Could you be carbon neutral?

After weeks of rain in the hill country, the smell of burning firewood and baking ovens is a new staple in our neighborhood. The weather does not really turn cold here until February but we like to take our cool weather where we can get it. This time of year is around the time where we hit the carbon cycle and climate change unit in my class. All of my students calculate their carbon footprint for their household, making an audit of their emissions, from waste to transportation. This year, in a very round about way, I was able to donate some store credit I had received to a carbon offset company. That got me thinking about one question, how hard would it really be to become carbon neutral?

Above is my household carbon emissions calculated on the EPA website.

Above is my household carbon emissions calculated on the EPA website.

The first thing anyone will tell you to do is calculate your emissions. I live in a 2 person household, we have a 1000 sq foot apartment that is relatively new. The weather in Austin is incredibly mild in the winter so we often spend about 2 months without using the heat or AC. All of that contributes to us having a really low household energy total. When it comes to transportation we still score below average, but we both work in the county and commute about 15 miles one way to work. The only thing that keeps our transportation low is the fact that we can carpool most days of the week. Finally our waste footprint is tiny, simply because Austin is on the leading edge of the quantity of household items you can recycle. Way to go!

Now that you have numbers, then what? Well for everything, you need a reference point. What should your carbon footprint be, and how can you get there.

graphic co2.JPG

With only an ounce of effort into research, anyone can find out that American households have some of the largest carbon footprints in the world. While a country like China emits more CO2 by far than the USA, their individual household footprint is about 7.5 tons. A study by an MIT class found that when you factor in city infrastructure into the average American household, a homeless person in the USA still emits about 8.5 tons per year.

While states like California are doing their part at the governmental level to cut emissions from energy production, what can you do to offset your emissions? It is unlikely that our household will be able to lower our carbon footprint more without a serious financial investment, or a job location change. Our only real option is to purchase carbon offsets from somewhere else.

First off let me tell you how carbon offsets do not work with a helpful drawn info-graphic below.

This is not how carbon offsets work, even though it would be super cool if it did.

This is not how carbon offsets work, even though it would be super cool if it did.

The sad news is that there is no company that exists in which you can pay off your carbon footprint. The way carbon offset works is that you pay money to a company or organization, and they invest your money in either green technology or forestry. There are industrial carbon capture programs but they are primarily exist to capture emissions from power plants not simply from the atmosphere. There exists also such thing as a carbon credit and exchange but it is mostly available in Europe, and there is enough information on it for another entire blog post.

Choosing the forestry approach

You can pay money to an organization equal to that of your emissions, and they will plant trees to offset your carbon. First off there is literally nothing wrong with planting more trees. That investment is something that will always pay off. However, don’t look at this approach as a 1:1 for your carbon footprint. The trees planted in your name will take upwards of 10 years before they are effectively storing large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. Along with that, these organizations operate all over the world and it is hard to be sure that the trees planted in your name will survive upwards of 10 years or more. Go ahead and donate your money to these organizations, but consider making a cash donation to a local group that is planting trees in your city. This way you can visibly see the benefits of your investment, and even possibly volunteer.

Choosing the green technology approach

This option is not 1:1 with your carbon emissions but it will invest in a greener more efficient future. You can choose to go about this a few different ways but in each situation you are investing in a future that will one day be fossil free.

Stocks: Use your favorite investment website to invest in portfolios that feature green energy. This option has the possibility that your investment will not only pay off with new technology, but move the needle when it comes to creating a fossil free future. Checkout this article on Motley Fool about investing in green energy stocks.

3 Ways to Invest in a Renewable Energy Future -- The Motley Fool

While Apple stole headlines this summer, becoming the first company to reach a $1 trillion market cap, the renewable energy industry celebrated a different milestone beginning with the letter "t." According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), global capacity for solar and wind power generation has exceeded 1 terawatt.

Donations: several non profit organizations will use your donation to invest in energy infrastructure in developing countries. These countries have the most opportunity to invest in green technology because they are often not already committed to an energy type. The nonprofit Everybody solar is trying to bring solar panels to other nonprofits to create energy independence.

We have discussed the “how” but not the why yet. Should you attempt to offset your carbon footprint, even if it is not very successful at the moment? Yes, this is not a question of if you have the money or not, a 1$ donation is more than 0 and will move us one step forward to changing our future of climate change.



Fall Butterflies

Its officially fall here in hill country which means pumpkin spice everything and fall butterflies. Every year, around October, various species of butterflies swarm the hill country. Most often people see them crossing roads in large groups headed in some unknown direction. I collected some photos and interesting tidbits on the most notable species that appear in early fall.

Photo taken by me in Piedra Herrada reserve, Mexico. December 2017

Photo taken by me in Piedra Herrada reserve, Mexico. December 2017

One of the rock stars of the insect world is by far the monarch butterfly. A migration route that takes them from Canada to Mexico, on altering generations, makes them an amazing creature. Think of all the obstacles they must pass through to make it to their destination. Cars, semi trucks, small children, birds with a taste for butterfly, bad weather and much more. These butterflies pass through Austin in October and are a sight to see. Luckily Austin has signed the Mayors Monarch Pledge, along with 300 other cities to complete 24 actions to protect the monarch. The monarchs will arrive in their winter home of Northern Mexico by December. I was lucky to be able to travel to one reserve last year and see them. It was incredible and I highly recommend it to anyone.

