The Fuzzy Cartography of Climate Impact

Or: What size carbon shoe do I wear?

To understand the effects of my choices on the climate, I need a baseline to compare against. Author of How Bad Are Bananas?, Mike Berners-Lee argues that the carbon footprint really is the only measure of a person’s climate impact.

Berners-Lee also cautions that exact calculations are as yet impossible. We are, he suggests, like explorers with maps from the 16th century. Being such ill-informed adventurers, we need to make our way forward with whatever information we can get our hands on. Carbon footprint calculations provide approximations of greenhouse gas emissions that are our best bet at understanding the magnitude of individual actions.

Old Map (CC BY-ND 2.0) 2010 Rosario Fiore

Tallying greenhouse gas emissions isn’t exactly what I wanted to do for this project. I’m not convinced numbers are enough to change the way I live. It’s a bit like keeping a budget. It’s a good idea that can be informative. It’s also boring and tedious and you’re likely to give up sooner than planned. Or at least I am.

The nice thing about drawing up a footprint is that, unlike keeping a budget, you don’t have to do it on a continuous basis. (Though there’s an app for that if that’s what you’re into). Online calculators can give a ballpark total and breakdown of which activities are the worst offenders with a few simple questions.

Friends of the Earth has a calculator for Ireland, while the World Wildlife Federation has one for the UK. If you’re in the US, the EPA covers that (for now anyway).

I tried Friends of the Earth’s and WWF’s, and they gave me slightly different totals and proportions. Most of the discrepancy comes down to Friends of the Earth’s somewhat unfortunate separate tally of indirect emissions, which is linked directly though not consistently to responses that fit in the existing categories. If you take that out of the equation, the breakdown of my carbon footprint is roughly consistent.

FOE total


FOE Minus

I’d chalk the rest of the disparity up to the fact that the two calculators are meant for different countries. And that counting the carbon cost of anything opens a Pandora’s box of questions about who is responsible for which emission in the long supply chain of everything.

I liked Friends of the Earth’s. Not just because it’s designed for the country I live in, but because the site actually shows how the numbers change when you adjust the details. For instance, I roughly halved my food related footprint when I started buying more local groceries.

I double-checked their numbers on home energy, flights, and car travel, because those counts are easy enough to verify. Any carbon offset seller will give you calculations on flights (I used and some will also do auto travel (I used for this. They also have their own full footprint calculator, but it was way too detailed for my tastes and limited free time). These other sources returned comparable results, so I’m happy enough that Friends of the Earth makes a good stab at my footprint.

Whichever way I slice it, travel is my biggest carbon output. My annual flight across the Atlantic is a doozy, burning off over 2 tonnes of greenhouse gases per trip. This sense of proportion is the main point of the exercise, and it underscores that calculating a footprint is only the beginning of the project. I have to actually do something with this information.

As far as the flights go, sit tight for a discussion of my decision to start buying carbon offsets. As for the rest of this rudimentary map, there’s plenty of work to do, beginning with deciding where the largest, most accessible changes lie. Stay tuned reader, the journey is a long one, and thar be dragons ahead.

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