2016 opened on the North Olympic Peninsula of Washington State with nearly 100 Jefferson County residents participating in a team-based competition to measure how much they could reduce their carbon footprints. By the time the competition concluded at a celebratory event on Earth Day and the prizes awarded, the consensus was that while reducing an individual's carbon emissions can be challenging, knowing what actions result in what gains is extremely important in guiding decisions and that working cooperatively with others can be a strong motivator for the common good.
The competition was titled Taming Bigfoot to emphasize the goal of getting a handle on carbon emissions in the Pacific Northwest. It was conceived and run by the Climate Action Outreach Group, a self-organized group affiliated with the larger Local 20/20 organizations of Jefferson County, a county that has formally adopted a goal of reducing carbon emissions by 80% (from 1990 levels) by 2050. The competition was designed to help residents answer the commonly put questions of "what can I do to make a difference?" and "how do I know how much of a difference I make?" In addition to the core educational aspect, other key characteristics of the competition was intended to be both fun and easy for participants and that by working with others, it contributes to strengthening community ties in what is clearly a common need.
A key component of the competition was the carbon footprint calculator used to convert a host of individual actions, e.g., home energy use, transportation activity and shopping habits, into effective pounds of carbon dioxide emitted. Considerable effort went into determining appropriate conversion factors for Jefferson County using recently published energy inventories. These were carefully documented to avoid the "black box" character of many widely available carbon footprint calculators found on the internet. An example of why this was so important is found in the fact that electricity provided by the local utility is based on a mix of hydroelectric and nuclear generation and is many times less carbon intensive than power generated with even a small contribution from coal-fired powerplants.
After an autumn of testing, advertising, endorsement- and sponsor-gathering, applications were sought from the community. Team applications were encouraged but individuals could apply, as well. Each team was required to have seven members with each member fulfilling one of seven roles: a resident of Port Townsend; not a resident of Port Townsend; a youth (age<30); someone living a "green" lifestyle; not yet living "green"; living in a 1 or 2-person household; and a "prominent" citizen. While some of these roles were loosely defined, they did help in standardizing the teams and ensure that some measure of community prominence was associated with each team. In all, 14 complete teams applied, including teams from two churches, a food co-op, local schools and various county organizations. A fifteenth team was assembled from individual applicants. 13 teams completed the entire competition.
The competition began with an enthusiastic Kick-Off event in mid-January where teams introduced themselves, had the rules explained, were shown how to use the calculator and the data recording sheets, and had the opportunity to have their questions answered. Because the competition was based on carbon footprint reduction, the first 4 weeks of the competition were used to collect baseline data from each participant and team. All were asked to live as they had and to postpone their enthusiasm to reduce their emissions until the end of the baseline period.
After the baseline period ended, participants sent their data to their team recorders; team recorders sent their team's results to the organizers, the data were collated and another meeting of all teams was held to share the results. Comparisons of home energy use, water use, non-recycled garbage generated, transportation and selected categories of food and shopping purchases illuminated the variety of emission profiles across the teams. Differences were clear between those heating their homes with electricity rather than propane, wood, or fuel oil. And all teams had a larger carbon footprint from the transportation sector than either the home energy/water/garbage or food/shopping sector. These were important lessons teams took with them as they dispersed to begin the two-month long phase of the competition where the goal was to reduce their team's carbon footprint as much as possible.
At approximately the middle of the reduction phase of the competition another data check was completed so each team could assess where they stood relative to their competition. Airline travel, a severely carbon-emission intensive activity, heavily skewed some of the teams' positions, but as the categories of awards would include the home energy/water/garbage, transportation, and food/shopping sectors individually, as well as an overall category, all was not lost for these high-flying teams.
The much-anticipated culmination of the Taming Bigfoot occurred on Earth Day, when all the standings were announced. Bigfoot him(?)self made an appearance to help congratulate the winners. More than 30 sponsoring businesses donated nearly $3000 in prizes that were distributed to the teams so that every team won a prize package. In addition, there were a few individual winners for the top two reducers in each team role. And there was one special prize for the single individual who maintained the lowest absolute carbon footprint during the two-month carbon emission reduction phase of the competition.
The numbers are important. While the calculator used was not comprehensive, it included most of the large contributors to one's carbon footprint. The average baseline footprint of a 7-person team came in at around 9,770 lbs. CO2/month. This average was reduced by approximately 10% during the reduction phase of the competition as measured by the calculator. There was a large variation in the performances of the various teams and there were numerous external factors affecting the actual reduction: among them, the baseline occurred in cooler average temperatures; the calculator used was strongly indicative but not comprehensive; and a number of large-impact categories, such as airline travel, included some averaging assumptions. Nevertheless, this was a significant reduction and one that all participants shared in. And the lowest footprint of all? The winner of that penultimate prize did so with an average monthly carbon footprint of just 118 lbs. CO2!
The success achieved by Taming Bigfoot can be claimed on many fronts as confirmed by the feedback received by the participants and their comments made as teams accepted their prizes. Participants learned which actions made how much of a difference in their carbon footprints; they have a means to help them make future decisions (the carbon calculator is a freely available tool); a number have adopted less carbon-intensive behaviors (83% of survey respondents said they will incorporate the changes they made into the future); they are learning to ask about local products and organic produce; and they are better prepared to help their friends and neighbors make better, more sustainable choices.
More information on Taming Bigfoot, how the competition was run, the sponsors, the team results, and the tools used to run the competition are available at http://L2020.org/climate-action/bigfoot