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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

alternative carbon footprint calculators

how do you determine your impact on climate change? perhaps you use a carbon calculator, a nifty tool that asks for a bunch of stats about how you live your life and spits out a number indicating how many tonnes of CO2 are released as a result of your activities. the less CO2, the less your environmental impact. or at least, that's the theory.

I've been thinking about these carbon footprint calculators quite a bit recently, since some folks in my research group have been working on the Better Carbon Calculator. the premise is that filling in all the details about yourself necessary to calculate your carbon footprint--your home energy bill, how much you drive, your car's gas mileage, how much you fly, how often you buy new clothes, how much meat you eat, etc.--is not only tedious, but many people don't have that info ready at hand. Better Carbon uses collaborative filtering to make best guesses; think Netflix's movie recommendation system, only for your consumption patterns. don't know how much meat you eat? chances are you eat just about as much meat as other people who are like you. if you know you happen to eat less meat (e.g., you're vegan) or more meat (e.g., you're a body builder trying to bulk up), you simply change the suggested defaults. pretty clever.

however, most carbon calculators (including Better Carbon) are about individual behaviors, specifically, individual consumption choices. however, there are lots of things you do other than buy/eat/consume stuff that impacts the environment. what about a system that could calculate the carbon footprint of a vote? based on the legislation for which senator so-and-so has voted and her/his position on upcoming bills, your vote for that senator has the following carbon footprint. you could envision similar tools for domains. what's the carbon footprint of my 401k, based on the companies in which I'm invested? what's the carbon footprint of an average semester's tuition at a given university? what's the carbon footprint of my health insurance? the idea here is to get people thinking at scales beyond individual consumption patterns and considering alternative community, organizational, and/or political means of enacting environmentally sustainable decisions.

in some ways, this could be a useful exercise. on the other hand, carbon footprint is only a small component of one's larger environmental footprint, and can be somewhat opaque at that. what does it mean that I cause 13.39 tonnes of CO2 per year? even if that's better than most people near me or in my peer group, is it sustainable in the long run? is tonnes of CO2 even a sensible figure on which to focus? granted, greenhouse gas emissions are a major contributor to climate change, which is probably one of the most pressing environmental issues, but it's certainly not the only issue. footprint calculators are nice, because they make readily quantifiable one's impact. however, they also distract from the complexities behind why some actions are more sustainable than others and thus, I argue, don't do a great deal to help foster debate about improving the situation.

(acknowledgment: many of these thoughts were highly influenced by insightful conversations with Paul, Six, Catherine, Bill, Joel, and many others)

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  • A lot of online carbon calculators are unfortunately not very good. I have published a peer-reviewed article in the International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control evaluating the 15 most popular calculators on the internet (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1750583613002168). My analysis documents significant shortcomings of many of the calculators. To remedy this situation, CarbonStory was created as a free calculator meeting all 13 evidence-based principles identified in the research (https://www.carbonstory.org/).

    By Anonymous AndreasB, at Wednesday, September 11, 2013 3:52:00 AM  

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