Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Quantifying personal carbon footprint, and what offsets "cost"

The May 26, 2008 issue of Time has a major story on “personal responsibility” and carbon footprints, by Bryan Walsh and Tiffany Sharples, on p 53, titled “Sizing Up Carbon Footprints: How new web tools help measure – and shrink – your impact on global warming”, with the link here. On the outset, it should be noted that the article presumes that the debate that global warming is man-made is settled. We must deal with the Inconvenient Truth.

The most important value of the story is quantification. The typical American’s consumption patterns emit more than 20 tons of carbon dioxide (40000 pounds) a year. Even a homeless person in the US emits more carbon than a typical person in a developing county. The illustrations on p 54 give some examples for various activities. A cross country flight emits about 2500 pounds each way. (Okay, the plane would fly anyway. But no it wouldn’t, if demand for travel went down, which it has because of high oil prices.)

The article mentions the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) calculator, which I found here. There is also a PDF (a paper by Sara Hartwell) at EPA that explains how this works, here, and a blog "Greenversations" here. I tried the calculator and found my personal annual estimate to be 39265 pounds. I found “easy” steps would reduce 28% of this amount. The Time article also mentions “Carbonrally”.

Then there is the opportunity to improve one’s karma by purchasing “carbon offsets”. There are many “retailers” of this, but one of the main intermediaries is CarbonFund. I found that a “Direct Carbon” or “Zero Carbon” offset for my use right now runs about $200 a year (the link is here). That doesn’t sound too bad. That sounds like it’s supposed to represent the average consumer’s “fair share” of the cost of renewable energy and reforestation projects to reduce carbon emissions from human sources to close to zero.

From a moral viewpoint, one can imagine where this is headed. Will we some day gave a "carbon footprint" score that is like a FICO score? In the minds of many people, the global warming problem, when applied at an individual level, argues for greater socialization (often connected to family identity and religion), and less personal expressiveness, which tends to consumer resources. But in the past we’ve always depended on a “free market” to run that, and high gas prices are partly an expression of how a free market can regulate behavior and practical choices without necessarily replacing entire personal value systems. Stay tuned.

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