Saturday, January 2, 2010

Copenhagen, and the Dreaded Footprint

The climate summit in Copenhagen (cop15) this December is really what sparked me into action. I already think of myself as pretty green. For example: I make my own cleaning products, lotion and candles; I take the train to work and hardly every drive; when I do drive, it's a 2000 Toyota Echo (35mpg); I recycle everything; re-use things when I can; try to reduce the amount of "stuff" I buy; all my lights are CFC or LED; line-dry clothes in the summer; grow my own veggies and herbs; use zero VOC paint; ride my bike to the train in the summer; live in a 2-bedroom condo; the list goes on!

So, I figured there isn't much more I can do. There's also been a growing notion in the "green-washing" movement that you don't actually need to sacrifice to save the planet- just replace your lightbulbs! And since I did that, I was feeling pretty good.

Then as cop15 progressed, with the gaggle of international leaders obviously not planning to sign a binding resolution of any meaning, I became frustrated. Scientists largely agree that the acceptable level of CO2 in the atmosphere is 350 parts per million (ppm) to avoid global warming. Today's current levels are ~387ppm. It's so obvious that something needs to be done right away! But with the US only agreeing to a 17% decrease in emissions, and China wanting special provisions, I kept thinking "nobody's willing to make the sacrifices necessary to curb the rise of CO2 and prevent global warming. Well, nobody but me!" After patting myself on the back for a few days, I read something about how each person's CO2 footprint needs to be 4 tons/year in order to achieve the goal of 350ppm. "I've gotta be AT LEAST that low!" I thought proudly. Then I read that the average US citizen's footprint is ~25 tons/year. This fact made me re-think my own footprint, bumping up my estimate a few points- I thought it might be about 6-10 tons/year. But, if my footprint is higher than necessary to achieve global 350ppm . . . then I must not be sacrificing enough!

I stopped plans for my own personal parade, put my tiara on the shelf, and decided to actually try to figure out my CO2 footprint, and then make the remaining sacrifices to bring it down. This is more difficult than you may think! For one thing- there are an insane number of calculator web sites out there! A google search for "personal CO2 footprint calculator" results in 298,000 results!

I decided to try 3 calculators and get an average. I started by figuring my monthly average from January 1, 2009 through December 31, 2009 for therms (44) and kilowatt hours (406) from natural gas and electricity, respectively. I also estimated that I drive car 1 (2000 Toyota Echo) 6,000 miles a year and car 2 (1994 Mercury Topaz) 3,000 miles a year. These are low averages, but like I said, we really do hardly drive. Also, I commute ~30 miles one way by train per day to work. Over the year (figuring 4 days a week after accounting for days off), this is 12,480 miles. I figured these would be needed in any calculator.

Calculator 1: I started with EPA. Who better than the US Government Agency in charge of regulating industrial CO2 emissions? First off, this calculator does not include a LOT of things. They tell you that it's just to get a ballpark idea, so I shouldn't have been too surprised. After all, the agency is in charge of regulating industrial emissions, so their focus wouldn't be so much on the impact of local vs. imported food, etc. NOTE: Flights are NOT included. It does ask for your therms and KWh used, as well as vehicle efficiency. One question asks if you recycle newspaper. I don't get newspapers, so I don't know how to answer this. If I say no, then it's like I just throw it away! So I said yes. May be a bit of a cheat, but my score is already pretty high. Ultimately they calculated my household CO2 footprint as 21,328 pounds per year (~21 tons). However, in the solutions section, one option is to maintain your cars regularly. Since I already do, I selected that. My footprint was then reduced by 449 pounds per year. They then tell you that your personal footprint is half of the household footprint (for a 2 person house). My personal footprint is thus 10,440 pounds per year. Not too bad! Pretty sure once I add in flights though, it would be a lot worse. Noteworthy: EPA states that the average footprint for a household of 2 in the US is 41,500 pounds per year- yikes! There are then sections where you can pick actions to take to lessen your footprint, and they estimate your new footprint. This is standard on most calculators. Though I think if you gave them your real amount of electricity used, and all your lightbulbs are already CFC, you can't update your footprint to include this. Basically you'd be taking the credit twice, since your electricity use already includes this fact. This will be the same on all calculators, just something to keep in mind. The nice thing about the EPA calculator is that they also allow you to download it as an excel file so you can see all the formulas involved. They also have a link to explanations for all of the assumptions they make. This is really nice, because otherwise you have no idea what other calculators are assuming! I haven't checked into these details yet though- just need to get through the calculations first!

