La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, October 15th, 2017
I ended my visit to Mexico City a week earlier than agreed upon when leaving La Cruz, but the daily texting with Alef told me that she missed me as well. While searching for a bus ticket, I noticed that a Google search of the phrase Mexico City Puerto Vallarta returned the times and prices for flights and eight out of the first ten links connect you to websites that sell them. Adding bus to the search terms helped by giving eight links to forum-threads on how to travel by bus in Mexico, one link to buy flights and one how to get from an airport by bus. Rather than to piss on Google’s algorithms or its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), I meant to illustrate that even in trivial things like finding a ticket, it is often more difficult to do what is better for the environment.1
Before leaving DF, Antonio took me to see the popular Mexican show wrestling Lucho Libre. The next day, I woke up to some micheladas (an anti-hangover-mix of tomato juice and tequila or beer) and the FIFA World Cup qualifiers of The Netherlands. In most countries I have visited, people seem like the Dutch national team, but not in Mexico. Mexican soccer fans have vivid memories of a penalty (due to a possible dive) by Robben that knocked them out of the last tournament. To Antonio’s great pleasure, Robben and his squad did not qualify this time around. I did not mind the loss that much, because later that day I was going to take a night bus back to Alef.
The ETN night bus to Puerto Vallarta was probably the most comfortable night bus I’ve ever been on, only a bed could be better. Upon entering the city, Puerto Vallarta describes itself as la ciudad más amigable del mundo, or friendliest city of the world. Yes, I’m learning Spanish now. It is a city of about a quarter million inhabitants, with an airport, a cruise terminal, and a large expat community. Upon passing its cruise terminal, I was once more impressed by the size of these ships. While we haven’t seen the first seastead-city yet, some cruise ships already have capacities of entire villages; for example, the Harmony of the Seas offers room for 6,780 passengers and about 2,100 crew members.
In 1865, William S. Jevons (1865) described the exponential increase in Britain’s coal consumption; similar to the increase in CO2 concentrations that we observed in the early nineteenth century (Figure 5.2). In The Coal Question Jevons questioned how long the UK could keep up its consumption before running out of coal. Some authors at the time suggested that technological improvements in efficiency would prevent UK mines from running out.2 Jevons (1865, p.75) contested the idea that technological advances lead to reductions in the consumption of resources: “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.”
Like the World Bank’s argument for the EKC, Jevons challenged static assumptions on consumer behavior. He described three mechanisms through which consumption would increase: First, improved efficiency of resource use or extraction raises the profitability in the industry, which attracts further investments, leading to an expansion of the industry. Second, the improved efficiency allows for new uses becoming viable, raising the consumption in new industries. And, third, the improved efficiency can influence consumer behavior. For example, more fuel-efficient cars do not only enable people to use less fuel for the same distance, it also enables them to drive more.
Whether technological advances decrease, or as Jevons expected increase, resource consumption an empirical question. The literature has defined rebound effects in terms of the technological savings. That is, a rebound effect of hundred percent negates savings due to increased efficiency, zero means no rebound, Jevons argued for rebounds above one hundred percent, between zero and a hundred percent gives partial savings, and negative rebounds would mean saving more than the technological advance alone. Alcott (2005, p. 11)’s literature review summarizes: “Empirically measured rebounds range from less than 1% to several hundred percent, but never zero or less than zero.” In short, when it comes to reducing our CO2 emissions, we should not expect miracles from technological improvements.
The local bus from PV to La Cruz was already steaming hot at ten in the morning. After the night bus I was longing for a shower, but now I started to feel increasingly disgusted with myself. I arrived at Alef her doorstep with a soaked shirt and sweat dripping from my beard, yet she greeted me with a kiss. Although I had only been here for three days before, coming back to Alef felt a bit like coming home. I could unpack my bag pack and breakfast was already waiting for me. We shared breakfast with Karlos, who had come back from DF the day before, and Flor, a friend of Alef who came to work for the season and stays with her until she finds her own place. Together with Luna, it makes a full house. Later that day, Alef and I went to the beach to have a moment to ourselves, and during a swim in the sunset she told me that she loves me for the first time. I love her too. We are novios now.
