Gregg Vane’s house has windows. A wall of them, two stories tall, threaded by beams of wood. In the 1990s, when Vane was looking to buy a lot on which to design his first house, he told his real estate agent that he wanted a south-facing lot.
“I was already thinking about trying to take as much advantage as possible of the sunlight and using that to warm the place,” Vane tells me.
Designed to retain the house’s heat, the windows work: “You can take that jacket off,” Vane says after I walk through his front door. “It’s warm in here.”
Vane’s reading Bill Gates’s How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. “The first major part of the book is laying out the problem,” Vane says. There are two numbers: 51,000,000,000 and 0.
51 billion tons of greenhouse gasses emitted per year, globally. These greenhouse gasses hang in our skies and trap heat that would otherwise escape into space, which increases global temperatures.
To avoid a climate disaster (e.g. prevent an increase in temperature so severe as to cause a refugee crisis, disastrous weather and climate events, and the resulting political unrest), humans have to reduce emissions to zero. Per year. By 2050.
“The second chapter [of the book] is, ‘This Will Be Hard,’” Vane says. “If you think about all the things that we do that add carbon to the atmosphere – how we make things, for example – we need energy to do it.” Our entire system of transportation, from building vehicles to driving them, generates carbon emissions. Coal burned for electricity generates carbon emissions. Heating our buildings causes carbon emissions.
So Vane, a planetary scientist, decided to design his Mammoth house with its carbon footprint in mind.
He started with the windows. “In the winter, when the sun angles low and comes in on the eaves, it gives about a two or three degree temperature increase to the house,” Vane says. Free heat. “That’s pretty important if you live in a cold environment like we do.”
Next, he installed radiant floors, composed of fluid-holding polypropylene tubings and concrete. The floors are designed to stop heating the fluid at 80 degrees Fahrenheit to prolong the life of the tubing.
“[The floors are] more efficient,” says Vane, “because you can set the thermostat lower. If your feet are warm, you feel warm.” Typical, forced air heating blasts hot air out of vents in walls, floors, and ceilings. Because radiant floors evenly distribute the heat from the floor toward the ceiling, most of the heat is right where it needs to be: at ground level, keeping you toasty.
Vane then converted his propane boiler to an electric boiler. “Super efficient,” Vane says. “Then I kept the other data that I needed – which was, ‘How much electricity would [the electric boiler] take?’ – to size the solar systems that I put on the roof.”
Vane had the solar panels installed, and they generated enough energy “to basically do everything we needed to do to keep the house warm,” he says. Vane’s panels, windows, and floors eliminated 14 tons per year of greenhouse gas emissions from his house.
“But Bill says we’ve got 51 tons to get rid of per year,” Vane says. So, we’re doing what we can. It’s a drop in the bucket, which shows you why he says, ‘This will be hard.’ But there are solutions. And, I’m actually very encouraged…. I’m pretty confident that we will avoid the disaster scenario. But it will get worse before it gets better. I think there’s no question about that.”
Maybe it has to get worse before it gets better. “A crisis isn’t a crisis until you feel the effect of it directly,” says Vane. “Like the pandemic.” Vane believes it’s on the rich countries that generated much of the carbon emissions to fix the issue.
According to an infographic from the New Yorker’s “Climate Change from A to Z,” “four countries are responsible for half of all historical CO2 emissions. About a hundred and ninety countries are responsible for the other half.” The United States is responsible for 24.5% of all emissions. China is responsible for 14%. Russia: 6.8%. Germany, 5.5%.
According to a Washington Post article from November 11th, President Biden recently pledged to provide $11.4 billion annually to “help poor countries transition to clean energy and adapt to the ravages of climate change.” Of course, that measure depends on approval from Congress.
“There’s not one single solution,” Vane says. “We need everybody to engage in this journey.”