Bonus Challenge: Thanksgiving

Holidays like Thanksgiving are traditional times for family and friends to gather and spend quality time together. With the potential for travel and festive feasts, families were challenged to examine carbon emissions related to the holiday weekend, see what they could do differently next time, and foster discussions around climate change and how shrinking household footprints can make a positive difference. 

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Be grateful, give thanks, and reduce your footprint

For the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, we flipped the switch and briefly changed our focus from emissions related to electricity consumption to emissions that might see a spike in connection to this, and similar, occasions.

Bridging the gap between summer vacations and winter holidays, the Thanksgiving weekend usually sees families and friends gathering to visit, share a decadent feast, and maybe cheer for their favourite CFL team in a Thanksgiving Day game.

It can also add significant emissions to your household carbon footprint. Family visits often mean a boost in travel. Big meals can lead to increased avoidable food waste. Even what you use to cook your Thanksgiving dinner can make a difference.

Get the facts

Is your turkey dinner cooking our glaciers?

The carbon footprint of a traditional turkey dinner is about 31 kg of CO2 and these emissions contribute to global warming.

Electricity carbon intensity, 2020 (grams CO2 equivalent per kWh). Source: Canada Energy Regulator
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A time to reflect on our personal carbon footprints

As we give thanks for everything we are grateful for, it is also a great time to reflect on how our comfortable modern lifestyles contribute to climate change, and actions we can take to have less of an impact and get closer to living net zero. 

If you are reading this you are at least curious about reducing your carbon footprint if not already invested in making a difference, so one action you can take is to use Thanksgiving gatherings as an opportunity to spark discussions around climate change, the effects it has on everything on Earth, the role we play, and steps we can all take to reduce our personal carbon emissions.

Finally, though we say Canadian Thanksgiving to differentiate the US version next month, we do want to recognize that not all people residing within Canada celebrate the day or recognize the day in the same way. For instance, Indigenous Peoples and Acadians do not celebrate,

Quebec celebrates Action de grâce but to a lesser extent than the rest of the country, and in Newfoundland instead of turkey the preferred meal is often Jigg’s Dinner – a boil of salt meat, cabbage, potatoes, and root vegetables.

The household challenge

In the Bonus Thanksgiving Challenge, our households examined the carbon footprint of their Thanksgiving weekend and determined ways to decrease emissions related to travel, food, and cooking. They evaluated out-of-town travel and whether it maximized the right balance between CO2 emissions and practicality. They considered the carbon impact of their Thanksgiving meal, and food footprint in general. Explored changes they can make to reduce food-related emissions. And if cooking is centred around a natural gas stove, whether it is a good time to start looking into an electric induction stove.

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Thanksgiving tips for your household

As with other major holidays, Thanksgiving sees a surge in travel as out-of-town family and friends get together and the way in which you travel can have a big impact on the related carbon emissions.

Don’t be a travel turkey

  • Ground vs air: If you or your family are planning to travel by air, is it feasible to drive instead? A family of four travelling in a car have about 1/5 the CO2 equivalent emissions as they would taking the same trip by air.
  • Assess your ride: If you have more than one vehicle, choose to travel using the one that will get everyone there with the lowest carbon intensity. This means take the car and leave the truck at home, or pick the EV over the gasoline-powered vehicle.
  • Green your rental: Though not yet widespread, there are some EV rental options entering the market. So, if you require a rental car for travelling or during your visit see if you are able to get an EV instead of an internal combustion engine vehicle (ICE).
  • Fly smarter: If you do have to fly, here are a few tips to help reduce your personal carbon footprint for the flight. Book non-stop flights since take offs and landings are more carbon intensive than cruising in the air. Choose economy seats – they have a smaller footprint than business class because they are more compact. Take daytime flights since the secondary heating effects of an aircraft’s contrails are amplified in the colder night skies.

A quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions are from food production and distribution, with land use and farm-stage GHG emissions accounting for approximately 80% of food-related emissions, transportation up to 10%, and food processing, packaging, and storage making up the rest.