At the same time, there is hardly anything in La Cruz that reminds me of home, not the dirt road in front of her apartment nor the frequent delivery trucks and their advertisements over speakers. Let alone the size of spiders we find or sharing the apartment with geckos. The fireflies and more frequent shooting stars also turn a walk with Luna into a romantic stroll. Living in a village is also new to me. In some respects, La Cruz is like most villages in Mexico; the church at the market square, the cobblestone streets, and parades of mariachi bands for some saint or party. However, its marina at the Pacific coast also make it unlike most villages. There sometimes seems a divide in between the predominantly American and Canadian expats, sailors, tourist, and the Mexicans. Both in terms of language and wealth. Although there are exceptions like Flor, who speaks almost fluent Spanish, there are more that confirm stereotypes.
I had already met her parents, and this past week Alef met mine on Skype. Alef explained that she is the owner, chef, manager in her restaurant, Organic Love, that serves vegan and vegetarian breakfasts and lunches.3 We told how I have split my time between writing and helping her prepare for the season’s reopening. Everything was cleaned, much was given a new lick of paint, and we rented a car to do some chores and to make a daytrip. One more daytrip, because Alef will get busy soon, she is also opening a new shop next door. Before ending the call, she told my parents not to worry, that she will feed me healthy food and take care of me. My parents did not look worried, just happy to see me after a little more than a month and to meet my new love.
In my last letter from La Cruz, I had promised to give you an estimate of my carbon footprint during my travels so far. This proved to be a bit more complicated than I initially thought. I have based most of my calculations on emissions per passenger kilometer on estimates by the European Environment Agency. Figure 6.1 show their estimates of 14 grams, 68 grams, and 285 grams per passenger kilometer for trains, busses, and plains, respectively.4
For my car travels, I used 80 grams per kilometer, lying between the 42 grams for an occupancy of four people and the 104 grams for the average one-and-a-half-person occupancy.
Figure 6.1: CO2 emissions per passenger and number of assumed passengers by mode of transport.
Source: EU Environment Agency’s twitter (2014), which cites their EEA (2014) report.
Table 6.1 provides the calculations of my estimate of the carbon emissions of my travels. The kilometers travelled are based on the shortest distance by car from maps.google for all modes of transport except for the flights, for which I used the geodesic distance; that is, as the crow flies. These calculations provided me with an estimate of 3.7 tons of emitted CO2 during my travels so far. So far so easy, but when I started to search how much it would cost me to ‘compensate’ my emissions, complications started to arise. Carbonfootprint.com was the first non-advertised result after a google search for carbon offset calculator and sounded trustworthy enough. However, when I entered the details of my Madrid-Mexico flight, I was left surprised over the difference in the estimated CO2 emissions: 0.66 tons instead of the 2.59 tons I had calculated.
Table 6.1: Estimate of CO2 emissions of my travel.
* The ferry emissions estimate comes from CO2nnect.org
Instead of clearing my conscience for only €4.62, I decided to expand my search a little. Table 6.2 provides the results of the replication of my search with nine other carbon calculators. The table shows that there is both wide disagreement among the calculators on the carbon emissions of my flight, ranging between 0.61 tons and 4.53 tons, and mild disagreement on what it costs to compensate these CO2 emissions, from €7 to €24 per ton. These disagreements left me somewhat skeptical of the offset-industry, so afterwards, I performed a google search on social costs of carbon. This search gave an answer of roughly $40 per ton CO2, higher than all the carbon calculators.5 Instead of diving into the fine print of these calculators, I will get back to you on how the social costs of carbon are estimated.
Table 6.2: Results from ten carbon calculators for a flight from Madrid to Mexico.
