Uncovering the Carbon Footprint of Everything

I am an addicted eco-sinner with big feet. Big carbon-excreting feet that is.

Well, at least this is how I imagine introducing myself if ever I attended a carbon-emitters anonymous meeting. Such meetings don’t exist, but it’s high time they did in the developed and the almost-developed world.

Why? Because humans currently emit 49 billion tonnes CO2e of greenhouse gas per year — or anyway that was the figure a few years ago, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 Synthesis Report. Whatever your views on greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, 49 billion tonnes is huge in terms of pollution and impacts upon ecosystems. Our addiction to fossil fuels alone, the burning of which contributes around 30 billion tonnes of CO2e or 56.6% of our total global emissions, is reason enough for change.

Like any addict, we need to admit to our addiction and recognise, à la Newton, that for every action there is an equal and opposite (greenhouse gas) reaction.

But how hard is it for us to make the switch to a low-carbon life? While there are an array of online and free carbon-calculators to tell us how bad we are, what we really should know is how green we can be. For that we need clear and simple information, and the numbers to help us pick the smartest, most carbon conscious options. Otherwise, how can we decide if making the switch is worthwhile?

This is where Mike Berners-Lee’s new book How Bad are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything comes in very handy.

Don’t cry over spilt milk, make the right choices and make it count

Berners-Lee, director of a carbon consulting company affiliated with the England’s Lancaster Environment Centre, shows us the real impact of day-to-day things we do or buy. By doing what most of us have little time to do —  sifting through the many publicly available data sets and models, reports and studies (some he carried out himself) — he has neatly put together estimates and ‘guesstimates’ of the carbon footprint of almost everything.

In the book he categorises almost 100 items according to their (UK-based) CO2e per unit, starting from those on the low scale (under 10 grams of CO2e) to the big whoppers (1 million tonnes and beyond). He then gives a simple cradle-to-grave analysis of each item to explain the range of environmental and social impacts attributable to it.

For example, take the daily e-habits of an average internet user. Our dependency on the internet does not come carbon-free. At an individual level, it may be low, but on aggregate, the annual global emissions from texting, e-mailing (90 trillion e-mails in 2009 according to this site) and ‘googling’ could be as high as 360 million tonnes. Add to that the 130 million tonnes of CO2e it takes to store the world’s data per year (web pages, databases, applications and downloads) and you get the feeling that everything we do, even in cyberspace, has a consequence.

Ever pondered about the footprint of riding five miles on the subway or buying a pint milk (around half a litre)? Well, shockingly, it turns out that in the UK, emissions from the two are roughly the same. Mind you, the London tube carries up to 3 million people a day, so compare that to emissions per person and milk is B‑A‑D. According to Berners-Lee, if you consume a litre of milk a day, that’s 527 kg per year, or the same as a return flight from London to Madrid.

Personally, all this is devastating. I’m addicted to the internet and I love milk in all its glorious forms: fresh, creamed, coagulated, fermented, raw or pasteurised, homogenised or non-homogenised. I use the internet to search about milk. Surely, Berners-Lee’s calculations are wrong. I can’t be doomed to a dairy-less life, can I? So, if I had to choose between one London-Madrid flight or a year’s worth of milk products, give me the milk any day. But tempt me with a flight to Madrid to eat local Spanish cheeses… that’s a tough one.

[quote quote=”We spend billions on mindless junk and flights around the world for that very reason: status.” type=”text” ]

As the author bluntly states: “We spend billions on mindless junk and flights around the world for that very reason: status.” So if you need to buy something to prove your status in society, why not invest in more carbon-friendly options? Like solar panels or wind-turbines, instead of that extra flashy car.

Or, if you run a business, perhaps you should assess your entire production, retail and waste chain. You may be surprised to find that reducing your carbon footprint may even improve efficiency and create savings, not to mention the kudos you get from doing a good thing.

The danger is how easy it can be to convince ourselves that it’s too hard to make the tough choices or that our actions will make no difference. We mustn’t forget that many individuals make a group, and many groups create a social movement.

The 10-tonne lifestyle

It helps to have a target you can work towards. For ease, Berners-Lee proposes a 10-tonne lifestyle target — that is, a lifestyle causing 10 tonnes of CO2e per year for each person living in the high-polluting developed world.

For an average Australian and American, that’s a reduction of around two-thirds from the current level (each Australian and American has an average footprint of almost 30 tonnes of CO2e per year, depending on the study).

This target may seem drastically low and difficult to achieve. But let’s be clear. It’s actually still high. The current global average is more like 4-tonnes. So, if everyone on the planet lived a 10-tonne lifestyle, we would still be in an environmental pickle.

Trying to limit rising global temperatures to 1.5°C, as pleaded by the Maldives and other small island nations, means cutting CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050. This means that per person per year we would have to live a 3-tonne lifestyle. How’s that for carbon-frugal!? Keeping that in mind, a 10-tonne lifestyle is a modest transitional first step.

So what does a 10-tonne lifestyle look like? For poor Imelda Marcos that’s a slash of her famous shoe collection to a third of what it is now — which is around 3,000 pairs of shoes or equal to 30 tonnes of CO2e — assuming she purchased a typical shoe and did nothing else (not eating, drinking, driving, using a unit of electricity, etc.). Hard life right?

