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Climate Hustle

What’s your carbon footprint and where does it come from?

Posted on 29 April 2014 by Marcin Popkiewicz

When I learned for the first time that an average European is responsible for emissions of almost 10 tons of carbon dioxide per year (and an American double that amount) I was really shocked.

I wanted to know how much of this carbon footprint is related to particular activities: heating, riding a car, flying a plane, food and goods production, home electricity consumption etc. I wanted to know how my carbon footprint relates to the average in my country, in the United States, China or India. Was my emissions level safe for the Earth or maybe it looked like the trace of Godzilla? And most of all – I wanted to know what changes in my life will have a real impact, not just improve my good feeling. I strived to reduce my carbon footprint, so this information was critical for informed decisions.

If you have similar thoughts, the best way to answer them is to use a Personal Carbon Footprint Calculator, official tool of Polish Ministry of Environment for UN COP14 climate conference (there is also a local version of the calculator - you can download it here, installing Adobe AIR first). The calculator will translate your lifestyle into your total carbon footprint, divided into several categories and displayed in a clear graphical form.

Personal carbon footprint calculator - American lifestyle

Illustration 1. American lifestyle: double average US income, suburban house, SUV, meat diet and frequent flying amount to 37 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

The calculator also shows how your carbon footprint would change after some changes to your lifestyle.

Personal Carbon Footprint Calculator - American Lifestyle reconsidered

Illustration 2. American lifestyle reconsidered: half of average US income, city apartment, bicycle and public transport, local vegetarian diet and no flying reduce the footprint to 9 tons of CO2 per year. Excluding the emissions one does not control (bottom yellow bar, representing emission related to the construction and maintenance of roads, tunnels and bridges, lighting the cities, administration, army and police, rescue services, clinics and hospitals, churches, museums, water supply and wastewater systems, schools etc.) the personal emissions is reduced to just over 5 tons CO2/year.

Check your emissions and see, what can you do to lower your carbon footprint. Make an experiment: see what changes to your lifestyle would be needed to reduce your footprint to the world’s average (5 tons CO2/year). For me it was a very enlightening experience.

I realized how many sources of emissions there are and that living in a developed country it’s really hard to reduce the emissions - there is no single silver bullet. I also realized that in my efforts to reduce my carbon footprint I was often fooling myself, doing what was easy, not what was effective.

I often use the calculator during my lectures and workshops. I usually simulate a person living an 'American Lifestyle' (say, Mr Jones) and then ask workshop participants to advice, what should Mr Jones do to significantly reduce his footprint. First suggestion usually is an energy-efficient house. Then things get tricky, because people feel Mr Jones would not necessarily like their suggestions: give up flying, don’t use a car (or sell your SUV and buy something smaller and much more energy efficient – and drive less!), curb your consumption, stop eating meat, take showers instead of baths and don’t use air conditioning.

Mr Jones, willing to preserve both his high consumption lifestyle and an image of a good and responsible citizen, may be tempted to forget the whole issue switching to another topics, denying the problem or saying that his emissions are only an insignificantly small part of the problem (or use a number of other well-known justifications for not-changing-anything).

I wondered about it a lot and decided that doing my best to limit the "height of the carbon footprint bar" is the right thing to do (now it’s around 5.8 tons CO2/year). There are a few reasons, why:

  • There are tipping points in the climate system. There may be a ton that will be "a ton too far".
  • Lower carbon footprint means less spending, leading to savings instead of debt, less pressure to chase the money and more time for what’s really important in life. I’m very happy with this attitude.
  • Pursuing happy selfish consumption now, at a price of extinction of countless species and cataclysmic future of our children is an attitude based on ethics I don't share (well, that's my opinion, some people may think otherwise).
  • Credibility: if you tell others that we have to reduce the emissions, meanwhile driving SUV, flying around the world and buying a lot of stuff, you will be perceived as a hypocrite. This will do more harm then good. We have to walk the talk.
  • We have a natural tendency for forgetting the inconvenient. Constantly placing "carbon footprint issue" high on our agenda list we embed it and solidify, educate ourselves and change the way we view the world and our priorities. It also influences our decisions not only in our personal lives but also in our workplaces.
  • Changing personal attitude helps change the public attitude. Striving for the low-carbon world ourselves we influence our families, friends and other people we meet. This way we don't push the climate towards the tipping point but the society's response to the crisis.
  • Spending your money you influence what will expand and what will contract: support public transport, production of energy efficient appliances and other low-carbon solutions, not companies churning out business-as-usual products.
  • Change in the attitudes means a cultural shift, leading to the change in public policies. As an example, someone driving a SUV will have a tendency to demand cheap fuel and construction of more roads. A person cycling and using a public transport will expect changes in another direction. More people demanding turning towards low-carbon economy will give us a better chance that they finally will be adopted.

