The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

How to Quit Fossil Fuel in a Few Simple Steps!

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By now, most people reading these words probably know why getting off fossil fuel is important, but you might not really know how. It is difficult, and getting off fossil fuel entirely probably requires the collective effort of a whole community (or enough money to build your own personal infrastructure, as some off-the-grid enthusiasts do). It’s a big, overwhelming problem that is hard to think about clearly.

But an individual or a couple can make substantial progress. I have (though I am not entirely off fossil fuel yet). Here’s how.

Step 1: Set a Goal

Do this right now; write down on a piece of paper “I will get off fossil fuel soon.”

Or use whatever wording works for you. The point is to make cutting your fossil fuel use to zero your actual, honest goal. You may or may not succeed, but you won’t likely succeed if you don’t honestly try.

Step 2: List Your Fossil Fuel Uses

I don’t mean to count up how much you use, I mean to itemize the things that you do that constitute fossil fuel use (though it is very helpful to know which uses are the big ones, the places where most of your fossil fuel goes). Here is a hypothetical example:

  • Gas for my car
  • Gas for my lawn mower
  • Gas for public transportation I use
  • Fuel for the airplanes I fly on
  • Heating oil
  • Natural gas for my stove
  • Household electricity
  • Office electricity
  • Food transportation
  • Food processing
  • Creating “stuff” for me to buy

Step 3: Divide and Conquer!

Probably, most of your fossil fuel use falls into just a couple of categories–maybe electricity, gas, and food transportation/processing. Pick one category to work on first. When you have made substantial progress on that, or if you get stuck and have to wait for something to change, work on the next category.

Electricity is probably one of the big ones for most people. 40% of US electricity use is either residential or commercial, meaning citizens have direct control (collectively) over it. That’s huge. Readers in other countries are probably in a similar situation. Not all electricity is from fossil fuel, of course, so your first step here is to find out whether yours is. If you are already on alternative electricity, you’re probably done with this one. Congratulations.

If your electricity is not renewable, you probably don’t have to do without but you will likely have to reduce how much you use. A good way to start is to go on an energy fast. As an educational exercise for yourself, go without electricity for a set period of time, say three days or a week. If that is logistically impossible, you can make exceptions for specific activities (like going to work) or take symbolic steps. For example, if you do not want to turn off your refrigerator and freezer, commit to not opening their doors during the fast–pretend they are not there.  If you must use your computer for work, do so, but commit to not using social media or personal email. The idea is to make an honest effort to do without in order to learn which uses of electricity add something to your life and which do not. You might be surprised.

For example, refrigerators and clothes dryers are major electricity users and most people probably take them for granted, but you can do without either. Line-dried clothes smell divine and refrigerators often become places where people hide food to spoil. If you buy food in small quantities and use it promptly you might not need it, especially if some or all of your meals are vegan.

But, in point of fact, our refrigerator stays on and my husband occasionally uses the dryer on the no-heat setting–and our fossil fuel contribution from home electricity use is now zero. How? Our electric company offers a certain number of kilowatt-hours per month from landfill gas generation and we keep our usage below that number. Landfill gas is the methane that leaks out of landfills. Collecting it and burning it to generate electricity does release carbon dioxide, but methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 is, so our electricity actually has a negative carbon footprint. Isn’t that awesome? Your electric company may offer something similar, and if it doesn’t you can ask them to, or find a new electric company that is more helpful.

You may have to reduce your usage a bit to stay within the limit, but that should not be difficult. We did it by not using our supplemental electric heat, line-drying most of our clothes, switching to energy-efficient appliances and light fixtures, and turning off the electricity at the breaker when we leave home so as not to “leak” power through appliances on stand-by.

Gas is another big one. Some people can get by without a car, but others just can’t. If you happen to be shopping for a new car, you can get a diesel, convert it to biodiesel or veggiediesel, and then find or create a fuel source (some people make veggiediesel from donated used fry oil from restaurants). An electric car is another possibility, if you have enough non-fossil-fuel electric capacity to charge it.

If a new car is not an option for you, try a gas-fast. Again, this means going without as a means of educating yourself. How many places can you get to by bike, on foot, or by public transit (which is usually not fossil-fuel free, but it’s usually an improvement)? How many of the trips you normally take do you really need to make? You might be surprised here, too. Minor lifestyle changes and a little ingenuity might get you out of cars all together.

If you do have to use your car, get thinking about steps you could take in the future and in the meantime set a concrete goal for gas reduction. Our first goal was to use our car less than once per week. We have achieved that for the summer, although in the winter my husband is a volunteer firefighter and he needs to drive to fires. Our next goal is to reduce our total annual gas usage by 10%.

Food can involve a lot of fossil fuel, given how far it usually travels. Factory-farmed meat is especially carbon-intense. I do not know what the carbon footprint of local, free-range meat is–it probably depends a great deal on how the individual grower does things. Ideally, you could grow all your own food or buy food from right near where you live and transport it in a backpack. Don’t laugh, many humans have lived that way, many of them probably happily. You probably don’t have the option, but you can get creative about ways to get fossil fuel out of your food in future, and in the meantime work on eating local as much as possible (and cutting out factory-farmed meats).

Depending on where you live, this may be easier or harder than you think it should be. A good way to get started is, again, to set manageable but challenging goals. For example, commit to getting all your fruits and vegetables from within your state, or 60% of all your food by weight from within a 50 mile radius, or whatever else works for you. You get to decide whether you want your goals to be detailed (weighing produce and calculating miles) or general (shop mostly at the farmer’s market).

Part of my practice is that when I can’t find local food, I at least stick to food that could be local–for example, bananas don’t grow in my area, so I no longer eat them. I’m not absolute about this; lentils don’t grow in my area, either, but I eat a lot of them. I don’t turn up my nose at what other people offer me when I’m a guest in their home and I make other exceptions, now and then. I find that making exceptions and being flexible makes any discipline easier to stick to.

So Where Does All this Leave You?

Realistically, getting off fossil fuel may be a long-range goal for you, but you’ll get farther if you take achieving your goal seriously. No vague “I guess I’ll try to be a little greener.” Defining sub-goals and achieving them is also important psychologically. Remember, where you get stuck is where you get busy, because other people are probably stuck, too, and you can help un-stick them.

Remember, too, to support political and corporate leadership towards dealing with climate change. The one cannot make it without the many, and the many cannot make it without the one.



Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

One thought on “How to Quit Fossil Fuel in a Few Simple Steps!

  1. Pingback: A Modest Proposal | The Climate Emergency

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