I Did Not Drive a Car For Two Weeks (And Was a Passenger Only Once) — What Impact Did This Have on the Environment?
In November, 2020 I took part in a participation exercise for a Natural Science class in university, and tasked myself with not driving a vehicle for 14 days as my challenge. You might be wondering how much of an impact one person can have on combatting climate change and global warming, and although its true that to truly prevent catastrophic results it requires a complete societal, structural and systems change, individuals are still vital in the fight to protect our planet from dying. The results I found after completing this task surprised me, and made me realize that if I changed my actions and habits more often, there would be significant reductions in carbon emissions.
The United Nations’ goal, Goal 13: Climate action, is a plan to try to decrease Greenhouse gas emissions, and do this by supporting the development of low-carbon technologies and by encouraging citizens to make daily decisions that will assist them in taking part in this initiative to cut emissions. The effects of climate change are wreaking havoc on the world’s environment and responsible for the vast majority of natural disasters that are occurring, meaning many lives are at stake due to these deadly consequences. The most universal motive is to try to prevent the 1.5 degree Celsius rise that is expected to transpire, a shift in warming that would cause almost irreversible repercussions to take place. There are goals set, so that between the years 2010 to 2030 there must be a decrease in about 45% of these harmful Greenhouse gas emissions, otherwise known as CO2 emissions, and by the year 2050 there must not be any release of these emissions into our atmosphere at all (Climate Council, 2020). To reach a situation where there are no emissions would be to get to the point that is considered “net zero”. (UNDP, n.d.)
Why this goal makes for a very important one to focus on is largely because of its significance as arguably the most critical, due to the fact that natural disasters are possible occurrences in every corner of the globe, meaning no community will be an exception to its detriment. Sadly, natural disasters will still affect the world’s most vulnerable and poor the most (McCarthy, 2020), making this issue even more vital for those in privileged communities more power to fight against. Canada is among the top 10 richest countries as of 2019, measured by gross domestic product (GDP) according to the International Monetary Fund (World Population Review, 2020), as well as 9th in the world in terms of CO2 emissions, ahead of heavy polluters like Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, the United Kingdom, Australia and France (World Population Review, 2020). Knowing that a bulk of the burden to go up against the looming disasters rests on our shoulders as Canadians makes it a major spur to start making change immediately.
When fuel and gasoline from a running car is burned and exhausted into the air, what comes with this is the release of CO2 and greenhouse gases, and once these harmful gases get into the world’s atmosphere, this speeds up the process of global warming and climate change (EPA, 2020). That means that the everyday driving that many people around the world take part in is a huge influence on the rapidly accelerating climate change that is inching closer to becoming an irreparable dent in the functioning of our ecosystems. To try to take part in the fight against climate change, I took part in a two week stretch of not driving a car, not including being a passenger, which happened once in this stretch of time.
After a doctor’s appointment on Monday, November 16th, which required me to drive myself about 850 metres, for a 2 or 3 minute drive, one way, to my family doctor’s clinic and back home again, I stayed put at home almost entirely for the next 14 days. Due to my everyday life migrating entirely online, for both work and university, as well as my then long-distance relationship, and friendships in the time of a new wave of outbreaks in the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada, this was a task that presented itself to be extremely simple to achieve.
Some factors that lead to me being able to achieve 14 days of not driving a car myself, inadvertently stemmed from my personal health concerns regarding the surge in Coronavirus in Calgary. I have moderate asthma and suffered through many bouts of asthma attacks and emergency hospital visits by ambulance in the middle of the night annually as a child, so the thought of this possibly happening again due to the novel flu outbreak we were experiencing had me quite content with being sheltered at home.
It has been difficult since the first lockdown occurred in Calgary in March, 2020, because I am a very active person who loves to go to public events, travel, meet friends and go outside in general, and especially because I admittedly love driving as well. The evolving restrictions and government recommendations across Canada signaled the likelihood of another harder lockdown in the near future makes and this made it a little bit easier to stay in the house, and only leave the house for some short walks in the neighbourhood.
The one time I was a passenger in a vehicle during this 14 day period was early on in the first week of these two weeks, on November 18th. I was on my way out of the door for a walk around the block in the evening time, when I bumped into my mom returning home and exiting her vehicle after an errand run. She invited me to go for a short drive to get out of the house for a change in scenery and to see some of the newly added Christmas lights at night in the neighbouring communities close to our house. It was an invitation that I couldn’t say no to, and I decided that just going out that one time would not completely move my goal off course, although this was admittedly a non-essential, leisure drive. On the bright side, I still managed to go a full week without being a driver or passenger in a vehicle as of November 30th, 2020, and I was able to resist the temptation of driving myself dating back to November 16th.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, after driving a single mile, the average car will release 404 grams of CO2, which equates to 404 grams per 1.61 kilometres (EPA, 2018). On my last excursion outside as a driver of a vehicle on November 16, I drove a total of 1.7 kilometres, which was a sound way to transition into the 2 week challenge of not driving a vehicle. On my November 18 passenger ride, the total distance amounted to about 14.8 kilometres, which again was the only time I was in a vehicle for almost half of the month of November. EPA also averages out that the average passenger vehicle will be responsible for emitting 4.6 metric tons of CO2 in an entire calendar year.
To try to calculate based off of the previous formula using miles as a measurement, a total of 14.8 kilometres translates into 9.2 miles, and multiplied by 404 grams of CO2 per mile equals out to 3,716.8 grams of CO2 in a two week span as a passenger in a running, moving vehicle. If I was to avoid using a car at this pace for a full year, I would only be emitting approximately 89,203.2 grams of CO2 in those 12 months. To put this into perspective, there are 1,000,000 grams in 1 tonne, so approximately 89,000 divided by 4.6 million equates to roughly 0.02, or 2%, meaning that my vehicular passenger habits lead to 98% less CO2 emissions than the average vehicle in this two week time period.
Ultimately, this activity was clearly a lot easier to perform during stay at home orders in the midst of a global pandemic, especially when you live in an area of the world that is experiencing a spike in outbreak numbers, forcing you to stay at home. However, knowing that our way of life might have to change in the coming years as more and more companies and educational institutions begin embracing the idea of a more virtual and remote future, it could be the type of lifestyle I could lead beyond the current Coronavirus measures in place.
It is a pleasing thought that I took part in some small way in reducing my overall CO2 emissions, even temporarily, and would recommend others to try to do the same, because of how easy it is, and how little it really impacted my life to perform such a task. There is plenty of reason to believe that with the continued emergence of better transportation systems, cities aiming to become more walkable or bike friendly, electric vehicles becoming more mainstream and affordable, the goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 does not seem like an insurmountable challenge at all.
Climate Council, (2020), What does net zero emissions mean? | Explainer | Climate Council
McCarthy, J., (2020), Why Climate Change and Poverty Are Inextricably Linked (globalcitizen.org)
UNDP, (n.d.) Goal 13: Climate action | UNDP
World Population Review, (2020), (Richest Countries In The World 2020 (worldpopulationreview.com)
World Population Review, (2020), CO2 Emissions by Country 2020 (worldpopulationreview.com)
United States Environmental Protection Agency, (2020), Carbon Pollution from Transportation | Transportation, Air Pollution, and Climate Change | US EPA
United States Environmental Protection Agency, (2018), Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle | Green Vehicle Guide | US EPA