carbon footprint


I posted yesterday about Cool Climate Network’s interactive maps, where you can find find and compare average carbon footprint and average annual vehicle miles traveled by zip code in the US.  I tried in that post to compare the carbon footprints I had calculated here and here to Cool Climate Network’s averages for Joshua Tree, with muddled results because of the variation in carbon footprint numbers each calculators gave me. Today I realized that Cool Climate Network has their own carbon footprint calculator, so I tried it out. I figured I might be better off comparing my carbon footprint to Joshua Tree’s average if they were calculated by the same people.  Who knows, really? I’d love to do a full and convincing inventory, like Saul Griffith in his Long Now talk. Perhaps once I’m licensed…

Cool Climate Network’s carbon footprint calculator is pretty similar to the other three I’ve tried (Carbon Footprint, Nature Conservancy, and Global Footprint Network), but on the simple side. It took about ten minutes. Here are the results:

Cool Climate 2013 Estimate

A total carbon footprint for both Reanna and me of 19.7 tons of CO2 in the last year is “59.9% better than the average household in the United States with 2 people and similar income.” It’s also 55% of the 35.8 tons of CO2 they estimate for average in Joshua Tree. I wonder why they match by income. What I’d really like to know is  our number of standard deviations from the Joshua Tree, US, and worldwide average: where we are on those Bell curves.

Beneath these results, Cool Climate Network lists 41 ways to decrease our carbon footprint, mostly things that the survey did not ask about. We’ve done about 20 of them already, though some we could do more of.  This is another way a more detailed calculator would be better. Those 20 things we’ve done already add up to about 6 tons of CO2, so it may be that our actual footprint is more like 14 tons of CO2.

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These images are from three interactive maps of the US at Cool Climate Network:

JT Average Vehicle Miles

(Joshua Tree in red oval)

Reanna and I drive our Yaris about 1,200 miles a month. That’s less than 40% of average if what they mean is how many miles individuals are traveling in vehicles per month. They could mean how many miles each vehicle travels per month, though, which places us at 75% of average.

JT Average Energy Carbon Footprint

(Joshua Tree in red oval)

JT Average Carbon Footprint

(Joshua Tree in red circle)

I tried out a three carbon footprint calculators (and wrote about it here and here) in 2012, which produced estimates of 10.41, 13.7, and 17 metric tons of CO2 for me. That makes it look like Reanna and I were somewhere between average and 2/3 of average, which I doubt. I bet we’re at half or less of Joshua Tree average–we live in a very small space with solar-generated electricity, don’t spend much money, and drive a fairly efficient vehicle–but I can’t prove it without a really good, thorough carbon footprint calculator. Can anyone recommend one?

 

I posted earlier about my first carbon-footprint calculation attempt, on carbonfootprint.com and thought I’d try another couple calculators to see how they compared.

First, I tried The Nature Conservancy‘s calculator. They gather a lot less detailed information than carbonfootprint.com, but also ask some new questions, like how often I check my truck’s air filter and tire pressure. They also have a way to be clear that I’m getting my individual carbon footprint, not that of my household, which was not so clear with carbonfootprint.com. They calculated my carbon footprint as much bigger than carbonfootprint.com, though, at 17 metric tons of CO2 per year: 17.8% on home energy, 64.6% on driving and flying, 2.8% on waste and recycling, and 14.9% on food and diet.

They also provide an opportunity to offset my entire carbon footprint and calculated the cost for me to do was $255: $15 per metric ton. That’s pretty cheap. I’ll have to look into carbon offset schemes and see if they are convincing.

Second, I tried footprintnetwork.org. They try to calculate how many planet earths it would take to support a population living my lifestyle–an interesting way of thinking about it. They gather a lot of the same information as the other sites, like how local is my food and how much I fly and drive. In some areas they gather more details, like how often I eat each of several kinds of animal products, how often I buy new clothes, furniture, appliances, and computer gear, and what kind of siding my house has.

This site estimates that if everyone lived like I do, we would need 3.5 planet Earths to sustain us. They suggested several ideas that would decrease my footprint: .1 of an Earth if I half my animal product consumption, .2 of an Earth if I “pledge to use less packaging,” .1 of an Earth if I use public transportation once a week, and .1 of an Earth if I do not fly this year because I chose “a local vacation.”