Before leaving La Cruz, I had mentioned that I hoped to take two steps forward regarding my emissions, as one’s dietary choices also have a considerable influence on one’s emissions. Compared to calculating the emissions from travelling, estimating one’s ‘foodprint’ precisely is even more cumbersome. However, there are some rules of thumb. First, become vegan.6 In case this is a bit too drastic of a change for your taste, you can start by eating less meat, and especially, less lamb and beef. Figure 6.2 gives an overview of the greenhouse gas emissions of twenty food items.7 Figure 6.3 compares the yearly emissions for four samples diets in the UK and US.8 To give a better sense of the magnitudes, the emissions from my long-haul flight are equal to about a year and a half of following a vegan diet instead of my former meat lovers diet.9 Rather than two steps forward, I’m taking many baby steps, and make my progress one plate at the time.
Figure 6.2: Kilograms of CO2 equivalent per kilogram consumed for twenty food items.
Source: Hamerschlag (2011, p. 6)
Figure 6.3: Emissions from UK and US sample diets.
Source: UK estimates are taken from Scarborough et al. (2014) and US estimates from Wilson (2013).
Second, try to limit your ‘food miles’ by buying your product from local producers. The benefits of having the bulk of your diet locally grown food seem obvious; less emissions from transportation and fresh produce. At the same time, obsessing over one’s food-miles seems unnecessary, as Weber and Matthews (2009, p. 3508) suggest: “although food is transported long distances in general (1640 km delivery and 6760 km life-cycle supply chain on average) the GHG emissions associated with food are dominated by the production phase, contributing 83% of the average U.S. household’s 8.1 t CO2e/yr footprint for food consumption. Transportation as a whole represents only 11% of life-cycle GHG emissions…” while this does not dismiss the importance of food miles altogether, when some exotic spices help you with making more sustainable diet choices, ¡adelante!
Third, although seemingly obvious as well, is more debated: buy organic. Obviously, Alef and her good intentions with her organic restaurant may have left me slightly biased, but after going over the literature, I maintain my advice. By using only organic pesticides and fertilizer, organic farming serves soil fertility and biodiversity better than industrial farms and their fields of monocultures.10 Critics point out that organic farming has lower yields and that some environmental impacts are higher per unit of product.11 The lower yields have led some to ask whether switching to organic farming will produce enough to feed the world, and, whether increased demand for organic products could lead to even larger claims on land. While the ability to feed the global population and the extent of increased agricultural claims on land are valid concerns, obviously. Developments in hydroponics and aeroponics allow for increased yields from vertical and indoor farming, which seems to render ‘shortages in land’ false arguments against organic farming. Organic farming need not be the only ingredient of more sustainable food production and it need not lead to more claims on land if we do not allow for this.12
Yesterday, we went on our daytrip to the hot springs of Nuevo Ixtlán. I was amazed to see steam coming off the springs while the air was already humid and above 30 ºC, and surprised that bathing in them was still very relaxing. However, sometimes the road is more memorable than the destination, the roads turned our meant-to-be-chill-daytrip into quite the adventure. I discovered the meaning of a traffic sign saying something like “watch out: there is a river on the road” means that there is indeed a river on the road. The river proved to be a bit too steep of hurdle for our rental car. Fortunately, Alef turns out to be somewhat of mechanic and fixed a loosened plate back to the bumper. The asphalted roads turned into grit roads turned into dirt roads with hardly any other traffic, and with the GPS saying that it was only ten minutes more to our destination, it seemed alright to share a few puffs with Alef.
