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David Vognar

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To Drive or Not to Drive

Posted: 04/ 6/2012 2:22 pm

After all the pre-graduate school anxiety over test scores, acceptance and getting scholarship money waned, you'd think a 20-something would be able to relax a little. But a habit of deliberating is a nag and never does quite let you get off easy. In contemplating whether to live at home with the family and commute to graduate school this coming fall or to rent an apartment near campus, I began considering issues aside from convenience and cost. I also thought about how my living arrangements would ameliorate or worsen the most potent threat to our civilization: climate change. As I came to learn, none of the options was as green as I thought it would be.

I try to do my part to fight our drift toward a warmer climate and the volatile weather, social strain and loss of life this will bring. I know temperatures have already risen 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit and scientists predict there is a chance they could rise by 11 degrees by the end of the century. So I compost, recycle like a hawk, take public transportation and try to combine trips when I do use my car.

The problem with commuting to my future school is there is no easy, time-efficient way to get there that doesn't involve driving. I would have to drive myself to a train that would take me to a bus stop -- or simply drive myself to school. As Gernot Wagner writes in his book But Will the Planet Notice?, "However much you recycle or turn off lights, it will be canceled out many times over by your driving a car. Driving ten thousand miles in even the most fuel-efficient Prius produces four tons of carbon dioxide. That matches annual emissions for the average human on the planet." The school I plan to attend is 15 miles by car from my parents' suburban home. Assuming the internship I am required to complete is also about 15 miles away and I drive to and from school and the internship five times a week, I will be driving about 4,000 miles. For my relatively fuel-efficient Hyundai, my carbon emissions will be around 2,679 pounds per year. That is more than 1.5 tons and a significant amount of my yearly emissions, which I'm trying to keep low in the first place.

Driving to the the train and bus would only result in about 630 miles per year or around 400 pounds of carbon released into the atmosphere. (Of course, the bus and train emissions add up too, but as they're shared among more people, this is an improvement in my footprint.) This would be a better option by far, yet it would mean a commute through some dangerous neighborhoods. This isn't something that I worry much about as a native of Chicago's South Side, but it is something my parents worry about. They're also native of Chicago's South Side, of course -- but they're parents.

For a while I thought I could allay their fears and reduce carbon emissions even more by living near campus and commuting to the internship via public transportation. But would living near campus really be that much more effective? In The Third Industrial Revolution, economist and political thinker Jeremy Rifkin writes that buildings contribute more to carbon dioxide emissions than any other source, including driving. They constitute a whopping 49.1 percent of emissions. As Christopher Williams writes on the blog Climate Progress, "...Space heating represents 45 percent of energy use in the average single-family home in the U.S. -- by far the single biggest use of energy for consumers." These thermal emissions constitute one-third of all of U.S. energy use. So even living close to where I'll be spending quite a bit of time is not exactly carbon-free.

There is the additional wrinkle in the scenario of living alone versus living with others. I don't know anyone else who is entering my program, so living alone in a studio at least at first is a real possibility. If I lived alone, I wouldn't be spreading my thermal emissions among others. Many commentators are trumpeting the benefits of living alone, which about one-quarter of all people do in the U.S. While living alone provides independence, it also increases our carbon emissions, and we might need to rethink this trend.

In the end, I feel I could write a dissertation based on all the fact-finding I've been doing in plotting what by all accounts should be a simple decision. But life, much like the Earth I am so concerned about protecting, is a complex and varied thing. I am leaning toward commuting via train and bus, both because of the low carbon impact and because it would save some money. "Living green and saving green," as I see it, has a certain persuasive, if not academic, appeal.