Calculating your Carbon Footprint – Interview with Holden Bonwit

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Have you ever thought about reducing your carbon footprint? Magali Vander Vorst, a SPEC volunteer sits down with Holden Bonwit, an Engineer and Business Consultant on his experience trying to decipher his family’s footprint and what he learned along the way. 

 Why did you decide to calculate your carbon footprint?

I’ve been hearing about the carbon footprint concept… but I felt like it wasn´t my problem to solve; there wasn’t this magical one-button solution that would rectify your actions, so I put it off. The truth is that the perfect solution doesn’t exist.

What I’ve done is not the solution to live in a carbon neutral way, but it’s a start. Our goal as a family and in sharing this story is that: it doesn’t need to be perfect to start…

How did you start, and what were the hardest things to measure?

I started categorizing the biggest offenders in our lives…one of which is air travel. I used a few of the online calculators for comparison…Once I got comfortable with the numbers I saw, I accepted how bad the actions had been [laughs].  I started getting into the smaller categories such as the impact of purchasing a new cell phone or a laptop.

It is hard to get a quantified carbon footprint for those even if we know that the mining of the materials for those goods is destructive, that the transport of the materials uses fossil fuels and that handling of them is resource intensive (melting plastic, etc.). All that adds up, but I couldn’t find good studies for my summation, which was disappointing.

Another example of hard-to-measure categories is around experiences. The screening of the film has a low impact, but the making of the film, in some cases, has a huge impact. Then, you get to this dilemma: How far do I want to take it. Is the carbon footprint of the film my responsibility because I am paying money to see it?

I decided I couldn’t measure everything, so to avoid losing steam, I decided to double the big offenders and hope that would cover it. I’d be stunned if my flight times two didn’t cover that.

We went back five years in our study, just because you need to pick a place to start. That was to understand our past behaviour.

Once you knew your carbon footprint, what was the next step to offset it?

First, we purchased carbon offsets such as programs to preserve old-growth forests and projects to plant new trees in an environmentally responsible way. 

The second action, we decided to invest in environmental education actions such as SPEC’s, hoping this investment will help shift other people’s behavior in our own community. Similarly, we shared this report with our network, as an example for others on how to start taking responsibility for some of our actions.

After learning about what actions generate a larger carbon footprint, what are the actions you take in your everyday life?

While we do try to reduce our consumption (plastic straws come to mind) and reuse and recycle when possible, these actions get lost in the noise unless the one thing we do is reduce our flights. That’s the one thing we can do that has a much larger impact on climate change. 

We also reduce single-use plastics, but that has an environmental footprint which affects global humans a bit less either in a local waste dump or as microplastics in the ocean. 

As a family, although we are not reducing our flights to zero, we are making a conscious choice to reduce them overall… Now that we know …we can commit to offset them. And our goal is to improve every year.

People must decide where they feel good taking action. For us, that starts by knowing where we stand and how we can improve on it.

Would you recommend to using a calculator to find out the estimated carbon footprint, even if they are not ready to take action?

Definitely! Just doing the exercise is helpful because you recognize where your impact is. 

Often, one of the biggest categories of impact is housing. Heating and cooking energy often comes from fossil fuel sources (including here in BC).  However, some homes (and high rise apartments) have cooking and heating via electricity, originally powered by our electric grid which is quite clean from a carbon standpoint if you ignore damming the reservoir. For my household, heat and cooking ended up being well less than 1%. This is a big difference when you compare to other places that heat and cook with natural gas or coal that are fossil-fuel driven energies. In our case, housing is relatively small, and we wouldn’t have known that if we hadn’t done the calculation.

What misconceptions have you found around carbon footprint?

I’ve been very surprised, since coming to Canada on how people think of electric cars compared to gas cars. There was a study…that said that buying a Humvee (a huge fossil-fueled SUV) was better for the environment than an electric car because the manufacturing of the electric battery was very resource intensive… but had to share that this study has been fully debunked. There are many other studies that show it only takes an electric car a few months, maybe two years max, to compensate for the additional resources needed for the battery. We can also recycle the battery, something that wasn’t taken into account in the original study.

It’s even better to power your electric car with coal-based energy than to use a gasoline car!

If someone is interested, I’d suggest people look at a “Wells to Wheels” comparison, that’s the name of the study for the impact of a car across the full life cycle.

Having a young child and with the new set of goods that requires, do you think it can be even harder to make environmentally-conscious decisions? 