I noticed that it was good weed when the drive started to turn into a game of trying to evade muddy pools and to stay on paths with stones as much as possible. We were driving among White Morphos, often at the same pace as they were flying. White Morphos are about as big as the more famous Blue Morphos we saw in Xilitla, but then… white. I’m not sure whether it was just one pair of butterflies following us or whether they always like to fly in pairs, but it felt like they were leading the way and keeping us safe. After about twenty minutes, and now only five minutes to our destination, we encountered a second river. The river looked deeper than the first one, so we started to discuss whether we should go on. Alef suggested to measure its depth with our legs, and almost knee-deep into river we saw two Morphos cross. We discussed the best route once more, and for a little while, we became Morphos gliding over the river. Some repairs and a missed exit later, ten minutes had turned into two hours, but we could finally soak ourselves underneath the canopy.
“Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?”
1. I enjoy scholar.google and maps.google a lot and its algorithms provide a daily service to many. Google may also be one of the leaders in CSR (Google’s environmental report, 2017), or is at least perceived as such, ranking 1st in Forbes CSR reputation ranking in 2016 and 3rd in 2017 (Strauss, 2017). Notwithstanding these achievements, Google could try to limit their indirect environmental impact through the influence of their search results on consumer behavior. They may find cancelling their flight service too drastic, but changing the default of prices shown to reflect their social cost of carbon may be a worthwhile stunt to raise awareness, and perhaps it is possible to show only flights when explicitly asked for in the search.
2. For example, Jevons criticizes Hull (1861). The idea that technological improvements will prevent the exhaustion of non-renewable resources also has its contemporaneous versions, see for example Abundance by Diamandis and Kotler (2012), which is nevertheless a worthy reflection on new technologies.
3. And diners only by reservation.
4. Figure 6.1 does not distinguish between short distance and long-haul flights. Korzhenevych et al. (2014) presents emissions per passenger kilometer that are slightly higher for short distance flights (308 grams pp km) and much lower for long distance flights (63 grams pp km); for long-haul flight, Korzhenevych et al. use a load factor of 220 persons and emissions per kilometers that are almost half of the short distance flights.
5. The roughly $40 per ton of CO2 estimate is based on a report by the U.S. government’s Interagency Working Group report, see National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2017), which estimates the social cost of carbon at $42, to be more precise.
6. For example, the Cowspiracy (2014) suggests animal agriculture is the biggest contributor to global warming, which has been contested by Boucher (2016), according to whom fossil fuel consumption has a larger impact. Concerning sustainable diets, Ranganathan et al. (2016) lists eating less as the first response for many.
7. Ranganathan et al. (2016) contains a similar emission figure, but per kilo calories consumed, and contains information on water and land use, but less product categories than Figure 6.2. While their figures lack lamb, goat or sheep, it shows that the water and land footprint of beef again dominate all other categories by a large margin. Figure 6.2 lists CO2 equivalent emissions, because there are other greenhouse gases emitted while raising cows, for instance the more potent methane (CH4). See Scarborough et al. (2014) for a list of the emissions for 94 food items.
8. The estimates presented in Figure 6.3 do not seem to include land use change, Ranganathan et al. (2016) suggests yearly emissions for average US meat consumption amount to 16.6 tons and for a US vegetarian diet to 8.5 tons once one also accounts for the emissions due to land use change.
9. This calculation is meant to provide some suggestion on the order of magnitude of the emissions from air travel relative to dietary choices. Using the Ranganathan et al. (2016) estimates, it would take about four months going meatless to compensate for my travels. Using Figure 6.2 to express the emissions from my long-haul flight differently would give a consumption of 95 kilograms of beef, for instance.
10. For more extensive discussions see Mäder et al. (2002) and a meta-analysis of 71 studies by Tuomisto et al. (2012).
11. Tuomisto et al. (2012, p. 318) concludes: “… that organic farming in Europe has generally lower environmental impacts per unit of area than conventional farming, but due to lower yields and the requirement to build the fertility of land, not always per product unit.” The influence on human health is labelled as insufficient evidence or ambiguous, because several allowed organic pesticides have adverse health effects as well, see Trewavas (2008).
12. The protection of land (and water) is as a crucial element of wildlife conservation, but a somewhat of separate issue. Chapter xx covers the protection of land and marine areas.