The Low Carbon Diet

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Changing your lightbulbs to energy efficient compact fluorescents will reduce your environmental footprint.

Kay Spencer has always been conservation minded. But this summer, after she saw the Al Gore global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth, she was left with an overwhelming sense of doom. "I thought, now what? What else can I do?"

Whatever she might have imagined, it's a safe bet it didn't include going on a diet. But that was before she went to the movie's website ( and discovered a calculator where she could determine her carbon footprint — a measurement of how many pounds of global-warming-causing carbon dioxide she and her family were emitting annually into the atmosphere from their daily lives — energy they used to power their home, to get around and the energy used to make all the products they consumed. Then she began to figure out ways they could cut back on their emissions.

"I realized how easy it was to do some really simple things that had a real impact," says Spencer, who lives in Santa Cruz county in California with her husband and their 16 year-old daughter.

For years, governments and corporations have been balancing out their emissions by participating in carbon-offsetting — the practice in which they invest in renewable energy to compensate for the global-warming pollution they produce. Now, a small but growing number of individuals are trying their hand at something similar, tightening their own personal pollution belts by going on so-called low carbon diets.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy the average person emits about 20 tons — or roughly 40,000 pounds — of carbon dioxide a year. That number includes how much they use personally in their home and for their transportation (about 16,000 pounds), as well as the emissions caused by the products they consume (about 24,000 pounds). That is far above the international average of about 4 tons per capita, which makes America the top five carbon dioxide polluter on the planet.

To come up with her regimen, Spencer consulted a myriad of sources on-line. There are calculators to help assess how much pollution you contribute, along with a variety of sites that tell you how to go on a diet, and still others with carbon-dieting support groups, like those found on the Sierra Club site. Terrapass, a company that sells carbon-offsetting investments to individuals, sends an email to 19,000 people a week with carbon pound weight-loss tips. They also have an active blog where people post their own tips, vote on their willingness to make certain changes (like purchasing a solar-powered water heater) and share their dieting experiences (like their laments about living in an apartment where putting up clotheslines outside is prohibited).

Spencer's first change was the easiest. She replaced all the household light bulbs with compact fluorescents and lost 8,500 pounds. Instead of using the clothes dryer, she hangs her wash outside and uses cold water in the washing machine. That shed another 2,500 pounds. She drives slower — ever accelerating past 55 miles per hour in her Honda Civic. Another 2,500 pounds lost, plus a boost in her mileage up to 39 miles per gallon. Finally, the family devised a new commute plan that enabled her husband and her daughter to ride their bikes to work and school. They also bought an electric bike and that shaved off some more poundage — totaling a loss of 7,600 in transportation emissions. All told, these changes amount to 21,000 pounds of carbon weight loss annually.

That may sound impressive, but the question remains, can individuals really make a difference by reducing their carbon imprint? "It's important for individuals to recognize the scale of the problem and that while their contributions are important, they are not going to be significant unless in addition to taking personal action, they encourage government policy that ensures emission reductions are made on a scale and pace that is needed to avoid the dangerous consequences of global warming," explains Daniel Lashof, the science director of the Natural Resources Defense Council climate center.

Certainly, these aren't new ideas. Tom Arnold, the chief environmental officer of Terrapass, recalls Jimmy Carter in a cardigan urging the nation to be more energy efficient during the OPEC crisis in the 1970s. "People who care about the environment are trying to reframe the issue," he says. "If that means making the ideas a little more sexy and marketing it as a diet, then we'll do it. We say low carbon diets are like a gateway drug, a voluntary initiative that will help people realize that we must change our energy infrastructure."

Energy conservation may be an old-fashioned concept but environmental optimist Alex Steffen, the editor of and the editor of a new Amazon-bestselling book Worldchanging, says technological advances make loosing carbon pounds easier than it used to be. "We have better solutions now," he observes. "We have new materials, new technologies like green energy and hybrid cars, great green design so conserving no longer means we have to live an austere life. Instead we can build lives that are ecologically responsible, fun, dynamic and prosperous."

A new study even suggests that a traditional diet may be good for a carbon diet; the report, to be published this month in The Engineering Economist suggests that people who are overweight burn more gas when they drive. But whether it's low carb or a low carbon, all diets have one thing in common: they only succeed long term if people find a way to maintain the healthier habits past the initial burst of enthusiastic good behavior.