do, the choice is obvious—Napa, Russian River, or Sonoma wines have a very small footprint compared to all of the calculations above.  It is also worth noting that transportation by train, if available for wine producers, provides a vastly more carbon efficient alternative to truck transport—trains emit about a quarter of the CO2 that trucks do.   

Other Considerations

The study also considered other factors in wine production, as noted above.  Globally, fertilizers have a notable contribution to green house gases.  However, for wine production, the study concluded that the impact is minimal—although fertilizers contain damaging pollutants.  Similarly, the fermentation process accounted for a small portion of the total carbon emissions associated with wine making. 

Packaging also played a key factor in transportation efficiency and thus, the overall footprint of wine.  Glass is heavy and requires more fuel to transport.  Some winemakers have begun to turn to alternatives to glass and heavy packaging—lighter glass, boxed wine, tetrapacks, and even plastic.  In fact, several producers now package their wines exclusively in tetrapack.  Apparently, these wines can be quite tasty, although I have yet to confirm this for myself. 

For those who cannot seem to let go of the experiential aspect of uncorking a glass bottle of wine, bigger is better.  The larger the bottle, the less its carbon impact.  A magnum has a smaller relative footprint than a standard bottle, which has a smaller relative footprint than a half bottle. 

So… what does all this mean?

If you are trying to “green” your wine drinking, choose larger bottles of wine—preferably organic—that have traveled fewer miles via truck.  For some wine enthusiasts, however, there is more to wine than its carbon footprint.  Sometimes, you might want that glass of French wine in San Francisco or California chardonnay in New York.  And wine’s footprint compared to other agricultural products or factors, has a relatively small impact.  The “green line” is simply another tool to use when considering our environmental impact.


Eco-Travel Part 1: Avoiding Greenwashing and Exploring Transportation Options

Spring has officially arrived—and with it warmer weather, longer days, and the anticipation of vacation travel.  

I have long been aware that my wanderlust may be my biggest obstacle in a quest to live a more eco-friendly life.  Hotels and resorts are known to have huge environmental impacts.  Travel to destinations (especially those off the beaten path) often require very carbon unfriendly means of transportation.

As I have begun to plan and embark on my travels this year, my search to discover green travel destinations was both encouraging and sobering.  The issue of global warming has become a reality for many industries, including tourism.  Over the next few weeks, I will dive into the eco-travel world, share a few good resources, and profile an incredible solar-powered resort I had the good fortune to recently visit. 

Before You Book… Be Wary of Greenwashing

Across sectors, “green” or “eco” branding has become a lucrative business.  Consumers are now more conscious of environmental issues and want to feel good about their purchases.  Marketing and advertisements inundate us with product claims, comparisons, and green promises.  More information, however, does not always mean better options.  The abundance of green products that are not what they claim to be—called greenwashing—is problematic in almost every consumer driven industry.  This is particularly true of the travel industry, where advertisements for eco-friendly lodging and experiences are prolific.

Unfortunately, not every destination that touts its environmentally friendly offerings actually lives up to its claims.  My solution to this problem—don’t take an eco or green label at face value.  Do a bit of digging.  Find out the true environmental implications.  If a place or product truly is green, the reasons why should be transparent and readily accessible.  If there is a void of information, be skeptical—this could be the result of greenwashing.

Getting Where You Want to Go: Transportation Costs

Transportation is typically the first consideration for any vacation planning.  Yet getting where you want to go can be one of the more environmentally costly aspects to travel.  Below are a few of the tips and suggestions I’ve collected in my own vacation planning process:

1.     Stay close to home

The most intuitive solution to the transportation problem is simply to travel less.  Generally, the closer you stay to home, the lower your carbon impact.  Local travel is often more affordable, provides an opportunity to understand the history or engage in the cultural offerings in your area, and benefits your local economy and businesses. 

2.     Travel low-carbon

Airplanes are the carbon costliest means of travel.  Cars are also high carbon emitters.  Trains and buses are better options—whenever practical, I try to forgo air and auto travel and explore rail, public transit, or bicycles. 

3.     Offset if necessary

Sometimes, planes are a necessary evil of our travel plans.  I recently learned about several of the organizations that invest money in carbon beneficial projects to offset air travel.  I use carbonfund.org whenever I fly—although there are a number of reputable companies to fit your offsetting preferences.

