Energy: Should you buy carbon offsets, an EV or solar PV to reduce your environmental impact? It depends.

Some people think they should buy carbon offsets to reduce their environmental impact.

Others think that by switching to an EV, they will reduce their CO2-emissions.

And of course, some think that installing solar PV panels, they will cut their CO2-emissions.

The reality is far more complicated.

Does your electrical utility source most of its electricity from fossil fuels?

Do not buy an EV. Install solar PV panels instead.

If you live in area where all or most of the local electrical utility’s power comes from burning coal, oil or natural gas, then your purchase of an EV will yield a minimal CO2-emissions reduction (and may result in producing more CO2 when the vehicle’s lifetime energy use, half of which typically comes from its manufacture, is included, as it must be).

Installing solar panels will directly reduce your use of their fossil-fuels. Buying solar panels is a more effective first step. Although this too “depends”. If you live in a location beset by endless cloudiness, then you might have to double the solar PV investment to a cost prohibitive level.

If you already drive a relatively fuel efficient vehicle, the best possible choice for the environment is to keep driving that vehicle as long as possible. That’s because of the large amount of energy consumed during the manufacturing of vehicles (for many fuel efficient vehicles, their largest consumption of energy and production of CO2 was when the vehicle was made – not while it is being driven.)

If you replace your existing vehicle with an EV, think through the details.

You either sell your vehicle so someone else uses it to emit CO2, or you junk the vehicle, thereby throwing all the energy used during the manufacturing of the vehicle. The more fuel efficient your existing vehicle is, the larger the percent of lifetime energy was used during its manufacture.

You then buy a new EV, which consumes large amounts of energy in sourcing its raw materials, transporting sub assemblies between factories and vendors, manufacturing and delivering the vehicle. All so you can decrease your usage of gasoline while increasing your local utilities burning of coal, oil or gas and increasing their CO2 emissions!

Details matter!

Does most of your electrical utility power come from “green” energy?

If you live in an area where your local electrical generation comes all or mostly from “green” power such as hydroelectric power, then purchasing an EV or plug in hybrid EV will likely reduce your CO2-emissions.

Installing solar PV may have minimal impact on CO2 reduction – and including the panels raw materials, manufacturing, shipment and installation – may even produce more CO2 emissions.

Is your goal virtual signaling and money is no object?

Install solar PV and buy an EV.

Unfortunately, a survey by Volvo found that about 75% of EV buyers today are doing so for virtue-signaling reasons yet, paradoxically this “helps them to feel better about making less environmentally conscious decisions in “other areas of life.”‘

Wow. That last part is revealing and scary – and likely leads to such individuals increasing their CO2-emissions, rather than decreasing – because people have little understanding of the energy inputs or CO2-emission outputs of their choices.

For example, I know some people who drive one or more expensive Tesla EVs – while living in an area where almost all power comes from non-CO2 emitting hydropower. Their use of a Tesla EV has them feeling self righteous even though their CO2 emissions reductions are nil.

Worse, as wealthy individuals, they take a number of airline flights to Europe and Asia for vacation trips. They likely view their use of a Tesla EV as offsetting their airline CO2 emissions -but they are not even close to doing so.

Consequently, virtue signaling choices can lead to increasing CO2 emissions while falsely believing they are acting good for the environment.

What about carbon offsets?

As noted a day ago, the carbon offset field has its own problems with scams. These include paying people not to cut down trees that they had no plans to cut down anyway, as one example.

Undoubtedly, just as Volvo found that EV purchasers are virtue signaling and then using that as an excuse to make worse environmental decisions, the same occurs with purchasing carbon offsets.

Carbon offset purchases also have built in inefficiencies – you need to purchase them through the equivalent of a broker who likely extracts perhaps a 15% royalty for managing the process. That’s 15% that is not accomplishing any CO2-emissions reductions. Does the broker also verify that the underlying “CO2 asset” is doing what they claim its doing? There are costs associated with insuring compliance and scam avoidance.

A FAR BETTER CHOICE THAN BUYING OFFSETS

If living where your electricity comes from coal and fossil fuels, help your neighbors to:

  1. Reduce their energy consumption by eliminating waste. This includes improving home insulation and minimizing electrical usage (such as incandescent lighting). Consider more efficient appliances, especially including refrigerators, freezers and clothes dryers. Add an insulation blanket to water heaters and/or consider replacing with on-demand water heaters.
  2. Help them install or purchase a solar PV system.

If living where your electricity comes from green sources, then instead of installing solar PV, switch to an EV and/or help your neighbors directly to purchase EVs.

