You Don’t Know Shit About Carbon Footprints

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Cows - the worst source of carbon emissions in the agricultural industry
Beef has the worst carbon footprint by far (Photo by Yan from Pexels)

So what the hell is a carbon footprint? Is that like back in the 80’s when they’d use that weird paper to make copies of your footprints? And they’d be all like, “Press firmly with your foot so we can have a clear impression,” and then give you the copy that you could hardly read? Am I totally outing myself as an old? Yes, I am. I am very old. Soon, I will become ancient. Also, they did that with credit cards, not feet, but whatever.

A carbon footprint is not, of course, an actual physical footprint. Instead, it’s basically just a measurement of how much carbon dioxide is put in to the atmosphere by the creation of a product, or by an activity, or by a person, or whatever. It includes other greenhouse gases besides carbon dioxide, such as methane. In that case they convert it to an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide, as far as its climate impact is concerned. Usually we talk about a carbon footprint in terms of tons of CO2 per year, or tons of CO2 created during the production of a product. Sounds pretty simple, right? Well… it is, at least the figure itself is. However, calculating it gets complicated pretty quickly, because the modern world itself turns out to be pretty damned complicated.

Let’s take the example of a tomato. What’s the carbon footprint of a tomato? I mean, how hard could this be? Well, right away, we realize we’re going to need more information to answer that question. Growing tomatoes in a heated greenhouse creates a different amount of carbon dioxide than growing them hydroponically, or in an organic field, or a conventional field, or in your garden. So we need to figure that out. Were the plants fertilized with nitrogen fertilizer? That kind of fertilizer can produce nitrous oxide, which besides being hilarious, is also a potent greenhouse gas, which increases the carbon footprint. Was any gasoline or diesel-powered farm equipment involved in growing the tomato? That creates carbon dioxide. How were the tomatoes processed and packaged? Was there electrical equipment involved with that? How far did these tomatoes travel before they wound up on your plate? Were they transported by semi trailer? A van? A gilded chariot pulled by a dozen white stallions? Different transportation methods have different carbon footprints of their own, and the longer they travel, the bigger the footprint gets.

On the other hand, growing plants do consume CO2. That can reduce the footprint slightly. But on the other other hand, dead, decomposing plants release CO2. So we need to know what happened to the waste plant material left behind. What about the packaging? Were these tomatoes piled in wooden crates and carted to the local farmers market? Single use cardboard boxes? Or were they placed on styrofoam trays and wrapped in plastic wrap? Packaging has different carbon footprints of its own. And of course, how did they get to your door? Did you walk to the grocery store? Drive an SUV? Have them delivered? Each option has a different carbon cost associated with it.

Are we done figuring out the carbon footprint of a tomato, yet?

No, we’re not done yet. Take a break if you want, I’ll wait.

Do you know the fuel efficiency of a tractor and how much carbon dioxide it emits per gallon of fuel? Let’s look it up… holy shit, what do you mean there are a bunch of different kinds of tractors and they all have different fuel efficiencies? And… hang on, hang on… do I gotta count the carbon footprint of building that fucking tractor and delivering it to the farm? Does that count? Maybe? Probably. In which case, we need to figure out THAT footprint, and then divide it by how many tomatoes the tractor will help produce over its lifetime, and add that to the tomato’s footprint. But that’s it, we’re finally finished, right? Hahahahahaha! Of course not! This is going to take forever!

Tomato cultivation method affects the carbon footprint
Commercial tomato greenhouse Photo by: Narek75, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Because what variety of tomato is it? Does that matter? Probably. A beefsteak tomato may have slightly different growing, harvesting, and packaging requirements than a roma tomato, and it would certainly be different than for a cherry tomato. How many tomatoes per square meter did the farm produce? Because the denser the crop, the lower the carbon footprint per tomato. Oh and remember that fertilizer? Producing it has its own footprint, as does any pesticides or other chemicals used. Were the tomatoes irrigated? Were pumps involved with that? What about the carbon footprint of all the irrigation equipment? Holy shit, you could just go as deep down this rabbit hole as you want to, but let’s say we stop there. That’s… a lot to figure out. In fact, you probably can’t figure most of it out, since some of that information is going to be hard or impossible for you to get. Plus, it’s not like most farms even keep track of that shit.

