Urban Vs. Rural: Who Has a Smaller Carbon Footprint? 

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Over the last two weeks, world leaders have gathered in Paris for COP21 have been trying to assemble a legally binding accord to protect the environment and curb greenhouse gas emissions.

As representatives enter the final stretch of negotiations, we're wondering what our own effect on the environment is. How can the average person calculate their carbon footprint? 

Here to explain some of the hidden emissions in our lives and much more is Cindy Isenhour, an assistant professor of anthropology at University of Maine and a cooperating faculty with the Climate Change Institute. Isenhour is also the author of "Sustainability in the Global City: Myth and Practice."

6 Ways to Shrink Your Carbon Footprint

The United Nations estimates that total carbon emissions will have to decrease over the next three or four decades from about 5 tons per person to 1.6 tons. While negotiators in Paris are finalizing a deal to do that on an international level, here are some tips about how to bring down your carbon footprint. (If you want to figure out how much you're contributing to global warming, check out The Nature Conservancy's carbon calculator. It's particularly tailored to city dwellers.)  

1. Stay Grounded.

While recent research challenges the notion that airplanes are more carbon efficient than cars, planes emit many other dangerous gases, and at such a high altitude, that they are still widely considered the worst way to travel, environmentally speaking. Trains, particularly on electrified lines, tend to be a more carbon-friendly way to cross long distances.  

2. Eat Less Beef.

The website Shrink That Footprint calculated that the typical vegetarian's diet is two-thirds as carbon intensive as the average American's, and the vegan's even lower. The reason: Ruminants like cows and sheep produce a lot of methane. (We'll let Time explain why.) Even eating chicken and canned tuna instead can make a huge difference. 

3. Compost, but Don’t Brag About It.

Food scraps placed in capped landfills decay and produce methane in a way that they don't when tumbled in composters or en plein air. But it's important not to exaggerate how much a difference this makes. "You can recycle and compost all of your materials for a year and it's only going to offset about a third of a long plane flight," Rebecca Benner, New York State Science Director for The Nature Conservancy, said in an interview with WNYC's Soterios Johnson. 

4.  Cram into Small, Crowded Spaces.

Just as airplanes are getting strangely carbon efficient because they are flying at higher capacity than they used to, so too does anything that's crowded. New York's sardine-worthy subways, for example, emit just 0.17 pounds of greenhouse gases per passenger mile traveled, while the figure stands at 0.41 pounds for a "normal" subway nationally. Similarly, The Nature Conservancy estimates that large residential buildings with five or more units, where the apartments insulate one another up, down and sideways, produce about 40 percent less carbon than smaller buildings.

5.  Consume Less.

If by now you are feeling smug because you are a New Yorker who lives in a shoebox apartment and takes the LIRR to the Hamptons for a vacation, consider this: City dwellers consume a lot of carbon indirectly — enough to approach, or even exceed, the carbon footprints of their rural counterparts. "We find in cities folks who are early adopters," University of Maine anthropologist Cynthia Isenhour said on The Takeaway. "They are more responsive to ideas about fashion or technological obsolescence. So they do tend to replace things like clothing, furnishings, and electronics more frequently."

6.  Plant a Tree.

Okay, so you may only offset 48 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, or the equivalent of driving 100 miles or so. But with a little love and care, that tree will keep on taking in carbon dioxide, and spitting out oxygen, year after year.

Press the play button to listen to a full interview with The Nature Conservancy's Rebecca Benner.

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