So, in my opinion, we should reduce our footprint chiefly not because it reduces the fossil fuels consumption, but because it helps us embrace the issue, encourages self-education, changes our world view, stimulates cultural changes around us and influences public outlook and policies.

Living a low-carbon life in an industrialized country is not easy. Moreover, reducing one’s emissions under 1 ton CO2/year (recommended until 2050) under current infrastructure is next to impossible. We have to redevelop it. The calculator lets you check your impact on the planet given other sources of energy, changes in industry and transport.

But do not wait until it happens by itself. Reducing your own footprint you will stimulate the transition. Sticking to the old ways you maintain the status quo.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 20:

  1. I like the idea, but it does not have the options that apply to me here in Brazil: no house heating and ethanol car.

    Apart from that, it's a good way of having some feel of how diverse are the sources of CO2 emissions.

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  2. Thanks for the interesting link. I thought my score would be low. I'm only traveling by public transport and bike. I'm living in a flat and I seldom fly abroad etc etc. But still ended up on 7 tons. If everyone on this planet would have the same standards as me, that would result in 1.4 times higher emissions, and to stop climate change in that scenario would require 7 planets. That's scary.  (If I understod the summary correctly)

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  3. Should be a compulsory test for everyone (certainly in the developed world). It gave me quite a shock to find that my (what I thought) frugal life-style still coughed up  around 9 tons. Must do better!

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  4. Good reality check. I score under one planet at www.myfootprint.org, but over 9 planets here. Let's get real. Anything remotely resembling a modern life style is f'ing the planet to death. (Sorry for the abreviated profanity, but really, what else can express our utter disregard for the most basic, fundamental ethics of, at the very least, not utterly destroying the next generations chance of the most meager of existence?)

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  5. I live in the country and farm for a living. My carbon footprint according to this calculator is high,but it didn't give me the option of inputting my reality. For example,I live in a straw bale house that is super insulated and uses very little wood to heat,but there was no way to indicate that. I don't use public transit,because there isn't any! I eat meat,but I raise it myself on grass-no grain feeding and no long distance shipping. I eat a lot of frozen food in the winter-which I grew myself,so fewer trips to town to buy food that was shipped from afar.

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  6. When I learned for the first time that an average European is responsible for emissions of almost 10 tons of carbon dioxide per year (and an American double that amount) I was really shocked

    Why shocked ?  Surely after several decades of having it front and centre this has to be obvious ?

    The calculator lets you check your impact on the planet given other sources of energy, changes in industry and transport

    I am still having trouble grasping this, or when you say students do you mean children ?   The whole "keep the fossil fuels in the ground thing" has surely not passed people by, the whole "eat less meat thing" can't have passed people by, let alone owning a meat eating pet, driving a car, flying for holidays etc  The whole Inconvenient Truth thing ? The IPCC thing over several decades ? This is know by all who emit.  I am not expecting the khalari bushmen to be informed but those guys aren't the problem.  Only the deliberately ignorant can't be aware and no amount of education will overcome the "deliberate" bit (watch any discussion on creationism v evolution for proof of that).   

    I am genuinely lost here (and am not having a go at the author), this seems like a bizarre thought experiment,  the very reason people push back against CO2e reduction is how they think will impact their lifestlye today and tomorrow.  

    Below are various quotes I have clipped from Guardian CIF section over time that speak to this...

    Someone who accepts the science yet finds a way to avoid taking personal responsibility for his or her share of the problem probably can't be convinced to act by more science. They have already distanced their behaviour from contributing to the problem. The more you repeat the science to that person, the more that person blames government, oil companies etal for satisfying that person's own demand for their fossil fuelled lifestyle.

    People who campaign against slavery don't own slaves. People who campaign against smoking don't smoke. People who campaign against violence against women do not commit violence against women. And so it goes for almost all causes - except for climate change. Then, somehow, it becomes not only acceptable but almost obligatory for people who campaign against fossil fuels to burn more than their fair share of them.