You emit what you eat

  • Choose a vegetarian diet: Eliminating meat and seafood from your diet has the biggest positive impact on your food footprint, cutting it between 30-50% depending on how much meat you currently eat.
  • Eat organic: Studies show chemical farming uses more energy than organic farming, and nitrogen fertilizers in soil produce nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas about 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
  • Eat less meat: 58% of food-related emissions are attributed to animal products, and 50% of farmed animal emissions are attributed to beef and lamb. Choosing a plant-rich or vegetarian diet will make the biggest change to your household food footprint.
  • Eat less carbon-intensive meat: When you do eat meat, select those with a smaller carbon footprint. The carbon intensity of beef and lamb is approximately 5 times that of pork and over 7 times for chicken. Similarly, many seafoods have higher intensity footprints than either chicken or pork.
  • Eat local? Although eating local has been promoted for many years, the biggest impact on your food footprint is not reducing how far it travels but changing your diet to less carbon-intensive foods. Transportation accounts for less than 10% of the carbon footprint of most food products and is a fraction of that for the highest emitting foods like beef at 0.5%.
  • Measure your food footprint: You can check out the carbon footprint of many foods using calculators such as this one from the Financial Times.

According to a report from Second Harvest, consumers are responsible for 14% of food loss and waste (FLW). Processing, production, and manufacturing account for 34%, 24% and 13%, respectively. Restaurants, hotels and institutions share 9%; retail is 4%; and distribution 2%.

Waste not, want not

  • Plan ahead: Planning meals and creating a list before shopping for groceries helps reduce food waste due to spoiling.
  • A deal is not always a good deal: That buy-one-get-one deal may seem too good to pass up but if you’re not going to consume the second item before it spoils, it simply adds to food your waste, increases personal emissions, and throws money from your food budget into the garbage or compost bin.
  • Repurpose: Reduce food waste by simply serving leftovers or using them as ingredients when making new meals. After the main dinner, Thanksgiving turkey and vegetables can be turned into soup and pot pies, and the remaining meat can be used in dishes like a stir fry or fajitas.
  • Freeze your footprint: A refrigerator freezer or deep freeze can help preserve food for later use, eliminating food waste and related emissions.
  • Avoid the landfill: If your city or town has municipal compost facilities make sure you are using the service to divert food waste from the landfill where it decomposes over many years, releasing harmful methane gas into the atmosphere.
  • Best before ≠ toss after: Don’t automatically throw out food products as soon as they reach their best before date. They are not regulated nor do they dictate food safety before or after the date. They are provided voluntarily by the manufacturer to indicate the freshness and potential shelf life of a packaged food product if stored under proper conditions.

A recent study found that in the United States, even non-running natural gas stoves emit 2.6 million tonnes of methane (CO2 equivalent) per year which is equal to the emissions of 500,000 cars.

Turn down kitchen emissions

  • Reconsider your cooking experience: Cooking with gas was touted for years as the preferred – or only – choice for seasoned home cooks and professional chefs, but the burning of natural gas, aka: methane, not only contributes to your household footprint, it releases other noxious gases into your home.
  • Eliminate methane for a bigger impact: There is a growing emphasis on reducing methane emissions since, although its lifespan is significantly shorter than CO2, methane’s short-term effects on warming of the atmosphere are much greater with an impact 25 times that of CO2 over a 100-year span and 80 times within the first 20 years.
  • Lower emissions, better performance: Contemporary induction ranges offer extreme performance with the magnetic fields used to generate heat providing a fast, responsive, and precise cooking experience. Heating food and boiling water can be up to 50% faster than electric or gas cooktops.
  • Superior energy efficiency: Up to 90% of the energy produced on an induction range is transferred to food, compared to around 74% on an electric coil range and 40% for a natural gas range.

Did you know?

  • The uniquely North American Thanksgiving feast featuring turkey, squash and pumpkin was introduced to Nova Scotia in the 1750s but the first Canadian Thanksgiving wasn’t celebrated until 1859.
  • It takes about five to seven kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of beef.
  • Organic and kitchen waste makes up about 30% of the waste disposed by Canadian households.
  • In 2019 it was estimated that as much as 58% of food produced in Canada is spoiled or wasted and that 1/3 of that could be “rescued” and distributed across the roughly 7 million Canadians experiencing food insecurity.

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Get yourself to zero

To help your own household get closer to a zero-carbon lifestyle, see how our five families navigated unique journeys to net zero and learn from their shared their personal tips and tricks.