Do you have your holiday shopping done yet? Your gift list completed, your menu planned?
On the off-chance that you don’t (it’s ok, I’m not done yet, either), I thought I’d say a few words about keeping your holiday carbon footprint down. There are a lot of sites out there recommending “green” tips, but many of them don’t have much in the way of context–sure, this or that practice might be “green,” but which is the most important? Where is most of the holiday footprint located? What changes can give us the biggest bang for our buck?
I was able to find one article that provides that context–it is about ten years old and British, so there might be some discrepancies with the situation these days in the United States. But many of my readers are not in America anyway, and would have to make some adjustments even if my source material was from the same country as I am.
The reason I’m focusing on Christmas is not just an attempt to be seasonal on my part–for one thing, not all my readers celebrate Christmas. But this one holiday inspires more consumption–and thus more carbon emissions–than almost any other time of year. According to The Carbon Cost of Christmas, 5.5% of Britain’s total annual carbon footprint occurs over Christmas alone. Note that 5.5% of 365 is just over 20. Since the author of that article was counting “Christmas season” as only three days long (Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day), that means cramming 20 days’ worth of emissions into the equivalent of a long weekend.
By the same token, a significant reduction in your Christmas carbon footprint could have a significant influence on your whole year.
Where Does Christmas Carbon Come From?
Cost of Christmas lists four categories of Christmas activities with their average per person carbon costs in kilograms as follows:
Christmas shopping = 310
Decorative lights = 218
Car travel = 96
Holiday food = 26
Since the article doesn’t list exactly how these numbers were derived, it is difficult to be sure how accurate they remain ten years later. I suspect the footprint of lighting may have shrunk somewhat with the popularity of LEDs–though it’s also possible that people have simply added more lights and still use just as much electricity as ever. Also, those inflatable lawn ornaments, the ones that must be constantly hooked to a running blower, have gotten popular in the last five years (at least in the US) and must be demanding a significant amount of electricity.
Still, I suspect that even if the numbers have changed, the order of these categories has not–simply because shopping and lighting each remain extravagant at this time of year (for those who can afford extravagance). That means these are the areas where reduction can give us a very satisfying bang. Not that we’re going to ignore the other two areas.
Cost of Christmas estimates that a reduction of per-person holiday-related emissions of 372 kg of carbon dioxide is not unreasonable. Since their original carbon cost estimate was 650 kg, that’s almost cutting emissions in half–which still leaves the three days of Christmas responsible for over a week’s worth of emissions, but still, that’s a huge improvement.
(Note that these kilograms of carbon dioxide probably do not all come loose during the three days of Christmas–holiday travel, for example, must occur before and after the holiday, not during–but these are emissions made for the sake of those three days.)
Lowering the Cost of Christmas
What strikes me reading the Cost of Christmas is that much of the cost is attributable to things that don’t really add to anybody’s enjoyment: Brits evidently spend a total of £4 billion every year on unwanted Christmas gifts, an average of 92 per person. More to the point, those gifts are responsible for 4.8 million tonnes (that’s almost 5.3 million American tons) of carbon dioxide, or 80 kg per person.
And those lights? A lot of people keep them on all night long, sundown to sun-up. During the majority of those hours, most people are either asleep or inside their dwellings and not looking at anyone’s outside lighting. That suggests that something on the order of two hundred kilograms of carbon emissions per person per season are emitted in order to make light that nobody looks at.
More emissions (the number is significant but much smaller) involves food that nobody eats.
Are there places we can cut our holiday extravagance that actually might involve some personal sacrifice? Yeah, sure, and since said sacrifice is not very painful (and much less painful than climate change), we should have at it. But the low-hanging fruit here is definitely the emissions that bring nobody any use or pleasure at all.
As you go through your holiday preparations this year, be sure to take certain steps–or, if you’ve already made those purchases, take notes for next year. Some of these steps are fairly obvious–if your electric bill normally spikes in December, adjust your light display so that it doesn’t. My husband and I have a modest display, but we also get all our electricity from landfill gas generation, meaning that our electricity is actually carbon negative. See if something similar is available in your area.
You can get a lot of useful tips from lots of great websites. One advantage of holiday “greening” is that it’s a fairly simple way to introduce possible lifestyle changes to other people. For example, you can show up to holiday parties with gifts in reusable decorative bags, rather than wasteful wrapping paper. If the party is likely to involve plastic plates and silverware, bring your own table setting from home (yes, my husband and I do this). And so on. If people ask why you’re being weird, tell them.
As far as gift-giving goes, part of the problem is doubtless poor judgment on the part of the giver. If you have no idea what to give someone, don’t guess–ask, or give a gift card. But I suspect part of the problem is a certain sense of obligation. You don’t really want or need much, so you ask for something you don’t really care all that much about.
Am I right?
Seriously, most people I know–myself included–have to be begged for Christmas wish lists most years. This year, there are some things I want, but not many.
So, if you’re in the position of not really wanting anything, don’t ask for things you don’t really want. Don’t say “I don’t want anything” either, as no one will believe you. Instead, ask for experiences you’ll enjoy (dinner at a favorite restaurant, for example) or ask for charitable donations made in your name.
My go-to wish-list items are requests for donations to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Environmental Defense Fund. If I add a fourth, it’s the ACLU.
The other thing to consider is carbon budgeting–if it’s really important to you to travel hundreds of miles to go see family at this time of year (highly understandable), then go by the lowest-carbon means of travel you can, and cut back your travel at other times of year in order to leave room in your carbon budget for the holidays.
It Came Without Boxes, Ribbons, or Tags!
In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the moral of the story is that Christmas does not require anything in the way of materialistic splendor. Even if you have nothing, you can have Christmas.
It’s worth noting that a lot of people pretty much do have nothing. There are a lot of people who simply can’t afford to spend large amounts of money on unwanted gifts or lights nobody looks at. I realize that being asked to scale back for the sake of the planet is very disheartening when you don’t have any back to scale.
If that’s your situation, then let me say you’re not alone. Plenty of folks don’t have a lot of fat to cut. The good news, if there is any, is that you’re already there. You’re green.