If I did all of these things we would need only three Earths to sustain us all at my standard of living. Half of an Earth’s savings is nothing to scoff at, but doesn’t really get us there. Plus, I already use very little packaging, and do not often fly for vacations.

They estimate how many “global acres of the Earth’s productive area” my lifestyle requires:  7 acres “energy land,” 2 acres “crop land,” 1 acre “grazing land,” 2.5 acres “forest land,” .5 acres “built up land,” and .25 acres “fishing grounds.”

They also calculate my “ecological footprint” percent by category: 52% in services, 11% in goods, 12% in mobility, 4% in shelter, and 16% in food.

Something is wrong about these calculations, but I’d need more details to know what. Half of my land-use is for energy, but half of my footprint is in “services.” What are these services that are using so much energy?

Still, a picture emerges. I have estimates of 10.41, 13.7, and 17 metric tons of CO2 per year, approximately 3-5 times as much as an ethical target. I probably create the most CO2 by burning fuel, driving and flying.

On a challenge from the blog 400 Days ’til 40 I did a quick-and-dirty calculation of our carbon footprint for a year here in California. I just used the top hit on Google for “carbon footprint calculator” and made my best estimates for all the values they asked for:

1. I live in California, USA, in a household of two.

2. I use no natural gas, heating oil, coal, LPG, and no net electricity by virtue of a solar array, thanks to an investment by my father. Reanna and I cook with propane, and a little research is leading me to believe we will go through approximately 50 gallons in a year, maybe less. Our share of the firewood that my parents burn for heat in the evenings is about .4 of a cord. My share of all this contributes .08 metric tons of CO2 per year.

3. I fly to Portland and to Albany every year to work at Not Back to School Camp. That contributes .95 metric tons of CO2. Something like a quarter of a ton for each leg. Pricey!

4. Car travel is the biggest polluter at 5.05 metric tons of CO2. This amount probably varies quite a bit each year and is way up from my Eugene, OR lifestyle. This estimate includes a few trips to town each week, a dozen trips to the LA area, and one long road trip to Canada. That’s a bit less than 2 tons for each of those kinds of commutes.

5. I use a significant amount of bus and train travel on my business (and some other) trips as well, adding about .12 metric tons of CO2.

6. The second biggest polluter is a group of “lifestyle” choices. 1.21 tons for eating animal products, 1 ton for owning one car, .5 tons for eating only “mostly” local produce, .61 tons for buying stuff with packaging, .17 tons for buying “some” new equipment, .41 for throwing some stuff away, 1 ton for sometimes going out to movies and restaurants, and .4 tons for having a bank account. Total = 4.21 metric tons of CO2. (The highest value possible here was 24.53 tons.)

Here is the summary they gave me:

  • Your footprint is 10.41 metric tons per year
  • The average footprint for people in United States is 20.40 metric tons
  • The average for the industrial nations is about 11 metric tons
  • The average worldwide carbon footprint is about 4 metric tons
  • The worldwide target to combat climate change is 2 metric tons

I have plenty of questions about and criticisms of the way this calculator works. They ask my household size first but do not indicate if they are calculating my individual footprint or my household’s. That could change my score quite a bit if I’m taking the blame for Reanna’s share.

I’d like find a calculator which takes into account more specifics, too. I have owned the same car for 20 years, for example, but the way they asked the question gave me the same carbon footprint as someone who has a brand new SUV every year. Miles driven, too, is not as important as number of gallons of gasoline burned (see my mileage/fuel tracking project here). I buy some things with packaging and I throw some stuff in the landfill (see my landfill tracking project here), but “some” is a vague category to hang such a precise 1.02 metric tons of carbon on! What about grass-fed versus industrially produced meat?

On the other hand, two metric tons is a pretty tight carbon budget, and finding a more accurate calculator will not likely shift my score dramatically. And with this calculator, I am at 520% of my two metric tons, this with a relatively low-profile lifestyle for an American. I could come down to 222% if I did not own a car and never drove one. If I also stopped eating animal products and stopped going to movies and restaurants, I would be close, at 112%. If I also stopped flying, I could actually come in under budget, at 64%, leaving some slack for others.

That’s a pretty discouraging proposition! The biggest barrier is the isolation. No travel means never seeing a large part of my family and community. And the idea is that kinds of lifestyle choices would have to become the norm, not just the domain of eccentrics….

I’m going to have to do some more thinking about this.