    James Garvey speaks to this with Causal Inefficacy

    @3 It's not so much about frugality (albeit that can help, it's about emissions)  Buying a cheap used car, taking the dog for a walk instead of joining a gym, flying on a budget airline and holidaying during the low season are all frugal activites that leave large C02e footprints.  Or am I confusing your concept of frugality with living a simpler life ah la Ms Pick ?  Confronting people with their large emissions is still socially taboo because it's acceptable and you're expected to try and match emissions with Al Gore.  I have a hell of a time telling friends not to fly across the country (or across the World) to go for a hike etc, let alone not driving 4 hours to go for the same thing.  Take a hike is the least of the retorts :) and yet if they were engaged in something equally repugnant like slavery ?  They gasp at the thought and "hyperbole" is mixed in with plenty of other adjectives but rampant CO2e emissions, that's much worse... much much worse and yet ... crickets...

    willi @ 4 gets it :)  

    The whole thing is a circle jerk (can I say that on here ?)  Look at say The Guardian, they have a section promoting Travel, then juxtapose that with the section on Climate Change.  Allegorically it would be like having a whole section on paedophilia and people being okay with that... and that from a "responsible" media outlet.  We're in some sort of bizzaro world.  We are so far away from "getting serious" on emissions reductions it's laughable.  No way we're getting anywhere until people who do get the Science stop emitting. 

    The recently embroiled incontroversy, Stephan Lewandowsk wrote about this years ago:

    When shown the trajectory of annual CO2 emissions, which to date has exhibited an ever-accelerating increase, the majority of people will propose that stabilization of emissions, or a slight decrease, will be sufficient to stabilize atmospheric CO2.

    This is completely and inescapably false.

    Whatever we're doing now has failed spectacularly to reduce global emissions, more of the same seems absurd.

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  7. good reminder, thanks.

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  8. @ 5 John. I suspect that it's not aimed at you. Similarly here in Australia, I sold my business, moved to rural area with a milder climate and live in a very thick walled mudbrick house (mud from the little dam in front of the house used to store water for the vegetables and the orchard in the dry periods, pumped using renewable energy). A pedestal fan is more than enough in summer. We have a high efficiency wood heater that doesn't use much wood in the short, snowless winters and I live off the small income that business sale generated (retired at age 42, now 48) We grow much of our own stuff in our garden (seed saving etc) and have a small orchard. We keep, kill and breed our own free range chickens for eggs and meat and our electricity is renewable. My parter cycles to a part time job 3 days a week.


    We do this because one gets a sense of things actually living this way, eating what's available in the garden, when it's in season, what ever fruit is in season and trying to ensure you have a rotation so you have fruit and vegetables all year, I am sure you underatnd but not so sure others do.

    Maybe the author can do a carbon budget profile on submission and publish them here in a separate section, to show how things can be different ? Low CO2e lifestyles are possible and no cave necessary.
    I would be interested to see what these are once input emissions are used for the necessities let alone the emissions for sheer lunacy.  Like how much does it cost in emissions because bureaucracies like the Tax Office have to send me a letter in the post instead of emailing it to me, I use this as an example as I received one yesterday :)

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  9. I have a similar situation to John Wise.  Farm, log cabin, own (organic) food, wood stove, little vehicular travel, wife is 1.5 miles to work.  My carbon footprint is still too high according to the calulator.  Why?  Because there are four billion too many people on the planet. We passed carrying capacity back in 1936 at two billion.  Back then, people's carbon footprint was just at the level the planet could handle through the carbon cycle.  Now?  trouble..real trouble.  Think about it, if there were 1 billion people on the planet each emitting 50 tons of CO2 there wouldn't be a "planet problem".  So, reducing the carbon footprint - per person- ain't gonna work at 6 billion headed for 9.  This is why Elizabeth's book on the Sixth Extinction event is pure prophesy.

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  10. I live in a small, semi-detached urban house with two other people that has been retrofitted with a high efficiency furnace, thermopane windows and as much insulation as will fit in the wall cavities and attic. We use 100% renewable or low-carbon electricity (yes, 100%: hydro, nuclear, wind, solar), heat with natural gas in a cold climate, rarely use an in-window air conditioner on only the hottest days, and take only showers. We drive a 7 year old hybrid when we don't use public transit or bike, never fly, and don't buy a lot of stuff. We scored just under half our national average, but that's still just over 9 tons, including the bottom 2.25 tons representing everything that we don't have control over (industry, commerce, institutional, government, infrastructure, transport of goods, etc.).