4.     Stay longer

One of my favorite tips I’ve seen comes from Rough Guides travel books, which simply recommends that you fly less and stay longer.  It makes sense—the longer you stay, the more value you get for the carbon costs of your travel.  Aside from my sheer love of travel, this also gives me a little added incentive to prolong my vacations and learn even more about the places I decide to explore.


Pedal Power: The Benefits of Cycling and Automobile Alternatives

I have been cycling to work now for about two years.  I love it.  I feel healthier, spend more time outside, and generally feel more optimistic about the day ahead.  Cycling also reduces my morning caffeine cravings and helps me feel connected to the conditions of the natural world.  I am acutely aware of rain, embrace the chaos of windy days, and celebrate sunshine. 

But cycling is not without its difficulties.  Safety precautions must be taken.  Drivers can be careless and unwelcoming.  Thieves will take anything worth a few dollars.  I know this all too well: I recently walked out of a restaurant to find my bike looking sadly dismembered, stripped of its handlebars, shifters, and brakes.  It was this event, and the loss of my means of transportation, that prompted me to examine the environmental benefits of riding my bike. 

The impact of driving versus cycling

The relative carbon footprint of a bicycle versus a car is a surprisingly controversial topic.  Some argue that a daily commute by car creates 1448 times more carbon than by bike.  Others factor in the food to fuel the cyclist and come up with as little as 50% less carbon for the bicycle.  A very good paper concludes that bicycles are 2/3 more efficient than cars, even if you factor in the extra energy required for a cyclist's food.  Regardless of the way it is measured, a bicycle has a vastly smaller carbon footprint than a car across everything from manufacture, to fuel consumption, to storage, and disposal.

Why leave the car behind? 

The problem with cars is that they require massive quantities of energy to produce and to keep running.  The EPA estimates that cars produce 20.4 lbs of CO2 emissions per gallonand if a gallon of gas only gets an average passenger car 20 miles, then a full pound of CO2 is released each mileOf course, not all cars have the same impact.  Driving an SUV for a year instead of an average new car would waste more energy than leaving a refrigerator door open for six years, a bathroom light burning for 30 years, or a color TV turned on for 28 years.  Think about this difference the next time you are in the market for a car.

If you can’t commit to giving up your car, or it is not a realistic full time choice, leaving the car behind part-time will still greatly reduce your CO2 emissions.  The EPA estimates that leaving your car behind even twice a week reduces your emissions by 1,600 pounds per year (the equivalent of 82 gallons of gas).

While a bicycle, like any manufactured good, requires fossil fuels for manufacturing and production, the energy needed to build one mid-sized automobile could be used to produce 100 bicycles—another reason to ditch the car.

Fuel for your engine

While the form of transportation you choose matters, it is worth noting that many feel very strongly that what you choose to fuel yourself is even more important.  Although I agree that we should make well-informed food choices, I do not think that cycle commuters consume that much more food to make a meaningful difference.

Here are a few of the interesting statistics I found.  I will also tackle environmentally friendly food more broadly at a later date.

-  According to one article, the carbon emissions of cycling a mile powered by different foods varies: 65g of CO2 for bananas; 90g of CO2 for cereals with milk; 200g of CO2 for bacon; 260g CO2 for a cheeseburger; and a whopping 2800g of CO2 for air-freighted asparagus

-  It takes 200 times more fossil fuel to produce beef than potatoes because cattle consume 14 times more grain than meat produced.

-  One vegetarian advocate estimates that meat-eaters use twice as much fossil fuel as vegetarians.

I have also read several debates on the steak-eating cyclist versus the hybrid-driving vegan.  I think this misses the point—most drivers and cyclists eat similarly.  Cyclists are generally healthier than the average sedentary driver.  Thus, the extra energy required to feed a cyclist may be offset or surpassed by the future health care costs required to treat diabetes, obesity, heart disease or the many problems that accompany poor lifestyle choices.

Automobile alternatives

There are many good, environmentally friendly alternatives to driving.  Below are a few options.  

