The zero-emissions challenge

Zero emissions

Asymptotic Life has published an invaluable 10-part series on how to do an energy audit, with the aim of cutting back to zero carbon emissions. They live on a small ranch in rural Utah and explain the process. The posts are long, informative, and most definitely worth reading.

Part 1. Introduction

George Monbiot says we need to cut carbon emissions below zero to halt global warming. Yes, below zero, as this includes absorbing carbon already present. How can a household do this? The first step is to audit energy use. That’s what they did.

Part 2: Electric Use Audit

Create a spreadsheet with estimated amounts of energy used by each appliance, then determine where and how to cut usage. CFLs and turning off computers and printers are a good start. (Even with that, many devices still draw power when turned off. We need smarter, more efficient electronics, and while we’re at it, universal transformers too. Having one transformer per device that gets tossed out with the device is wasteful.)

Part 3: Heating

Their solution is to burn more wood and use less propane. However, I question the premise that burning wood is carbon-neutral because decaying wood emits carbon too. The rate of decay is much slower for decaying wood vs. a few hours for burning wood, thus the emissions get pumped out much faster with burning. Then there is the problem of particulate emission, which is particularly nasty from wood.

Part 4: Propane Appliances

They turn the hot water heater off at night to save propane. Tankless water heaters are another option, as they only heat water when needed (and do so extremely quickly) but are more expensive. Ditto for stoves with electronic ignition and no pilot light.

Part 5: Transportation

This is always the problematic one. How do we cut automobile usage? Car pool. Plan trips more efficiently so each trip accomplishes multiple things. Buy a more fuel-efficient car. None of which really solves the huge dependence on cars (and trucking) in America.

Part 6: Other Sources of Carbon Emissions

A single round-trip, cross-country flight produces half the Kyoto protocol’s 11,000 pound per person annual allowance of CO2.


Part 7: Tallying It Up

They found they could cut carbon emissions by nearly 70% using “simple and relatively inexpensive changes” but more than that would require major expenses, like for more solar, wind power, and a root cellar. One option, pay for the planting of trees.

Part 8: The Hard Way

To cut emissions to zero means they would use only their solar power for energy. This would lead to a much more primitive life style. Therein lies the problem. To cut emissions to zero on a national level would mean trucking and air transportation would stop, putting millions out of work as all the industries that depend on them would collapse too. A depression would inevitably follow.

In short, cutting emissions to zero the hard way would not be pretty. It would look a lot like the Stone Age, but with internet.

It behooves us all to look at cutting emissions in some sort of planned approach because, speaking for myself, the Stone Age is not where I want to live.

Part 9. Commitment to Action

Make a plan to cut energy, then stick to it. They have a detailed plan and will be reporting back on the implementation at the end of the year.

Part 10: Will You Take the Challenge?

I’ve posted about the step-by-step process through which my wife and I analyzed our CO2 emissions, and how we plan to reduce our carbon impact to zero. Now, I’ll ask you join me in taking the Zero Emissions Challenge. Because if we wait for someone else to act, we may wait too long.

Also includes links to resources to help you calculate your own carbon footprint.

There is a wealth of information in this series. Dive in.


  1. Thanks, Bob, nicely done. One comment: The premise of wood being carbon neutral is that it absorbs carbon as it is produced (grown), and releases exactly the same amount of carbon whether it is burned or decayed– meanwhile the replacement tree is absorbing carbon. Oil & gas on the other hand release carbon that has been stored for centuries, and do nothing to recapture that carbon. While burning wood does accelerate the rate of CO2 release, the net CO2 increase does not change as opposed to decay– assuming, of course, our wood comes from sustainable forestry practices and not clear-cutting. And planting additional trees actually creates a carbon sink that captures and stores carbon from the atmosphere.

    With regard to particulates, clearly wood is not the solution for urban areas (though Moscow stayed alive with wood heat for many years). Urbanites however have other alternatives for reducing emissions, like mass transit, that we rural dwellers don’t have. Also, didn’t you post something recently suggesting that particulates actually help reduce atmospheric temps?

  2. The zero-emissions challenge does pose the big issue squarely I think– in effect that individual solutions aren’t sufficient. We gotta go big and deal with the whole carbon reduction in an economy of massive scale.

    I also challenge the unconditional endorsement of tree planning as a self evident ‘fix”. All trees and especially all forests aren’t equal — and I cannot see where a sapling, any sapling, planted this week can guarantee to carry the offsets demanded of it without being considerate of other issues of biology.

    Plant trees of course. Reduce carbon emissions in your daily life of course… but the real gains lie with how the society as a whole transports and creates energy and handles garbage and greens itself. The BIG personal lifestyle issues are private car use and air travel — but if you don’t have options, what can you do?

    So by all means we make the best bargain we can with our personal carbon footprint but the real reductions are going to be in the way of state panning and retooling.

  3. Planting trees is not a cure-all. Clearly there are limitations, not least in the amount of land on which vialble forests can be planted. But in conjunction with reduction, they are the only carbon sink I am aware of– the only currently viable way of removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

    BTW, I started the series because I found it frustrating that so many people were looking to someone else to fix it for them, saying “they” need to fix it for “us.” IMO, if we wait for national planning, we’ll be drinking sand or swimming to work.

    We found ways to reduce our emissions well below Kyoto allowances (offsetting the remainder with tree planting for a net zero impact). There may be some people who don’t have options, but I bet most people can make a significant reduction. If they’re willing.

  4. We can of course do both. Work on the personal level to cut our carbon footprint and organize on the mass level for societal and governmental change.

    An environmental engineer with extensive knowledge of the subject told me woodburning puts out lots of unpleasant particulates. For DJ in Utah, wood is fine; as a mass solution, it’s not. Unless we want forests to disappear. If ten million people in NY and New England suddenly started using wood, forests would vanish in a few years.

    Some specialized woodburning stoves trap particulates and burn super efficiently, however they require to power the fans (which aren’t essential, but help spread the heat.)

    Wood pellet stoves require electricity, have a computer in them, and need extensive cleaning and maintenance. And the pellets aren’t all that cheap.

  5. Another upside to wood pellets is that they are made not from raw trees, but from sawdust which is an otherwise-wasted byproduct from sawmills. As they burn cleaner, this might be a better option for more populated areas.

    Of course, out here we don’t have a sawmill or a pellet processing plant, so pellets would need to be trucked in from somewhere else, increasing their footprint.

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