Calculator 2: It's called Carbon Footprint. I want to calculate my carbon footprint. I think I just made the case for using this calculator. This calculator does include flights. It's pretty detailed too, you don't just estimate how many flights you took- but put in the cities you flew to and from, and you can even choose your airline. They also include an option to include radiative forcing- which basically is a factor used to make a high altitude flights count for more CO2, because this is apparently worse than a low altitude flight. I figured 1 international flight, 2 long distance US flights, 3 short distance US flights. It's really a toss up, because I have to travel for work, but I'm never really sure how often that will be. They didn't have any years before 1999 in the car portion, so I just put in the MPG from the fuel economy website which I averaged at 21mpg for the Topaz. This website also asks you for you public transportation and taxi miles, food choices, and purchasing choices. All told, this website calculated my personal footprint at 15.8 tons. If I had put in only one person, it would have calculated my household footprint. I think we can safely estimate it would have been 31.6 tons. This website claims that the average US footprint is 20.4, while the target should be 2 tons. The secondary categories (food, packaging, etc.) account for the bulk of my footprint, followed by flights. The website allows you to see options for reducing your footprint, though there's no option for applying them to the calculation. You can set up an account though and save your footprint, then come back and keep re-calculating after you make changes.

Calculator 3: The Nature Conservancy I respect this organization, and their calculator appears to include all the major categories. This calculator seems more detailed right off the bat- they ask what type of house you live in, how many bedrooms, whether or not you already employ energy efficiency tactics, do you buy energy star products, etc. The vehicle information is less accurate though- mpg is a range instead of a real number. Flight estimates are also less accurate, they simply want you to estimate the number of long flights and short flights. Short flights are considered less than 1.5 hours, so I input 6 long flights. The Nature Conservancy calculator estimates my annual footprint at 34 tons CO2!!!! HOLY COW! They state that the US National average is 27 tons, and the worldwide average is 5.5 tons. At first I liked the set up here: They show your estimated impact per category, and then how you've reduced it through your actions. Example- my kind of condo in IL automatically gets a value of 12 tons. Using efficiency tactics I reduced my footprint to 11.2. But this system doesn't actually input your REAL electricity and/or heating useage. It's really just estimates. By far the most carbon intensive activity I have is flying (13 tons). The flying and driving category combined to 19 tons all by itself! While secondary choices were my biggest CO2 footprint on calculator 2, food choices are only 3.4 tons on this calculator. They don't appear to let you save your footprint calculations, though you can join for free. They show you steps you can take with estimated reduction amounts, though you can't apply them to your footprint. They also sell offsets.

Conclusions: This is INSANE! So- my footprint is anywhere between 10 tons and 21 tons without accounting for flying. When you do account for flying, it adds up to an additional 13 tons. When flying is taken out of the picture, my biggest footprint contributors appear to be food based. Since the Nature Conservancy based my home footprint purely on assumptions, I think the EPA and calculators are probably more accurate regarding that front, and they estimate my home footprint anywhere between to be the third or 4th largest contributor. Food, how it's grown, where it's transported from, and how it's packaged is apparantly quite a large contributor.

The calculator seemed to include the most data and probably was the most accurate of the 3.  I think using any of the calculator numbers on their own though is over-reaching. I will bet you will get a different footprint result for every single calculator you try! The big picture is useful though. On all three I have a footprint too big. I need to reduce by at least 6 tons and never fly in the easiest scenario- or reduce by 30 tons worst case scenario! No matter what, I'm living a carbon rich life, far beyond what I had imagined. I think this also points out that changing your lightbulbs- the most commonly harped change you should make- is probably the most useless! Food and transportation appear to be some of the largest contributors. Of course, if I lived in a larger house, I would probably find that I need to make a lot of changes on the homefront. As it is, a 2 bedroom condo with efficiency upgrades is pretty much on par.

Another issue I have is that a lot of my activities weren't on any of the calculators! Using chemical free cleaners, not coloring my hair, walking outside instead of on a treadmill, and other things that I pride myself on were not included! It's possible there is a better calculator out there, but unlikely. The science is pre-mature at this stage. That's not to say it's useless- just beware of the caveats and use it as a ballpark.

The next challenge is figuring out what to do about this. How will I reduce my flight impact? Can I afford to buy local organic food? How do you find things in less packaging?

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