1.  Cycling

In addition to the many health benefits, cycling offers an enormous improvement for your environmental impact.  The choice to get on a bike seems simple.  Often, the biggest barrier to becoming a cycle commuter is a fear of the unknown.  There is a solution to this: a number of sites and organizations offer urban cycling workshops and bike commuting tips.  The cycling community is supportive and well-organized.  Take the leap.  I promise it is worth the effort.

 2.  Walking

For short distances and simple errands, walking offers a low-impact, easy alternative to driving.  Here is a resource for tips and safety considerations when walking.

3.  Public Transit

Most cities and towns offer some form of public transit.  From the subway, to the bus, to the lightrail, or cable car, the options are diverse and can cover a lot of terrain.  Get familiar with your local transit website, which typically provides schedules, maps, and live updates.  See the SF Bay Area’s website for an example.

4.  Ride Sharing or Carpooling

If every car commuting in the United States carried one more person, it would save eight billion gallons of gas each year.  City ride sharing programs are prolific.  This site provides a list and map of places where you can find a ride in the Bay Area.  If this option makes you uncomfortable, you can still carpool with co-workers or friends who work nearby.

5.  Alternative Fuels

If you simply can’t give up your car to commute, consider alternative fuels (and cars that are compatible with them).  Again, there are resources that provide a detailed list of places to purchase alternatives fuels or find a city carshare.

Happy riding (in whatever form you choose)!


Up in the Air and the Issue of Offsets

Everything looks beautiful from above.  Forests seem greener, mountains less daunting, and the setting sun casts soft light into a darkening sky.  Whenever I fly, I am amazed by this changed perspective and by its contradiction with the actual impact air travel has on the atmosphere and the land below.

Roughly 10-15% of the world’s population has ever flown.  This still means that close to 1 billion people have traveled by plane.  That volume of traffic produces a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide.  It also produces the opportunity for many airlines, travel groups and private companies to cash in on traveler guilt.  Carbon offsetting for purchase is prolific—and confusing.

One of the major challenges I face this year in my effort to reduce my carbon impact is the amount of air travel I will have do to for work.  I will be flying back and forth from the west to the east coast on a monthly basis.   I know this will affect my carbon footprint, but I am not sure of the extent. 

The estimates of how much carbon dioxide is produced per person by air travel is complicated and often varies.  For overall CO2 emissions, I prefer The Nature Conservancy’s calculator, which takes into account more individual factors and offers a good breakdown of sources.  Conservation International is good too and also has an eco-footprint calculator that looks at recycling and waste reduction habits. 

After testing a number of different calculators, my best estimate is that each one of my cross-country flights adds about 1.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide to my footprint.  This is pretty grim considering that per year the average American produces 49 metric tons and the global average is 9.8 metric tons

To put that in perspective, this would mean that I would have to plant at least 8 new trees for every flight.   (Note: this assumes that at least 2 of these trees would survive for 40 years!).

So what is the best course of action?  Ideally, I would like to offset these flights affirmatively, by actions I take in my daily life to reduce my impact elsewhere.  But it is unrealistic for me—and most people—to think that we can live an entirely carbon neutral life.

Purchasing carbon offsets seemed like a logical place to start. 

I began with a broad, simple search.  This yielded hundreds of sites, companies, and options.  The prices offered for offsets varied wildly, as did the programs they purportedly support.  After sifting through these options, I found a good chart that provides an overview of different providers, their projects, and product certification.

Eventually, I settled on carbonfund.org, which allows you to choose the type of project you want your offsets to support.  They also have a custom carbon calculator, which actually estimated my impact at 0.87 metric tons or 2.36 taking into account radiative forcing, or the increased impact on the climate at higher altitudes.

The transaction itself was simple—your credit card information and a few clicks.  The link between action and impact is more complicated.   

Actually offsetting emissions is not simple.  Purchasing offsets does not mean that you can fly as much as you want.  It is unclear that such an approach actually reduces emissions.  There are many experts and scientists who argue that purchasing offsets is a way to reduce guilt rather than emissions

Air travel as it exists, with high emissions to offset ratio, is simply not sustainable.  Perhaps I should reconsider planting those 8 trees.   For now, however, I will purchase what I can and continue to seek ways to reduce my impact in other aspects of my life.