These are examples of taking direct actions where you can see the result without going through brokers (carbon offsets) and potentially investing in scams.

Disclaimer

I began making posts about energy and transportation issues because I am interested in EVs. I think they are neat. But as I did my homework, I realized that purchasing an EV is problematic for me in that it would be mostly charged by fossil fuels, and there are very, very few public charging stations within 150-200 miles of where I live, rendering cross country travel difficult, or at least risky. I learned that plug-in hybrid EVs make far more sense for us – but I also learned that environmentally, it is actually better to drive my 2015 Honda Fit getting about 42 mpg for as long as possible. That’s because most people ignore the invisible energy/emissions used/created during their vehicles manufacturing.

Separately, I run a blog on the widespread use of propaganda to influence individuals and the public, called Social Panic. Even before I read Dr. Hans Rosling’s book Factfulness, I was well aware that what we think we know is often untrue. I read his book just before I began looking at EVs and as I did my own reading, I became aware of widespread misconceptions about climate, EVs and solar PV.

While posting items on this blog about energy and transportation, I have simultaneously been writing at Social Panic about the distorted thinking that has resulted from faulty climate communications. Much of that propaganda is back firing and turning people off to understanding the issues and instead causing them to tune out. Many others with far more qualifications than I are also starting to see this problem.

We have reached a state in social media that I call the “culture of perpetual outrage”. Anything anyone says that you may disagree with (even if you beliefs are poorly sourced and even wrong) is grounds for outrage. Consequently, I end every post on climate communications with the following.

tandard Disclaimer Applies: How to Do Climate Communications – Never Cry Wolf

As I previously wrote

The Nature Conservancy should focus on facts of atmospheric CO2 levels rising, land and sea surface temperature anomalies, ice pack changes, ocean Ph and sea level change (IPCC Synthesis Report, Figure SPM.1) – as reported by reputable scientific bodies, but they did not. Instead they went straight for hyperbole and making untrue claims to promote fear and hysteria.

or

Stick with the facts of CO2 rising, sea level ice and temperature changes, ice mass changes or risk tuning all of us out. Shrill terminology designed to create emotional outrage and responses is a total turn off.

and

The facts are sufficient. The impacts of untrue propaganda hysteria, on the other hand, are to turn off the target completely. We have learned nothing from the parable of the boy who repeatedly cried Wolf!

The propaganda messaging methods in use are leading to public opinions that are not based in facts, logic or evidence. In the U.S. 51% of those aged 18-34 believe humanity may become extinct within 10-15 years, even though there is zero evidence to support such a conclusion. This disconnect between belief and reality risks the potential for major backlash against taking action to reduce CO2-equivalent effects on climate.

Some suggest focusing on solutions and opportunities – instead of unrealistic, dystopian catastrophes designed primarily as click-bait – would be a more effective and positive way forward for climate communications. Instead, we get intense negativity – and falsehoods – that have led to children and adults to seek mental health treatment for induced anxiety.

Personal Notes on Climate Realism

We are taking direct actions to reduce our CO2-equivalent emissions. In late 2019, we are spending $18,000 (before credits) to install a solar PV array that will reduce our home’s annual grid-provided electricity to net zero (likely less). Our utility generates 56% of its electricity by burning coal and 14% by burning natural gas (about half the emissions of coal). Solar PV directly cuts our portion of those GHG emissions to zero.

We are spending over $5,000 to upgrade 40 year old R-19 attic insulation (which has settled such that it is less than that) to R-49 building code standards. For an all electric house, we currently use 1/3d the amount of electricity of similar homes. We heat using locally sourced wood pellets and our home is cold most every winter day. I drive a Honda Fit averaging about 42 mpg and after researching the reality of EV usage in my climate, my geography and within my fossil-fueled electric utility footprint, I plan to keep driving it as long as possible.

While spending an amount similar to a low end electric vehicle, our solar and attic upgrades we will have a far greater reduction in CO2 emissions than buying an EV. About half of an EV’s lifetime CO2 emissions occur during its manufacturing and if you live where your electricity is generated by burning coal, your overall CO2 emissions reductions are small. While EVs will generally reduce CO2 emissions, for many they seem to be primarily a virtue signaling device (a survey by Volvo found about 75% of purchasers said this, and selected an EV because paradoxically it “helps them to feel better about making less environmentally conscious decisions in “other areas of life.” – ouch.)

I post this at the end of each climate communications post because merely asking any questions about climate change results in being called a climate denier or a Nazi.

Call me a climate realist but don’t call me a denier or a Nazi.

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