It bears mentioning that having a child is perhaps one of the most carbon-intensive decisions we made; we didn’t take the decision lightly.

… In terms of stuff, hard plastic items, we bought relatively little. We use a resource on Facebook called the Buy Nothing group which is a community-based group where people ask things like “Hey, we just had a baby, can we borrow someone’s bassinet for 6 months?” and someone will reply and tell you if you can keep it, or if they’d like it back. We got 90% of what we needed from that service or as hand-me-downs. In a year, we probably purchased two or three outfits… we consumed much less thanks to the strong community support.

The second area is the everyday consumables like diapers. Vancouver doesn’t have a diaper composting service yet, and diapers are not environmentally friendly… We introduced our infant to the toilet at an extremely young age, and that does save us from some diaper usage. We compared reusable and disposable diapers… we realized that the impact can be higher or lower depending on the environment around you. For example, the huge tax of reusable diapers is around water consumption. But we live in the Pacific Northwest and are blessed with lots of rain. I am not saying we should waste it, but it is not as precious here as if we lived in Los Angeles. On the other side of the argument are disposable diapers with a long compost life: they will break down in a landfill, but in some hundred years, which is astounding to me. If I compare that to using a bucket of water, I’ll use that bucket of water. That made us move towards reusable. Overall, customizing the activities to your family needs or location can show you the best environmental choice. There isn’t one best choice for every family, and we actually use a mix of solutions – some toilet, mostly reusables and some disposables.

What do you suggest people should consider around housing and food to reduce their impact?

There is not that much to do in housing here because we have low resource heat. You can put the thermostat lower and wear another sweater but it won’t make a big difference towards the overall outcome. There are other things in your consumption that reduce your impact. Consuming local, for example, helps to avoid using the transportation system we have built that is based on fossil fuels. 

Also, there is a tremendous amount of research that cutting out meat and fish from your diet and, and as a next step, cutting down animal products such as eggs, cheese, and milk can really reduce your impact. A high animal diet is over twice as intensive as a plant-based diet.

As a consultant for fast-growing companies, how do you bring this vision to their business?

I work with businesses building their future growth plans. I introduce aspects that minimize air travel for the company and add a line item to all their financial budgets around carbon offsets for the company’s flights. It’s not perfect but it is a start. 

The main benefit is that it starts a discussion to do something rather than nothing, and then, with that discussion we can improve in the future. 

Carbon offsets are not perfect, but they are a start, and building them into the financial models is important. I haven’t gotten push back from any client; people understand it makes sense.

Looking at the other side of the company, the employees, is there something we can do in our companies to encourage the reduction of our work’s carbon footprint?

I would encourage everyone to ask their employer something as simple as “How do I submit my carbon offsets for my work flight?” 

We have to look at it as “I am starting my actions as an employee to buy the carbon offset for this flight.” It may be $10; it maybe $100. It is in the hands of the employee to raise this up and it has to be presented to the company as part of the cost of doing business. It is important to make this connection because the work actions we carry out as employees have an impact on the environment. Decisions made by “corporations” are really made by humans inside those organizations.

Why did you choose SPEC for your donation towards environmental educational programs? 

I like what SPEC is doing, not only the breadth of activities but also the local nature of them. You have activities in the neighborhood where children can come and learn, as well as programs out at schools. With my actions, I want to help promote these action-oriented initiatives. This is different from protecting an old-growth forest and planting new trees, but it’s equally important. 

I just saw a two-min video with Greta Thunberg and another activist where they said we need to start doing three things: protect the environment, grow new environment, and educate on the environment. When I saw that I was like, “Hey, that’s what we do!” [laughs]. That reassured us that it was a good starting point. 

Your dad said to leave the campsite cleaner than how you found it. Is this your way of continuing that legacy?

That mentality was true in our life. We would pick up trash and organize the campsite and leave it cleaner than it was, but when we went back to our default world, we didn’t leave it cleaner; we drove polluting cars and contributed to unsustainable landfills. Basically, we outsourced our actions, without looking at how positive or negative they were.

As a child, I never pieced together that disconnect, but as an adult, I realize that we understand the right thing to do, but we are not doing it for some reason. 

We pushed aside the environment as being that thing out in the mountains or the desert, but really, we are in the environment when we are in the city. We are just not taking the same set of actions in our everyday lives as we take when we are on an outdoors trip.

Growing up, there was certainly respect for the beauty of Earth, and now I would like to extend that respect to appreciate it actively instead of passively.

 Access Holden’s full report