Ratifying Kyoto, One U.S. House at a Time?

Editor's Note: Frustrated by apathy and inaction from politics and industry? Read on - here's a great profile on how you can get militant on climate change.

The Kyoto Protocol has been ratified in a little house on Twillman Avenue in St. Louis, Missouri. The signatories are Claire Schosser and Mike Gaillard, and they’re fully committed to reducing their personal carbon emissions. However, there’s a twist – you could call it the “Twillman Protocol.”

Kyoto doesn’t go nearly far enough. My goal is to meet and beat the Kyoto target. My goal right now is zero CO2. That’s the only thing that makes any sense in terms of justice, in terms of hoping that human beings actually have some future. We human beings are looking at doing ourselves in and a whole lot of others while we’re at it. So I care about that. – Claire
But why? Isn’t it the government’s job to sign onto Kyoto and enforce emissions reductions for the country?

I remember being really disappointed when our leadership refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. It was like we were stepping back and snubbing our nose at the rest of the world. And so I said, fine, they can say that, but I’m an individual person and I can take responsibility for what I do. And there was all this information about how I could do it. – Claire
So, what did Claire “Zero-Carbon” Schosser do? She roped in her partner, Mike, for starters. It turned out they had converging motives to reduce their energy consumption. Mike has a “thrifty streak,” and it’s not just because of the environment. “The less you spend on necessity, the more money that is available for frivolity,” he espouses. Mike would rather spend money on musical instruments than electricity - Claire had found her running mate.

Claire’s mission was to reduce her household emissions from 1990 levels, the standard set by the Kyoto Protocol. Mike had squirreled away utility bills from that year, giving Claire all the data she needed.

The first step saw Claire, a self-described mathophile, hitting the books and the calculator. With texts like “Your Money or Your Life,” “Home Made Money” and “Cool Citizens: Everyday Solutions to Climate Change: Household Solutions,” (PDF) under her arm, Claire was off to a good start. These resources helped her collect information about energy consumption, record it in a way that made it usable, interpret it in a way that was meaningful and take action based on what she had learned.

A research scientist for Monsanto in a previous life, Claire was at home with data and calculations. She started tracking the household’s spending and energy-use figures, a task she said is not as complicated as it might seem. She pointed to a number of helpful Web sites, like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Personal Emissions Calculator, the Energy Star Home Energy Yardstick and the World Resources Institute’s SafeClimate calculator.

Claire explained that calculations need to be based on geographical location, because utility costs to the consumer and the environment vary from place to place. For example, in St. Louis, according to the local public radio station, 85 percent of Claire’s electricity is coal-generated, a fact Claire bemoans, given the alternative technologies that exist.

After she and Mike found out how much carbon their household activities emitted in 1990 (around 20,000 lbs), as well as how much it was costing them, they reviewed their lifestyle and looked for ways to cut back. They went through the “Cool Citizens” document, which lists household measures that save energy, and started ticking things off the list. “Cool Citizens” suggestions range from lowering the water heater temperature and air-drying clothes to replacing windows and whitening the roof.

In 1999, while living in their previous home, they began with some costless measures, which Claire stresses are really easy to take.

All of our lights are compact fluorescents. It does save you money and anybody can do that.

People that don’t already have a programmable thermostat, I highly recommend that they get one – that’s a really easy thing to do. They work very well.

The standard thing they tell you about turning off the light when you’re not in the room – yes, it works!

Turn your thermostat down and put on more clothes. It’s fairly cool in this house – the thermostat’s at 66 degrees F (around 19 degrees C). We keep it at 66 during winter and I have three layers of clothes on so I can stand it at 66 degrees.

Increase your air conditioning thermostat by 3 degrees F (around 2 degrees C) in summer. Ours is set at 80 (around 27 degrees C) so for us that wouldn’t work, but for someone who’s got it set at 76 (around 24 degrees C), which is fairly common, if they set it up to 79 (around 26 degrees C), they’re really going to be about the same comfort level. They’re going to save themselves a lot of money, having just walked over to their thermostat and punched a couple of buttons or turning a dial – it’s free. -- Claire

As Claire and Mike saved money through low-cost measures, the money for high-cost measures, at the bottom of the list, accumulated in the bank. “Use the savings to leverage the bigger picture,” instructed Claire. It sounds like a science, and for Claire it’s worth the investment in time to work it all out.
After you’ve saved some money from the first things on the list, buy a clothesline, if you don’t have one, so that you can air-dry clothes in summer; or buy a programmable thermostat.

Things like turning your thermostat down, insulating your water heater or putting in water-efficient showerheads save you on a continuing basis – leapfrog from “quick and free” to “low-cost” to higher-cost, longer-payback things. -- Claire

In 2002 they moved to Twillman Avenue, and found out that they had inherited a refrigerator and clothes washer from the 1960s, and a furnace and air-conditioner from the 1970s. Since these appliances were so old, they felt that the amount of energy they’d save with new, more efficient appliances outweighed the embodied energy in the old ones.

They researched the energy-efficiency of household appliances on Web sites like the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and Energy Star, and used their findings to choose a new furnace, air conditioner, clothes washer and refrigerator. “I knew that thing was a major energy-sucker,” Claire said about their old fridge, which was using more than double the electricity of their new fridge.

For each year their new 390-kWh-per-year refrigerator and 95 percent efficient furnace save them money on electricity and natural gas, they collect more dollars for the passive solar glassed-in sun-room they plan for their south-facing porch (not something that’s on the list, but a retrofit permaculturists have been suggesting for years).

In 2005 they employing a qualified home performance contractor to test for air leaks in the house, seal them up and then blow cellulose insulation into previously uninsulated walls. Claire and Mike found the contractor through a local organization, “EarthWays Center.” There are similar resources in other cities that can direct consumers to certified contractors.

The couple suggested some degree of pragmatism in energy-efficiency decision-making. As an example, they decided not to replace their aluminum-framed windows even though they allow more heat loss than windows with frames made with other materials. Their old, double-paned windows were doing a reasonable job at insulating their home, and they decided that the environmental impact of ripping out windows, putting them in the trash and installing newly-fabricated windows was not environmentally or financially worthwhile.

Also, they suggested that if a home’s older appliances are not ridiculously inefficient, it is prudent to consider the energy-use in buying new appliances and sending the old ones to landfill, before launching into a complete kitchen makeover. Claire and Mike left the existing electric range/oven and electric clothes dryer in place because they were less than 10 years old (there have been no significant energy efficiency gains made to these classes of appliances in that time). The EPA’s Web pages on appliances give a good idea of efficiencies comparisons.

While Claire was poring over electricity and gas numbers, Mike was pondering water. Working for Missouri American Water, Mike realizes how precious this resource is.

I see how much material, chemistry, transportation and electricity goes into treating and delivering drinking water. If we were all as aware of it as I am, then we would be embarrassed to flush it down the toilet. – Mike
Mike diverts water, from the Twillman Avenue roof, into large barrels, then siphons it out to flush the toilet and water the garden. Claire explained other water-saving measures like not bathing every single day and sharing bath water. “Not everybody is going to find that a particularly attractive solution, but it works for us,” she smiled. Mike chirped in, “She’s not that dirty and we share each others germs anyway.” Claire offered advice for those who want to take showers rather than baths – invest in a low-flow showerhead and take short showers (less than five minutes).

It’s a matter of making informed decisions about getting what you value in your life, the pair explained. If, for example, you can reduce your paid work to two days a week because you save money through things like sharing the bath water with your partner, the idea of sharing the bath water becomes a lot more attractive.

So what’s the bottom line? What are Claire and Mike’s gains in well-being, energy, money and environmental protection?

For starters, Claire doesn’t have to work. Well actually she works very hard in occupations that are valuable to the community, like being a committed member of the local Zen Center and facilitating a voluntary simplicity study group. But she doesn’t need to work a 9-5 job with a paycheck in order to enjoy a high quality of living. The corporate world wasn’t appealing to her, and when she left Monsanto in 1992, she never looked back. Her job, now, is to save the money she would have had to work for, had she continued living an energy-hungry lifestyle.

What about energy and money savings? In 1990, they consumed 4,400 kWh of electricity and 1,000 CCF of gas, costing them $900. Seventeen years later, their electricity consumption has been cut by 40 percent to 2,700 kWh while their gas consumption has been cut by two thirds to 340 CCF of gas. This still cost them $900.

On the face of it, they haven’t saved any money, however Claire explained that the cost of electricity has increased by around 1 cent per kWh, while the gas price has increased 350 percent in 17 years. Claire and Mike’s consumption in 1990 would have cost them $2,215 today.

When Claire and Mike combine energy savings with other reductions like eating-out less, not maintaining a second car, not paying for the expenses involved in a second job, buying from garage sales, riding their bikes and eating home-grown produce, their savings grow. Claire has traded a paycheck, high stress levels, high consumption and not enough personal time for painless frugality, greatly reduced stress levels, low consumption and time to spend nurturing herself and her community. It’s a win-win situation.

How does the environment benefit from the house on Twillman Avenue? Claire and Mike have decreased their CO2 emissions from around 20,000 lbs in 1990 to less than 10,000 lbs in 2007, about one-quarter of the American average of 41,500 lbs (according to the EPA).

Compared to the average, in one year they prevent 32,000 lbs (16 tons) of CO2 from entering the environment. According to Trees for the Future, one tree absorbs 40 lbs of CO2 in a year. Claire and Mike are doing the work of 800 trees.

The Kyoto Protocol, briefly explained here, called for an average 5 percent reduction in emissions by developed countries, from 1990 levels, by the year 2012. Claire and Mike have reduced their household emissions by 50 percent from 1990 levels. If every American household did the same, it wouldn’t matter if the U.S. government ratified Kyoto or not; it’d all come out in the (cold) wash anyway.

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  • Posted on Feb. 6, 2008. Listed in:

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