Calculating My Carbon Footprint
Cover Photo: Reduce Your Carbon Footprint (Source: Me)
As part of my sustainability course, we had to calculate our personal carbon footprint. The professor gave us three different websites to calculate it. I calculated my footprint using all three, and the details about how each site calculates personal emissions and what I think about them are below.
TerraPass has surprisingly detailed vehicle options. I was able to specify my vehicle information all the way down to the specific engine. This meant I could specify the year, the make, the model, the gearbox, and the engine. While I drove less than 10,000 miles in the last year, I still feel like a drove a lot despite not using a car for commuting. I went on a few very long trips this year for vacation, usually with other people in the car with me. I still counted those as personal emissions since I was going somewhere for fun, even if my friends were with me.
You can specify the number of miles you travel on public transit by train, bus, taxi, and ferry. I am not entirely sure how it calculates the emissions past that since the heavy rail I take every day runs on electricity. It's probably just an aggregated average of train emissions which might well bias it. I take public transit to work every day which racks up a lot of miles by itself. If you add the trips I take to go out with friends on the weekends, it starts to really add up to a lot of miles. I really don't feel bad about this though given that public transit is so much better than flying or driving.
You can specify each round trip between airports which is a pretty big deal to make life easier given the other two sites just specify short flights and long flights. I went on a small Euro Trip with my girlfriend this past summer which meant I took a lot of short flights. It's too bad the train is both more expensive and slower, because it is a far more sustainable way to travel around the countryside.
TerraPass starts by asking for your ZIP code, probably to try to guess at what type of electricity you use. You can put in either dollars or kWh although I'm sure kWh is the better choice. My apartment has electric heating which is horribly inefficient, although I keep the temperature at 68 °F when I'm at home and awake. At night it goes down to 65 °F and all the way down to 62 °F when I am out during the day.
Results and Thoughts
For anyone who can't see the image, I had a total of 20,524 lbs of CO2e with 4612 lbs from vehicle usage, 1444 lbs from public transit, 14100 lbs from Air Travel, and 368 lbs of home energy use. While I love all of the detail you can provide for transportation, I wish TerraPass took into account recycling or composting habits. They will also send you a report of all of this information to your email so that you don't have to write it all down. Naturally, you can purchase carbon offsets from them and they'll send you a nice certificate that you can hang in your bathroom so visitors know you're being good to the world. They use the offsets you purchase to fund renewable energy projects and methane capture projects as well from a cursory glance at their website.
The Nature Conservancy
The Nature Conservancy starts off by asking about how many people live in your household and whether you want to calculate emissions for just yourself, or for your whole household. I live on my own, which means the two are the same. It guesses home energy based on your state, household type (standalone house vs. apartment), and how many bedrooms you have. Obviously, this seems a little general to me if you live in a well-insulated building or anything like that. The calculator then asks if you have taken steps to heat/cool your home efficiently, installed efficient lighting, use energy start appliances and unplug equipment when not in use, and have taken steps to reduce energy used for hot water. Really, I take a lot of issues with much of this simply because of how general they are.
Driving and Flying
Nature only gives you 4 choices for your vehicle which is solely based on miles per gallon. You can then pick how many miles you drive per year, and whether you check the air filter and tire pressure regularly. You can even specify whether you check your air filter monthly, despite the fact that I don't think I've ever met anyone who checked their air filter more than once per year for the regular maintenance. For flying, you can choose between long (>150 miles) and short round-trip flights. Again, a lot of heavy data aggregation to find your footprint.
Food and Diet
This is where Nature starts to make up for some of TerraPass's deficiencies, as they ask how much meat you include in your diet (with specifics for beef/fish vs. chicken) and whether your food is organic. I'm not sure how I feel about this, because organic food doesn't necessarily produce fewer emissions although it is probably true in general. I do try to eat less beef for both health and sustainability reasons. I also try to eat organic, although that's mostly for taste.
Recycling and Waste
You can state whether you recycle or not, or whether you compost your food, which TerraPass also does not consider. I recycle everything I can, but my apartment building doesn't compost and I haven't figured out where I would go to do it myself yet.
Results and Thoughts
So on this test, I have a ludicrous 41 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year compared to the US average of 27. A full 36.4% of that is from Home Energy use which probably isn't too realistic given I keep my electricity use down pretty low. Again though, flying and driving for vacation make up 43.5% of my emissions. Overall, while I don't like all of the aggregation of data, this is probably the best test for someone to take quickly, since you don't have to go looking up your electric bill or figuring out how many miles you travel on the train. Most of the students in the class did end up using this one so it must be worth something.
EPA begins by asking about how many people live in your household and what your zip code is, pretty standard at this point.
You can specify your home energy source and the amount of gas/electricity/fuel/propane you use in dollars or in specific amounts. After that, they give you ways to possibly save your emissions by doing things like replacing lighting, turning down the thermostat or using a drying rack. One thing that tripped me up is that the climate control stuff only accounts for savings over your current energy usage.
The EPA calculator only considers vehicle emissions, which makes my numbers look a little better since a lot of my emissions are from flying. You can specify the number of vehicles, how often you perform maintenance, your yearly mileage, and your average gas mileage.
The EPA just uses an average number of emissions for 1 person from waste, and you can specify which products you recycle. I recycle every option they have for the most part, which is aluminum cans, plastic, glass, newspaper, and magazines.
Results and Thoughts
According to the EPA, I also fell below the US Average of 16,631 lbs per year with a carbon footprint of 14,760 lbs per year. The EPA test is fine as long you don't fly very much, and is pretty easy to fill out. Note that my "planned actions" were all things that I had already done. They also let you share your planned actions with your friends on Facebook or Twitter. Clearly all I want in life is to tell my friends that I recycle aluminum.
By far my most unsustainable habit is traveling. This is really unfortunate since I have to take planes to visit my girlfriend, home, or my family in Denmark. I also hope to work in a field where I get to travel a lot and see the world. For driving, I can switch to an electric vehicle when I have a job and pay extra for wind or solar energy to reduce those emissions. Unfortunately, flying is far more problematic and I do not have a good solution to this. I appreciate that eating less meat would make a big impact as well, which means I try to eat much more chicken than I used to. But the real takeaway here is that if someone who cares about the world pollutes so much, technology is going to have to advance a really long way before people can live sustainably without too much compromise.