This Earth Day, I had a conversation with fellow Indian-Americans about individual actions we could prioritize, to contribute to a net-zero future. It was part of a climate summit hosted by Indiaspora. Why us? We are citizens and residents of the country that is the most culpable when it comes to causing climate change, while the land of our ancestors is one of the least [the US accounts for more cumulative GHG emissions than any other country, while India’s share is 3%].
India is also one of the most vulnerable and least prepared when it comes to climate change impacts, a product of geography and history. Also, when it comes to the most recent national commitments, the US is yet to step up, while India is one a handful to commit to do its share for a +2°C world. And the US and Europe continue to have consumption based carbon footprints larger than territorial footprints, unlike India [and China].
With political gridlock where it is, I expect public policy to cater to the lowest common denominator, not enough to meet the urgency of the situation. While free markets and free societies have not delivered on the promise yet, we can do our part to change that, at the intersection. The 4 million of us can surely afford to do some heavy lifting with our median household income, to help shape markets and polices as individuals.
We can start with the electricity we use. Those of us who are homeowners can leverage the 70% drop in solar panel prices over the past decade and add rooftop solar, saving money in the long run [sadly, only about 3 million US homes did that over this period]. If our homes are not oriented right or are shaded by large trees [or if we are not homeowners], we can join shared renewables efforts like community choice aggregation or community solar projects that can scale up renewables AND save us money in electric bills. If we don’t have those choices where we live, we can sign on to utility green power options, many of which have marginal premiums today [mine was 4% a few years ago, but is now less than 1%] or can even save money through fuel credits. Let us create more green power communities, like the leading ones in IL, CA, and OR.
We can also electrify our homes. Install induction cooktops [improve indoor air quality and health, while you mimic top chefs], electric hybrid heat pump furnaces, and energy-storing electric heat-pump water heaters [when the gas ones crap out, remember that there are many incentives to invest in these]. Powered by renewables, of course.
While we wait to replace the gas furnace and water heater, we can always offset these emission through carbon balance programs now offered by most gas utilities, for just about $10/yr! Also, did you know that rental car companies have offered carbon offsets since 2008, for less than $2 for 30-day rentals? By the way, when I fly from MSP to BLR, my round trip emissions are equivalent to that of two people in India for an entire year! Thankfully, I can offset my air travel emissions for $30-$40 right from my airline! And no, carbon offsets are not like buying indulgences. They have real positive impacts around the world. Beyond climate change. And yes, the least expensive ones are in low and middle-income countries. Also, since Paris, the additionality claims of offsets can be defined and verified more clearly.
Whether driving our own vehicles or renting, we have no excuse to drive gas guzzlers anymore, although the US average fleet fuel efficiency has dropped to less than 25 MPG. There are many affordable hybrid cars with 40-50 MPG range. Or we can now go all-electric without range anxiety. You can choose from over a dozen makes and models below $40K, the median purchase price of a new car in the US today. If you think EVs are ‘not normal’, you probably thought the same about computers in the 1980s. Think again. Or we will hit the brick wall with carbon mitigation, after we decarbonize electricity. Like Germany has.
Now that we are getting personal [how we cook and what we drive], let us get even closer and talk about what we eat. I went vegan, after I recognized life-cycle environmental impacts beyond dairy’s carbon footprint. Easier for me to do, as I have been a lacto-vegetarian all my life [although I shocked my parents by giving up milk and yogurt]. Even if you can’t do that, try gardening to combat climate change. Go Garden-to-Table or Garden-to-Vase. Grow long-lived plants. Go Native. Mulch, Layer, and Don’t Dig. Choose organic fertilizers [synthetics produce NOx- 300 times more potent than CO2, when it comes to climate change]. Make your own backyard compost. Un-lawn. Plant Cover Crops.
While at it, we can step off the gas [cleaner air and quieter with electric lawn mowers, leaf blowers, hedge trimmers, and pole pruners]. I have one pair of lithium-ion batteries I share with all our summer yard equipment and even our electric snow blower [no rope starters to pull during the polar vortex].
We can also vote with our investment portfolios. And vote for, support, and campaign for climate-friendly politicians. While at it, we should all check and make sure that our corporate PACs do not fund climate-deniers [unfortunately, many corporate PACs do not put their money where their mouth is].
My carbon mitigation journey has evolved over the last two decades. I know that we can all go net-zero or even carbon negative. Today. For the cost of a few dinners out. I have been doing it. For years. And it is getting easier and less ‘expensive’ by the day. I am privileged and can afford the heavier lift. As many of us Indian-American are.
An environmental engineer, Dr. Raj V Rajan has spent over three decades reducing the private sector’s energy and water footprint through independent consulting, startups and executive leadership role in a multinational corporation. He is active in global industry groups focused on climate change and water pollution; has served as an advisor in several public sector international and national guidance, research, and teaching institutions; serves on the Boards of several non-profits shaping the region’s clean energy and environmental policies; and was appointed by successive Minnesota Governors to the Minnesota Clean Water Council. Guided by a strong belief that shaping collective human behavior is more important than just developing technological solutions, he supports promoting the humanities through visual and performing arts to deliver social and environmental change. You can follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.