Homework for a Healthy Planet

Neelakshi Joshi brings carbon footprint calculations into the classroom

By Olivia DeBourcier

educing your annual carbon emissions by two tonnes sounds like an impossible task. But Forrest Wells, a third-year University of Alberta student, is on track for this achievement after a particularly interesting class project.

Students in the Fall 2020 session of Human Geography and Planning 381 were asked to calculate their greenhouse gas emissions and see how a series of lifestyle changes could shrink their carbon footprints.

Have you ever used a carbon footprint calculator? Most go something like this: you enter data for your daily transportation needs, energy use, diet and consumer behaviours. The website then tells you the weight of emissions related to your daily needs.

Some calculators illustrate this by showing how many planet Earths would be required to sustainably support humans if everyone lived as you do. I’m told my lifestyle would take 1½ Earths — which is a bit alarming.

But how accurate are these rough estimates? Neelakshi Joshi wanted her students in HGP 381 to calculate their carbon footprints in rigorous detail. She asked them to track their actual lifestyle needs for a full month, using their own methodology.

Running the experiment

Then in October, she asked her students to continue their measurements while implementing at least one strategy to reduce their consumption. That way they could see if they were making real progress toward a smaller carbon footprint.

For Wells, this meant eating fewer animal products and finding food produced closer to home.

Others tried to be more energy-efficient, for instance by strategically closing blinds when the sun wasn’t streaming in to reduce home heat loss.

Students relied on the City of Edmonton’s Change Habits for Climate Guide which provides tips suited to Edmonton’s winter climate (we can’t all bike to work in January).

Students weren’t expected to achieve a target reduction in emissions, only to try their best and reflect on their choices.

“Some said that the smaller habits were easier to build, for example, being mindful of your thermostat,” Joshi said. “Some habits, which could significantly help to reduce footprints, like changing your means of transport, were a bit less sustainable — especially going into winter.”

Drawing conclusions

Whatever the students decided, it was their job to test how their solutions stood up.

Wells recalls struggling to calculate where his food was coming from. There is little transparency in the food industry, so calculating the emissions released from the transport of a single food item takes a lot of research.

And in the end, Wells found that eating less meat and dairy made by far the biggest difference. His calculations predict he could reduce his carbon emissions by two tonnes if he maintains the same behaviours over the next year.

Not that it would be easy. “Changing the diet was really tough,” said Wells. “I was raised eating meat with most meals and trying to change that was really hard, even though, objectively, I knew it was better to eat less meat.”

But by being consistent with his behaviours and taking incremental steps, Well has kept the new habits up. “I stopped doing this a month ago, and so far, I have been maintaining them.”

“What I ended up doing, I think can be really doable for a lot of people, if you can get over just that little bit of an initial barrier,” said Wells.

This is exactly what Joshi was hoping to hear from her students. As a postdoctoral researcher with a focus on urban planning, Joshi knows that a big part of city planning going forward will be developing municipal climate mitigation strategies. Joshi hopes that the class project taught her students just what it means to reduce carbon emissions on a personal level.

Some criticize efforts aimed at shrinking individual carbon footprints, saying that it shifts blame away from large companies with the highest carbon emissions. But Joshi acknowledges these criticisms even as she finds value in understanding the role of individuals in city planning.

“I think one of the very good reflections of the project was that disproportionately burdening the individual is not something that governments should be doing,” Joshi said in response to this criticism. “We take the burden more as partners.”

Neelakshi Joshi is a member of the Sustainability Council affiliate network. Find out how other University of Alberta researchers are bringing sustainability into the classroom: Learn more.

Meet the students and academics who are discovering solutions to our climate and sustainability challenges. Writing from Edmonton-Amiskwacîwâskahikan, Canada.