Depending on who you talk to, it seems I'm either a wretched wastrel polluter on par with some smoke spewing Linfen factory, or I'm a Rainbow Warrior mincing around in hemp sandals looking for a tree to embrace. I'm speaking of my carbon footprint naturally: the rough calculation of how my lifestyle impacts the Earth. With our planet's health constantly in debate these days—is the atmosphere really warming, and if so is that actually bad, and if so is it our fault, and if so can we do anything about it?—I was curious to see how I chalked up and consulted several of the various calculators found online. Putting in the numbers, the completely contradictory estimates nicely reflect the murkiness of the debate we're currently in. It also calls into question the budding market for carbon offsets—the process of hedging your environmental impact by putting money into environmentally sound resources.
For the uninitiated, a carbon footprint calculator asks you to input facts about your lifestyle, usually with emphasis on driving habits, air travel, utility usage and so forth, and then pops out a number telling you the amount of carbon dioxide you produce per year versus the national and international averages. Nifty right? Several of them then suggest practical and novel ways to cut down, but a few also offer links to sites that let you buy carbon offsets to mitigate your personal environmental impact. Which for me is where it starts to get rather dicey.
I recently heard a public figure quip that, whether global warming is true or a myth, it certainly doesn't hurt things to try and live a little more responsibly, and I agree. Without taking sides either way on the debate then, that's my bias. In terms of my lifestyle, I'm a city dweller, live in an apartment building, don't own a car, largely take public transit, recycle paper, plastic, glass and metal (it's mandatory) and have taken a few modest green steps like switching (most) of my light bulbs to CFLs.
Based on that information, one would assume—I did anyway—that I'd come up aces in the carbon footprint acid test. And if you consult the EPA's website, or safeclimate.com, I am indeed a pretty cool customer, as it were, producing between 7,000 and 11,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per year. Booyah! Head over to natureconservancy.com or Yahoo's green.yahoo.com, and suddenly the picture isn't so rosy (or green); I'm up to some 24 to 28,000 pounds, well above what they say is the national average. Huh. Carbonfootprint.com on the other hand says I produce a remarkably precise 8.543 tons—about 17,000 pounds, but well below the national average they claim is about 41,000 pounds. Booyah again!
After hitting 10 such of these calculators, not one of them came within a ton of any of the others in estimating my impact—in fact none of them could even get close to each other on what the national average even is. Something is amiss. Okay, I understand they're only supposed to be rough estimates, and granted they do use different methods for making calculations, and some go deeper into "secondary" information like food types (local or foreign; organic or industrial), total miles of airline travel instead of estimates, and so on. That's all well and good, but the range of these estimates is so extraordinarily off, from 7,000 to 28,000 pounds, with such an even distribution between them as to be pretty useless and call into question the underlying math behind it all. Why does it matter you may ask? Precisely because if we can't agree on this most basic of data from the get-go, we can't very well agree to the terms of the debate—and in the case of carbon offsets, to a solution. Depending on which of the calculators you consult, it would cost me anywhere from $120 a year up to $340 or more, assuming those calculations are anywhere near correct. It doesn't give one much confidence.
My other problem with carbon offsets is a philosophical one. I know that economists much smarter than I have vetted the concept and given it a thumbs up, but in the end I still find it a deeply, cynically pragmatic solution. Economists aren't ethicists, and it strikes me as offensive and wrong that large multinational corporations are allowed to buy carbon offsets—effectively a license to pollute at a price—instead of doing business responsibly, and so I find it atrocious to bring such compromise down to the personal level as well. I understand that's a romantic notion and in some intractable situations sometimes the ends justify the means. But as an analogy, many states require that the government function within a balanced budget, whereas others, including our federal government, dispense with that idea and live in the red at our collective peril. Carbon offsets are essentially the same thing. The lesson for the market, and the individual, then is to conduct business as atrociously as you like in the short term, as long as you can afford it. Shouldn't we instead opt to live within our environmental budget?
Hit the comments section if you can enlighten me as to where I went wrong in my calculations, or better yet, if you have a viable argument for carbon offsets that accounts for bad math and terrible ethics.
I think you bring up some great points in this article. There are a lot of problems with individuals buying carbon offsets. One problem is that a lot of the carbon offset companies are private, and many are for profit.
These private and for-profit offset companies have incentives which do not necessarily have the environment's best interests in mind, and they are not open for public review.
Be careful who you give your money to.
Before you buy your carbon offset, you might find yourself asking yourself, "Why should I pay to offset carbon, when the dude in the Hummer driving down main street will not?"
Individual carbon offsetting suffers from the same problems that many voluntary conscientiousness programs have. The good end up subsidizing and paying the most for the bad. The people who care the most about reducing their carbon footprint end up subsidizing everyone else's pollution.
Do you want to be that conscientious schmuck?
Pollution offsets work best in a regulated system of capped emissions, not in a voluntary utopia.
Not only is the decision a tough one to buy carbon offsets, once you make that decision, you must then decide how to find those companys or non-profits that sell them. We had the same problem so we built www.CarbonOffsetREVIEW.com. Hope this helps.
ps-Even if you don't believe in global warming, removing co2 from the atmosphere will improve our cities smog situation. Kinda hard not to see it in every major city worldwide. Should help our quality of life as well.
Wow, Great article with a common sense point of view. It actually ask questions instead of "The Debate is over" tone that I'm getting used to. It also really shows what an inexact science these calculations are. I’ve yet to find one that asks about my 35,000 trees on my land to offset my SUV. I’ve lost track though, are trees good or bad. I can’t keep track. It reminds me of the climate models that are being pawned off as gospel (of the AGW cult). Before you guys get all whiney, Let me point out the most important line in the article is the 1st sentence in the 3rd para...the public figure's "doesn’t hurt things to try and live a little more responsibly". The challenge is to get everyone to feel that way without scaring them off with bogus arguments.
Here’s a great Idea for an Article, or better yet a running column. 50 (or more) common sense ideas to help the world. I know these are available, but a nice available list that are common sense items that Real people will actually do. You know the one that has Tire pressure, Tune ups and the Turn the water off when you brush your teeth kind of list. It would do a lot more Real Good than a bunch of anti capitalist methods that allow people ignore their Eco Sins and feel good about themselves without really doing any Net good for Mother Earth. The list should be revised as new ideas come along (LED lighting) or seemingly good ideas, don’t pan out (CFLs, Ethanol).
Most people, even those who have not drank the AGW Kool-aid, will do what they can to lower their impact & help, as long as they are comfortable it Really does help and isn’t just lining Al Gore’s pockets…
I feel bad, I don’t have a site to promote, so I’ll make one up
The Tufts Climate Initiative at Tufts University wrote a report on carbon offsets for air-travel emissions. It examines the value of carbon offsets, and also contains a comprehensive rating of the various emissions calculators. Available at: