Conservation is Key to Reducing Carbon Footprint

An article written for Envision about how to reduce your carbon footprint by examining what happens at the University of Oregon.


Illustration by Anna Ritchie

It seems that whenever you turn on the news there is some story about attempts to be more sustainable in energy consumption. The United States and other countries around the world have historically done a poor job conserving electricity, relying on sources that have left a huge carbon footprint.

Now, with more of a focus on finding ways to reduce that footprint, the goal seems to be to expand clean energy sources — such as solar and wind power. While finding better sources of energy is important, Professor Gregory Bothun stresses the other half of the equation.

“Conservation is the biggest form of sustainable energy that there is,” Bothun said. “People tend to forget this all the time.”

Bothun teaches many courses at the University of Oregon, with an expertise on renewable energy — a subject he has taught for 20 years.

“The typical person can use about 20 to 30 percent less electricity if they have some discipline without any change in lifestyle,” Bothun said. “That is a gigantic amount, that’s eliminating a thousand new coal fire plants that need to be built.”

It’s all pretty simple stuff that can be done. Turning off lights, lowering the temperature on electric heaters and insulating one’s home are all easy ways to offset carbon emissions. People can also drive less, avoid air travel and cut back on beef and dairy consumption.

Blomberg, a manufacturer of energy-efficient products, recently released its 2015 line. Included in it were sustainable refrigerators, washing machines, ovens and cooktops. All were designed for smaller living spaces. As the demand for these types of products increases, more companies will begin to design efficient products.

While it seems so simple to practice conservation, many people feel there is no way that their individual actions could have any effect on the system. This mindset, combined with a huge increase in technology that requires electricity and larger living spaces that need more energy to heat, has led to increased energy usage around the world.

“A lot of this problem is exacerbated by belief in urban legends, failure to be objective and this constant attitude that it’s somebody else’s problem,” Bothun said.

Many institutions, such as the university itself, also waste plenty of electricity. Small changes are being made to fix that, such as constructing LEED certified buildings and the installation of occupancy sensor lights, but problems still exist.

“You walk into Columbia 150 any day of the summer and it’s totally unoccupied and the air conditioning is going full blast,” Bothun said.

There is a contradiction between the rhetoric and the actions that are being taken. All you have to do is simply claim to be sustainable and you will be considered so, because there is no accountability. Due to challenges such as bureaucratic obstacles, it is hard to enact any significant measures.

Despite the increasing footprint, Bothun sees ways in which things can change for the better. New sources of energy are available, like solar waves and biomass, and per capita consumption could go down.

“The future is only bleak when you have actually used up your planet,” Bothun said. “Now that bleak future may be coming, but it’s not for the next 20 years.”