    We're already below half the national average, and there's not much more we can wring out of the existing house. Ditching the car is not an option at present, but km traveled will go way down in a couple years when we retire. Not sure where further substantial reductions can come from.

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  11. Second / third link ("here" and link to Adobe AIR) are not operational.

    Are there any hardware / software prerequisites to start the flash online version? For example, with a limited screenspace of a netbook (1024x600) I'm not able to select any "start"-button on the introduction screen.

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  12. I noticed similar issue as ajki; I can barely see the "Start" button and can't get past the country selection page.

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  13. I don't use public transit,because there isn't any! I eat meat,but I raise it myself on grass-no grain feeding and no long distance shipping.

     

    Grass feed beef produces more GHG than grain feed where dietry interventions can be made to reduce methane production. Worth noting that 55% of Australian emissions come from Land Use Sector using 20 yr GHG accounting and of that 55%, 90% is associated with the extended use of land for livestock (range feed beef and sheep mainly) from entrophic fermentation, forest clearing, savahna burning the main three offenders. So 50% of the nations entire emissions are just from growing cattle and sheep (many of them for live export). They are fattened for 2-3 years on grains in feedlots in most cases but that is not the cheif source of the emissions associated with them.

    All this modeling, science and more will be released in the BZE Land Use Plan later this year so stay tuned.

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  14. What got me was the impact of international air travel. Without that my emissions are very low. We have solar panels, no dishwasher, no dryer, no air conditioning and I ride a bike to work. But one international trip a year (I would average a bit less but I thought that was reasonable) from Melbourne which means a lot of hours in the air, means I'm getting towards the US average. It makes me wonder about what we need to do to reduce carbon emissions and how we should concentrate more on transport than electricity generation, especially international air transport.

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  15. One thing that is clear from a "self-evaluation", is the realization that US residents are doing more than their share to "burn up the world". At 24 average tons per US resident, one has to believe that a reduction of 10% can most easily be achieved by reducing the no. of Americans from 320 million to 290 million!

    The key to achieving carbon reduction is population control, reducing the number of humans on this over-crowded planet.

    Two major religions are against birth control, abortions, prefering to enhance the number of adherents within their flocks. American aid cant be used for disseminating birth control advice, devices and pills in the poorer parts of our planet.

    Stabilizing the number and ultimately reducing humans on the planet is a necessity if we are to survive...

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  16. We had a 6'4" 250# road cyclist in the Toronto group and he says he bought Carnac carbon road shoes so he has a huge carbon footprint. I'm at 20.06t on this so I'm average yet again. It don't quite understand my methods but I like its suggestion I get somebody else to shower with me (if I'm understanding that right).

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  17. Thank you for comments!

    I've fixed the download links.

    We are (unfortunately slowly, due to the lack of funds and parallel work on other projects) working on a new version of the calculator, with improved interface (including adaptation to various high and low resolutions), updated data, improved algorithms, more options, calculation of energy and fuels consumption and more. If you have any suggestions, remarks etc. please contact me: marcin.popkiewicz@ziemianarozdrozu.pl

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  18. wideEyedPupil@13,

    Wehre did you source your assertion that "55% of Australian emissions come from Land Use Sector"? My data below from www.environment.gov.au:

    Table 1: Australia’s Direct Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Economic Sector 2011-12(a)
    Sector Emissions (Mt CO2-e) Share of total emissions (%)

    Primary Industries 172.2                        31.0
    Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing 106.2 19.2
    Mining 66.0                                            11.9
    Manufacturing 66.3                                11.9
    Electricity, Gas and Water 199.2             35.9
    Services, Construction and Transport 62.1 11.2
    Residential 54.9                                       9.9

    Contradicts your assertion. Total Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing (commonly known as "Land Use sector") emissions are only 19.2%.

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  19. Hatterasman - please read the comment policy. Compliance is not optional. Particularly note the items on sloganeering and commenting on topic. Use the search function on top left to find an appropriate topic. You might like to start with this one. By all means disagree, but back your arguments with references and data. Rhetoric will be deleted.

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  20. Latest study (press release) on the subject:

    The most effective individual steps to tackle climate change

    confirms the 4 main ingredients of mitigation at individual level: "eating a plant-based diet, avoiding air travel, living car-free, and having smaller families".

    Maybe individual mitigation does not have as big impact in my country with emission breakedown I showed @18, but still it's the easiest thing to do by everyone and by far.

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