A very lovely monarch caterpillar, I snapped this photo on Sept 24 in Austin.

A very lovely monarch caterpillar, I snapped this photo on Sept 24 in Austin.

American Lady (painted lady) Wikimedia Commons (Derek Ramsey 2007)

American Lady (painted lady) Wikimedia Commons (Derek Ramsey 2007)

Easily confused with the monarch, the American Lady is a slightly smaller species that calls this area home. It can be seen on some of the same plants as the monarch, it is unable to survive cold winters so it thrives pretty well in the mild temperatures around Austin.

A Black Swallowtail, photo taken by me Oct 4 2018.

A Black Swallowtail, photo taken by me Oct 4 2018.

The Black Swallowtail is a striking butterfly that is large and catches your eye. This one was found in a garden located around a shopping center. Proof that a little bit of effort can go a long way to providing a habitat for species in our world. Surprisingly this species likes to lay eggs on some of our favorite kitchen herbs, dill, fennel and parsley. You wont see the Black Swallowtail migrate anywhere, it calls many places in the southern USA home.

To see some butterflies you need to hang out around pasture land in rural areas, anywhere with lots of greenery. This year has been a good year for butterflies but overall they are in decline. As we pave over our green spaces for new developments we are taking away habitat for the local species. The best thing you can do is diversify your garden. Plant pollinator friendly plants and let that garden get a little wild with some diversity of wildflowers.

The sound of summer.

The most memorable sound of summer is not that Journey album that you had to stop playing because cars don’t have tape decks anymore. It is the rhythmic and soothing sound of the cicada. If you live in a place where you don’t hear cicadas in the summer, you probably don’t have enough exposed soil or trees around you and you need to move. Located all over the United States these insects spend most of their life underground as a grub (nymph phase) and emerge to serenade us (rather lady cicadas) and mate. You have probably heard of the species (Magicicadas) that spend a whopping 17 years underground before gracing us land lubbers with their song. However, there are numerous other species that live only one year and then emerge.

Tibicen superbus Wikimedia commons

Tibicen superbus Wikimedia commons

They appear in large numbers and seem to swarm the forest or neighborhood all at once. Sometime in May when the weather is just getting warm, before the humidity hits, the cicadas emerge and sing their first song. The first night may be slightly quieter than normal as they are all still growing their wings and drying out. However, as the weeks continue the sounds grow louder each night. Something happens, unknowingly, that time of year. Our thoughts turn to ice cream, poolside bbq’s, and shorts. The days stretch in length and it seems we are given the gift of more time. That sound to me meant an extra hour of biking afterschool and more time spend shoeless in the backyard.  Now it means much of the same, hot days and warm nights.

Texas sees a few species of cicadas but the most common one is the Tibicen superbus. If you catch one on the ground their beautiful green color is noticeable against the brown soil.



How do hummingbirds survive the Texas summer?

On a few of my recent hikes I have experienced a few fly byes from some resident hummingbirds. (cue Top Gun music and sunset scene) I decided to install a feeder on my patio and have been pleasantly surprised with the traffic. However, the more I think about it the more I become increasingly anxious for these little guys. What on earth are they doing here in the dry Texas summer? With no obvious flowering plants around, I can’t seem to figure out what they are eating in midsummer. Insert photo disclaimer-Since I am not a professional national geographic wildlife photographer with a $3000 camera I will be using photos that are available for use from open sources online. 

My photoshop skills are unmatched, hummingbird photo from liscensed for open use. 

My photoshop skills are unmatched, hummingbird photo from liscensed for open use. 

The most common hummingbirds you will probably see in Texas are the buff bellied hummingbird. The males sport a beautiful green collar and the females are characteristically brown and grey. This species is a native breeder but becomes less common in the winter as they head for fairer weather. Another common visitor is a Mexican native that heads north, the Broad Billed hummingbird. The males are really beautiful and I have had at least one come visit my feeder so far.


Hummingbirds migrate to or through Texas in spring and summer. They time their flight path to coincide with blooming of their favorite flowers. While most birders out there know that south Texas and the Texas gulf coast are hot spots for migration, you can see numerous species in central Texas all summer. Their migration is really a feat of endurance and biological evolution. A fully active hummingbird will have to feed every 10 minutes to sustain their metabolism. Surprisingly hummingbirds also eat tiny insects to gain fat and protein in their diet.

What flowers are available to the hummers in June- July? According to an event hosted by TPWD, the Texas humming bird roundup, flowers in the genus Salvia top the list as the most popular food item. With numerous species to choose from, these plants are well adapted to the heat and will produce blooms at various times of the year. So if you are thinking to attract some more tiny winged visitors, throw up a feeder and plant your favorite Salvia.

Salvia  from wikimedia commons

Salvia from wikimedia commons


Sources from this post

Johnson, Sybelle, Hummingbirds found in Texas,


Simnacher, Betsy “Looking to attract hummingbirds to your garden?”

By the way how F****d up is it that TPWD doesn't give the author credit for writing their terrible hummingbird article? I mean it was really bad, maybe they didn't want to put their name on it.