Why Carbon Footprints Matter: What I Learned from my Hyper-Detailed Calculations

Saul Griffith calculated his carbon footprint in precise detail, from every product he bought to the carbon impact of his tax dollars.

A few years ago, I decided to figure out my exact personal carbon footprint—from every glass of wine, to a new pair of underwear, what impact I was having on the world. I thought I was probably doing a decent job; I was already running a renewable energy company, commuting by bike, and aware of energy issues. But the picture was pretty grim.

People have called me anally-retentive and obsessive-compulsive, and that's true. This is my life in excruciating detail, converted to the basic unit of watts so everything could easily be compared.

From the top of the graph back to about 7 p.m., that's every single flight I took in a year. The grey area is every mile I drove and every car that I own; the yellow is power I used in my house, from heating and cooking to my electric toothbrush; orange is the food that I eat; pink shows the embedded energy in all of the products that I own; blue shows my tax dollars at work, including the energy that goes into fighting wars.
This all added up to about 18,000 watts. Is that a lot or a little? The average North American uses about 11,000 watts. The global average is about 2,000 watts. If I left home every day with a backpack carrying the fuel that I actually use in a day, I'd need 67 pounds of oil, 63 pounds of coal, and 12 pounds of gas. Energy use has been made completely invisible to us.
In my home, I was surprised to see that gas used for heating went into most of the power use. So even though I strongly encourage everyone to switch to efficient light bulbs if you haven’t yet, understand that it’s only a small part of your overall footprint.

A large section of my carbon footprint came from the energy embedded in products. Zooming into the pink section, you can see every object that I own, from socks to detergent to surfboards. Consider one product—a basic energy drink. If my lifestyle went down to the global average of 2000 watts, this one drink would represent 4.5 percent of my daily energy diet. The energy embodied on this drink should be printed on the packaging, so it’s no longer invisible.
The energy that powers the world comes mostly from coal, gas, and oil, and that’s led us to CO2 levels over 390 parts per billion now, and climate change. We can think of climate change as a design question: where do we want to end up? Impact studies tell us what will happen to the planet as we warm up—it's basically a litany of horrors. At a 1.5 degree increase, we'll lose 10 percent of species. At 2 degrees, we'll lose 90 percent of coral reefs. At 3 degrees, 1 to 4 billion people will face water shortages, leading to war across the planet.
We need to each understand the basic math behind energy and climate change so we can reach the right solutions. We need a massive shift to renewable energy, and we also need changes in our everyday lives. One first step is understanding your own carbon footprint.
This post is part of the GOOD community's 50 Building Blocks of Citizenship. This week, measure your carbon footprint. Follow along and join the discussion at #goodcitizen.\n
Images courtesy of Saul Griffith.\n
Photo by Josh Couch on Unsplash

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