Air | Climate change | Ecotrope

The carbon footprint of everything

Ecotrope | Nov. 16, 2010 2:55 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:44 p.m.

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Would you change your drinking habits based on the carbon emissions they generate?

Would you change your drinking habits based on the carbon emissions they generate?

With help from author Mike Berners-Lee, The Guardian’s Green Living blog is on its way to calculating the carbon-footprint of everything.

That’s right. Everything: Spending money, drinking beer, sending e-mail, building a house, drying your hands, doing the dishes, drinking tea vs. coffee, a volcano, a mortgagethe Iraq war, the Internet … the list goes on.

Once you understand what a carbon footprint is, it’s actually impossible to accurately calculate the entire footprint of anything, Berners-Lee writes. That leads many people to give up and “measure something easier.” But instead of letting the complexity of carbon calculation defeat him, he’s decided to do the best he can.

His calculations offer comparisons to help people make greener decisions: Keeping your old car on the road longer, for example, instead of buying a new one. Drying your hands with a cold blow drier and using the dishwasher instead of hand-washing – but only when it’s full and you set it on the right cycles.

He starts with a definition that explains why anyone would go through the trouble of calculating a carbon footprint:

“When talking about climate change, footprint is a metaphor for the total impact that something has. And carbon is a shorthand for all the different greenhouse gases that contribue to global warming.

The term carbon footprint, therefore, is a shorthand to describe the best estimate that we can get of the full climate change impact of something. That something could be anything – an activity, an item, a lifestyle, a company, a country or even the whole world.”

Don’t forget the “toe prints,” he warns:

“…the true carbon footprint of driving a car includes not only the emissions that come out of the exhaust pipe, but also all the emissions that take place when oil is extracted, shipped, refined into fuel and transported to the petrol station, not to mention the substantial emissions caused by producing and maintaining the car.

But be careful not to let greenwashers trick you into looking only at a toe print:

“Examples include an airport waxing lyrical about the energy efficiency of its buildings without mentioning the flights themselves.”

He criticizes some online carbon calculators for focusing too much on home energy use and travel habits and giving people a false picture of their total footprint. I wonder what he’d have to say about the state of Oregon’s carbon calculator?

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