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What's the Carbon Cost of a Dollar Spent?

Here's an interesting way to look at your effect on the planet's climate: The carbon emitted when you spend a dollar on a lawyer, a car, or groceries.

People generally know that flying is more carbon-intensive than taking a train, for example. But what if you want to compare the carbon footprint of travel to the carbon footprint of shopping? To got a more holistic view of how your economic activity affects the climate, it helps to look at the carbon cost of spending a dollar on various things.

Over at The Guardian's Green Living blog, Mike Berners-Lee did just that (but with the pound, naturally) and provided a few data points.

The carbon footprint of spending a pound:

–330kg CO2e on a well executed rainforest preservation project
–3kg CO2e on solar panels
160g CO2e on financial, legal or professional advice
720g CO2e on a new car
930g CO2e on a typical supermarket trolley of food
1.7kg CO2e on petrol for your car
4.6kg CO2e on flights
6kg CO2e on your electricity bill
10kg CO2e (or more) on budget flights


From this perspective, one way to keep your carbon footprint low is to use your money to buy fewer, high-end things. Because the denominator here is the cost, more expensive versions of a given product have a lower carbon footprint. If you spend $50 on one high-quality shirt instead of $25 on one lower-quality shirts your carbon footprint per dollar spent is much lower.

This way of looking at your footprint can be misleading, though. Part of the reason "financial advice" is so carbon cheap is because it's so damn expensive and the profit margin is very high. If your financial adviser ends up spending the money you give him on budget flights, the total downstream carbon cost of your dollar might be quite high.

You could always just play it safe and spend all your money on solar panels and "well executed rainforest preservation projects."

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