Carbon footprinting still an important tool for raising climate change awareness

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Jan. 14—ANDERSON — Just before Thanksgiving last year, the world’s population surpassed 8 billion people, according to United Nations estimates.

The milestone carries with it ramifications for several facets of society, from economic development to health care to a host of policymaking decisions for governments across the globe.

For climatologists and environmental advocates, it’s also a stark reminder that their messages challenging governments and individuals to make meaningful, climate-friendly lifestyle choices — articulated more urgently in some quarters than others — remain largely unheeded.

Those choices, they contend, could determine how long humanity can live comfortably within the planet’s environmental boundaries while averting — or at least postponing — some of the more dire climate disasters that have been predicted.

“This is the existential issue of our time,” said Dr. John Mulrow, a visiting assistant professor of environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University.

For decades, Mulrow and other earth scientists have paid close attention to carbon footprinting, a method used by individuals, corporations and government entities to estimate their emission volumes of greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to warming temperatures.

According to the Nature Conservancy, the average carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16 tons, among the highest rates in the world and more than four times the average global carbon footprint.

Environmentalists say that carbon footprinting is an important tool for raising awareness and, especially for individuals, helping make informed lifestyle choices. But, they caution, there’s more to solving the climate change puzzle than consumers tracking and reducing their own carbon emissions.

“Having an awareness of our carbon footprint is really important,” said Melissa Widhalm, associate director of the Midwestern Regional Climate Center. “But it’s certainly not the most important thing or the only important thing. Personal choices alone are not enough to stop our world from warming to dangerous levels. Hard stop, bottom line.”

Widhalm also noted that many lifestyle choices cannot be mandated.

“Really, what it comes down to is that as individuals, we just don’t control the majority of our carbon footprint,” she said. “When I flip a light switch, I don’t get to pick where my energy company is sourcing that energy from. Even if I could afford an electric car, when I plug it in, what’s the source of that electricity?”

Mulrow, who has studied environmental science for nearly 20 years, has come to understand that a holistic approach to cutting carbon emissions — even one that produces economic benefits — is easier talked about than accomplished.

“I went through a phase where I was all about getting online, measuring my carbon footprint, doing that one thing to lower my carbon footprint,” he said. “What the footprint calculators don’t ask you is what you do with your dollar savings. Anyone saving money is going to go spend it on something else that has its own carbon footprint.”

In Indiana, several industries are wrestling not only with how much weight carbon footprinting should carry in decisions on materials and production methods, but also with arriving at a consistently reliable standard for calculating emissions.

Agriculture, for example, employs a variety of conservation techniques to preserve resources, including cover crops, direct planting and seeding and integrated pest management. But documenting those measures to comply with myriad federal and state regulations is a daunting task, according to some industry officials.

“We don’t know what the right measurements are, and we don’t know who knows what the right measurements are when it comes to quantifying those things,” said Jeff Cummins, director of state government relations for the Indiana Farm Bureau. “It’s a challenge as you’ve got essentially the entire supply chain right now trying to figure out how to measure and report what makes sense.”

Widhalm said that for Hoosiers, the ripple effects of unrestrained carbon emissions could be far-reaching.

For example, she said, those with allergies could notice longer allergy seasons as warming temperatures contribute to winters becoming wetter, spring arriving earlier and autumn ending later. Drier summers, forecast by many climate scientists, could exacerbate droughts and impact crop yields.

“There are a lot of tangible, very local ways that this global problem becomes our everyday problem if we don’t take steps collectively as a world to reduce our carbon footprint,” she said.

Follow Andy Knight on Twitter @Andrew_J_Knight, or call 765-640-4809.

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