As for the rest of us, a year’s worth of 10-tonne living means limiting ourselves to around 833 kg CO2e per month, or 27.4 kg CO2e per day. The table below provides an example of how easily our current lifestyle choices consume the 10 tonnes. Don’t forget that it assumes that we do nothing beyond the items below.

The 10-tonne lifestyle

You can see how easy it is to reach the 10-tonne lifestyle. If you sacrifice the monthly cheeseburger (equivalent to 2 days of a 10-tonne lifestyle), you have 365 days’ worth of a 10-tonne lifestyle.

(Note: calculations made by author based on statistics in book, unless otherwise stated).

Picking your battles

What this shows is that in the end, it’s all about picking your battles and ensuring a sense of perspective. This means don’t get caught up in small debates like whether to use a paper towel or an electric hand drier to dry wet hands. But rather, focus on re-thinking the big things like flying for a business trip when it can be done via teleconference, or high-impact habits like eating meat every day, or driving a gas-guzzler to go to the shops only 10 minutes away.

And speaking of picking your battles, consider this: while you cheered for your team at the 2010 South Africa World Cup, the event clocked up around 2.8 million tonnes of CO2e in just one month. This includes transportation of international and local players and spectators, energy used to run the stadia, precinct and visitors’ accommodation, and the emissions from construction and material, but NOT the energy used by television sets of home viewers. According to Berners-Lee, this is equivalent to “6,000 space shuttle flights, three quiet years for Mount Etna, or 20 cheeseburgers for every man, woman and child in the UK”.

All that said and done, Berners-Lee emphasises that “the book isn’t here to tell you what to do, or how radical to be. Those are personal decisions.”

Food is the answer

Berners-Lee dedicates a whole section on emissions from food, because alone, the food we buy can add up to 20% of our carbon footprint. And this is just at first glance, because if we count up the related damage of deforestation from big agriculture, this brings the impact up to 30%.

To help reduce this, he and others, like Michael Pollan , recommend easy, logical and ethical choices that yield surprisingly large carbon savings. Here are some key examples:

If you do most of these things you can comfortably cut down your carbon food-print by 60%, which bites off almost 20% off your total footprint.

Another surprise is that one tonne of inefficiently-made and excessively-used fertiliser can create emissions twelve times in size (12.3 CO2e tonnes). So at the production end, there is huge scope for cutting fertiliser use without affecting yields, argues Berners-Lee. Not only that, it can provide other environmental and social benefits, especially for poor farmers in debt because of high fertiliser prices.

[quote quote=”Reducing fertilizer use is a real carbon opportunity: up to half a per cent reduction in global emissions — it’s dead easy and has no bad side effects.” type=”text” ]

After reading How Bad Are Bananas, I realised that on a day-to-day basis my personal carbon emissions are reasonable. My husband and I don’t have a car, thanks to Tokyo’s brilliant train system; we walk or ride our bikes a lot; we live in a shoebox with a few tiny appliances; we rarely buy meat; and we cook with gas and have a control panel that helps us minimise the energy used to heat our water.

But, and this is a big but, we do tend to sit in front of computers all day and we fly, either to visit family back home in Australia or for work. Taking three trans-ocean return flights annually in itself is already worth a 10-tonne lifestyle! Some carbon fighters are ‘kicking the travel drug’ to their credit, but often work and family responsibilities compel people to fly. What to do?

Numbers in words to gain your carbon instinct

The great thing about Berners-Lee’s book is that he contextualises the numbers. He gives us the carbon amount in a way that’s easy for us to understand. This is important because numbers alone make no sense to me, and I suspect many feel the same way. Where the numbers are fuzzy, and there’s a lot of that, he is quick to point it out.

More importantly, what he does is take the reader briefly through the whole life-cycle process of an item, from manufacture to transportation, then end-user to waste fields. You gain a ‘carbon instinct’ and you begin to understand the sheer amount of natural resources, time, energy and waste that goes into each item.

In essence, How Bad Are Bananas? is not just helping us become carbon literate, but life-cycle literate. Most people choose what to do or buy with only the vaguest notions of the real consequences and of the better alternatives that exist. May Neil Armstrong forgive me, but I hope approaches like these lead us to “one small footprint for man, and one giant sustainable leap for mankind”.

So how bad are bananas? Well, perhaps you will read the book to find out…

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Sidenote: I highly recommend reading this book together with Fred Pearce’s Confessions of an Eco Sinner: Travels to Find Where My Stuff Comes From. Where Berners-Lee provides the numbers, Pearce complements with stories of names, faces and places.

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Uncovering the Carbon Footprint of Everything by Alva Lim is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Alva Lim is a former researcher for the Global Change and Sustainability Programme at the UNU’s Institute for Sustainability and Peace (ISP). Prior to that she worked for the Australian Government as an economic policy analyst at the Australian Treasury. As an accidental analyst-now-climate activist, Alva dedicates her time on issues about climate change adaptation and society, ethics and real world economics. She holds a Masters degree in Public Policy from the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS), Japan and an Economics (Honours) degree from the University of Sydney, Australia.