A practical guide for saving the planet

March 21 2013

Fellow citizens of the blue planet,

I've dedicated my career to the sustainable business movement. At present, I serve as the global head of sustainable innovation for a $3B company, and teach MBA students as an adjunct professor of sustainable entrepreneurship.

How do you make a dent in the most critical issue of our times? Here are the most important actions you can take, ranked by highest impact. I've used a breakdown of US carbon sources to represent global (industrialized-world) environmental impacts.

1. Electricity: 34% of total emissions
The main sources of electricity in the home are air conditioning, followed by refrigeration, heating, clothes drying, and your television. Turn the thermostat down in winter and up in summer, and practice efficiency for the others. Wash in cold water and line dry when you can. If you pay for your electricity, you can request to buy a percentage from renewable sources, sometimes even at no cost to you.

2. Transportation: 27%
a) Flying
My work flight to Paris last week itself exceeded the carbon emissions of a typical Indian over an entire year (1.5 tons). When I can't avoid flying, I purchase carbon offsets, which fund projects that remove an equivalent amount of carbon from the atmosphere. Offsetting my Boston-Paris roundtrip flight, for example, costs about $18 -- about 2% of the flight cost. I buy offsets from TerraPass, a reputable offset company; google "terrapass carbon footprint calculator".

b) Driving
Another major source of emissions is our car travel. I love my Prius and believe in electric/hybrid cars. To allay a common fear, the batteries are not significant factors; they are 100% recyclable at end of life, and in any case, more than 80% of the total impact of an automobile is the fuel source. Consider also living near your work/school so that you commute less.

3. Industry: 20%
I'm a firm believer free-market innovation, but many environmental costs are business externalities -- that is, business incurs these costs, but society (taxpayers) pay them. Carbon is the classic externality, making the atmosphere our greatest "tragedy of the commons". Write to your government leaders to urge action, especially climate change legislation (thanks for leading here, France and Australia). A US governor once told me that for every 1 call/email she got, she assumed 15 or 20 constituents shared the same belief.

4. Commercial & Residential: 11%
Vote with your dollars by practicing preferential buying behavior for greener products. Do your research on claims and eco-labels (see ecolabelindex.com), but don't be afraid to try to do good and refine your choices later. For example, should you choose organic or local foods? Both turn out to benefit the environment for different (sometimes competing) reasons. Pick your strategy and go for it. As Yogi Berra said, "when you come to a fork in the road, take it."

5. Agriculture: 7%
The choice of the food we eat has tremendous impact, especially protein. I'm not a vegetarian, but I've developed a rule for myself: I eat meat once a day, beef once a week, and lamb once a year. I count fish as half of a meat; download the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Seafood Watch" app and ask questions at seafood restaurants about where the fish comes from. For me, this is the right combination of carbon-frugality with something I'll actually stick to; find a way to reduce your own meat consumption. To learn the basis of my rule, google "ewg meat eaters guide eat smart".

"Anything else you're interested in is not going to happen if you can't breathe the air and drink the water. Don't sit this one out. Do something. You are by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet." -Carl Sagan (often attributed)

Please feel free to ask and challenge.

Asheen Phansey
Boston, MA USA
[email protected]

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