Most of the world’s nations are meeting this week in Egypt for the COP27 (Council of Parties) annual international Climate Conference to negotiate the steps each nation must take to lower greenhouse gas emissions to slow the rapid rate of Earth’s warming. Former Vice President Al Gore spoke passionately of the opportunity African nations have to develop solar and wind technology and become world leaders in creating green economies. He also spoke of the devastating experience of flooding on both island nations from sea level rise and extreme flooding in Pakistan, stating the world is embracing a culture of death, using coal and oil created from dead organic matter to produce toxic emissions that are making the world unlivable.
The countries that have historically produced the most harmful emissions, including the U.S. and Europe, have a moral responsibility to reduce our use of fossil fuels and transfer green technology to developing nations. The U.S. Congress has passed over $1 billion, part of what President Joe Biden asked, in the Inflation Reduction Act to accelerate our rate of change to green energy technology.
Maine is ahead of other states in adapting solar- and wind-produced green electricity. In recent years, the profitability of community solar farms, favorable state laws and Maine’s affordable and large undeveloped land base has caused a large amount of solar electric plants to be built in Southern and Central Maine. (I will write about homeowners’ opportunities to subscribe to one of these cheaper electric options in another article.) Maine also was an early adapter of large-scale wind farms with the Mars Hill wind machines in 2007. The University of Maine continues to advance research on the development of offshore floating wind farms, building on European adoption of this technology. Ocean Power Renewables has also been doing research in generating electricity from Maine ocean tides. So far, their successful products are being purchased for small-scale, remote electric generation in Alaska and outside Maine.
What are greenhouse gases and why does Maine Can’t Wait commit Mainers to reducing them 45% by 2030? Earth has a layer of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere that lets in the sun’s radiation. Picture a greenhouse in which solar energy comes through the clear wall and remains inside to heat the space, becoming radiant heat. Radiant heat from Earth’s surface cannot pass as easily back out through the atmosphere, so it is retained in Earth’s lower atmosphere and warms it. Burning fossil fuels for heating, electricity and transportation produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct. The carbon levels in Earth’s atmosphere have increased since industrialization in the late 1700s from 300 parts per million to 415 parts per million, causing the earth to warm up on average 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit. Much of this heat increase is built in and will continue for over 100 years since carbon dioxide lasts 300-1,000 years in the atmosphere. Other gases cause this same effect, including nitrous oxide and HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons), which are being reduced and replaced with less damaging refrigerants and propellants. Methane, the product of anaerobic decomposition of organic matter, has up to 80 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. However, methane lasts only 12 years. So, reducing our use of fossil fuels that produce carbon dioxide is much more effective at lowering greenhouse gases than reducing our production of methane from landfills or beef production.
World nations agreed last year in the international COP Treaty to limit their greenhouse gas emissions to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), although agreeing that 2.0 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) would be better. In the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden has committed $1.1 billion to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to make steps towards meeting the U.S. part of that promise. Governments, industry, businesses and individuals will all need to change our habits to reduce the use of fossil fuels in heating, cooling, transportation and manufacturing to meet these goals.
Although gas and heating oil prices have risen and probably will continue higher than in past winters, efforts we make to use less gas and heating oil will also lower our carbon emissions. If you are curious how much carbon your family emits, you can calculate either your own or your family’s carbon footprint at conservation.org, a free carbon calculator of Conservation International. It gives you the emissions you could save each day that you eat vegetarian, take a bus to work or increase the gas milage of your car by 5 miles per gallon. A second free carbon calculator that can be used for homes or businesses is British and is found at carbonfootprint.com.
Don’t pass up opportunities to save money by thinking about energy as you go about your daily routines at home, at work, travelling and shopping. Using only the electricity you need is a good start, as we can now install lights at home, in grocery stores and in public places that only come on when we walk by or use that space. Programmable thermostats are now available to turn the heat down indoor house while you are away and increase it before you get home. Closing off doors or vents to rooms we aren’t using will save on central heating costs.
When my birth family lived in Ireland in the late 1960s, each room had a space heater, in a European culture where central heating wasn’t expected. You heated the spaces only when you used them. Bedrooms can be kept 10 degrees cooler than living areas where you spend more time. Old Maine farmhouses had heat on the lower level, often from a woodstove, with bedrooms heated mostly by convection heat coming up the stairs or radiant heat through the floors. Curtains and blinds can be opened to let in sunshine in the cooler seasons and covered with tight-fitting blinds or curtains to reduce heat loss during the longer winter nights.
As a state, our biggest producer of greenhouse gases comes from transportation. Having many rural and small-town communities that are not linked by good buses or trains, Maine families have needed one or more personal cars. Cars have indeed become lighter weight and more efficient in response to a series of higher gas milage standards. There are driving habits that I have adopted to increase my gas milage. Lowering one’s speed will increase miles driven per gallon. Sixty-five miles per hour gets lower mpg than 55 mph by 10%-15% due to lower air resistance. There is a temptation to join the rush of traffic at high speed since we have excellent roads and powerful vehicles. However, driving 10-20 mph slower gives you more time to respond in case of an obstruction in the road or dangerous driver and also allows you time to look at the scenery. Accelerating slowly and not rushing up to a stop will save gas as well as wear on your brakes.
Other people are using hypermiling to get the most miles out of their tank of gas. They will bike or walk to go short distances to a store. They think about the terrain ahead and use as little acceleration and braking as possible. They keep their tires inflated to the recommended pressure. Decreasing your tire pressure as the weather warms in the spring and increasing it now can save 10% of our fuel. Checking the wear on your tires to see if it is even lets you know your car is still aligned properly, which greatly reduces drag on your tires. Keeping your car tuned regularly and changing air filters and spark plugs before they’re worn out gives increased efficiency and is better for your car.
Nancy Chandler studied Animal Behavior and Anthropology at Stanford University, then received her master’s in biology education in her home state of North Carolina at U.N.C. Chapel Hill. She is passionate about teaching energy conservation and hopes to get you thinking about how to use energy use efficiently to save both money and reduce greenhouse warming gases.
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