Once upon a time, I thought of myself as a decent citizen of the Earth. In my pre-China life, I took the subway, lived in a small apartment, ate a pescatarian diet and sorted my trash for recycling. On Saturday mornings, I walked to a farmer’s market to buy organic kale, the day’s catch from a local fishing boat, and eggs that came from free-range chickens.
So it was with great confidence that I recently took a carbon footprint quiz created by the World Wildlife Foundation. Based on answers to questions related to how you eat, travel, shop and outfit your house, the online calculator tells you how well you use the planet’s resources – specifically, how much in carbon emissions results from the energy used for your daily activities.
For the first time in a long time, I thought hard about how much I consume in my Beijing life. Now that I’ve adopted the expat lifestyle, I ride taxis every day, eat out carnivorously several times a week and inhabit a nice-sized apartment. Rent includes heat, so I tended to keep the place warm all winter long – toasty enough to go sans sweater at home. Because living costs are lower here, sometimes I find myself making cheap but frivolous purchases.
With trepidation, I counted up how many hours I’d spent traveling in airplanes in the last 12 months. I’d made visits back to New York and other places in the US, plus taken several trips around China, so there would be heavy damage here. For starters, a one-way flight from New York to Beijing produces nearly a ton of carbon emissions – about as much as driving a 2008 Hummer from Beijing to Shanghai and then back again.
My travel hours far exceeded the choices on the WWF quiz, which allowed a maximum of 35 hours. I was dismayed to discover that I had broken the three-digit barrier, and not by a little.
The verdict: I’ve been living as if we had the resources of 4.75 Earths. I’m horrified – it’s as if I’ve personally been chopping down the rainforests.
I’ve resolved to change my resource-squandering ways, and I know it won’t be easy to make up for the damage from a year of frequent flying. It would be difficult, not to mention dispiriting, however, to give up traveling completely. Carbon offsetting is a partial answer, but even that doesn’t seem to be enough. Seeing the world is perhaps the greatest joy of the expatriate life, but we must remember that each flight we take pollutes the sky along the way.
But small changes are a good beginning. Now that the days are warm again, I’m walking a lot more and taking the subway and bus instead of hailing cabs. I’m eating vegetarian most of the time, and seeking out organic produce at the store. When I dine out, I bring my reusable chopsticks. I plan to use soapnuts as an Earth-friendly alternative to lathering detergents and soaps.