So lots of the time, our carbon footprints end up being rough estimates. Sometimes VERY rough. Unless you can track down the specific farm that a specific tomato came from, and get the owners to let you measure everything they have and use and do, you’re going to end up using averages and estimates to make your calculation. And many of the details I mentioned end up having a pretty minor impact on the end result anyway. That’s why carbon footprints end up not usually being used for any sort of exact calculation of carbon output, but rather to compare footprints with each other, or to see what happens when you alter part of the chain of events involved. So, you get your baseline carbon footprint for a tomato, or as good as you’re going to get, at least. Then you decide to figure out what would happen if, for instance, you reduced fertilizer use, replaced the plastic packaging with cardboard, and invested in more fuel efficient tractors. Recalculate the carbon footprint, taking in to account all the consequences those changes might have in the process, and see if your new footprint is lower than the baseline. If so, then you’ve got a potential game plan for making the tomato farm more climate-friendly.

You’ve got a damned carbon footprint, too

Now… what about YOUR carbon footprint? What do YOU do during the course of a year? How much do you travel, how do you do it, what do you eat (imagine calculating that tomato bullshit for each and every thing you eat during a year), how much electricity and natural gas do you use at home, what goods do you consume, and how much dry ice did you use to make spooky fog at your Halloween party? Does this sound like a fucking nightmare to figure out? Yes. The correct answer is, yes it does. But again, carbon footprints aren’t really intended to be precise measurements. They’re a tool to help you understand how carbon dioxide gets in to the atmosphere. So, you probably don’t need exact figures. Averages and estimates are good enough to start with.

The 80's are trying to help you figure out your carbon footprint
The 80’s are here to help you figure out carbon footprints Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

To help with this, there are any number of online carbon footprint calculators available to help you get at a (very) rough estimate of your carbon footprint. They make a lot of assumptions and use lots of averages to get at a ballpark figure quickly. If you know the fuel efficiency of any vehicles you drive, how much you drive them, how much meat versus vegetables you eat, and how much your utility bills are, these calculators can give you a good starting point. The best personal carbon footprint calculator I’ve found is hosted by the Nature Conservancy here. The thing to know at first is that the average US citizen has a carbon footprint of about 16 tons of CO2 per year. The goal for what we have to lower that to in order to fight climate change? 2 tons per year.

Slow your roll. Or, just roll less.

Yeah. Not a great feeling, right? That’s a lot of work, a lot of lifestyle changes to make. But, calm down. Baby steps. If you live in North America and you figure out you’re under 16 tons a year, then you’re already ahead of the game. To keep working on it, there’s a few steps you can take right away that, if not always easy, are at least less painful. The biggest by far is to reduce your transportation carbon costs. America is a nation built around the automobile, and driving cars is central to our culture. But if you drive a vehicle to work, then auto emissions are probably your biggest contributor to your carbon footprint. So what should you do instead? To help you figure that out, here’s the transportation hierarchy as far as carbon footprint per kilometer:

graphic showing the difference in carbon footprint between different transportation methods
1 butt ton = 1 gram CO2 per km. However you measure it, trains beats planes every time

Obviously if you can walk or bike, that’s the greenest option, but you knew that already. Next up, trains and subways. Any time you have the option to take a train, do it. If you can’t do that, then try to carpool. I know, it’s inconvenient and possibly awkward, forcing you to spend a half hour hanging out with people you really have no interest in talking to, but suck it up. Even if you only share a ride with one person, you’re cutting your emissions for the day in half compared to both of you driving separately. Otherwise, try to take the bus, and only if that’s not a viable option should you be driving a car solo, from a carbon footprint viewpoint at least. Unfortunately, the US is obsessed with automobiles, and there’s often loud opposition to funding public transportation projects. So, for many of us, the car is still our only realistic option. In the area I live in, for instance, you can take a bus, but it’s not likely to get you very near where you work, and even if it does, it can take a couple of hours when driving the same distance would take you 30 minutes. So you’re going to be restricted by where you live, but do the best you can. And push your local elected officials for better public transportation!

As for flying… Greta ain’t wrong. Air travel is usually the most polluting way to go. We can’t all cross the Atlantic in a sailboat instead of taking a plane when we’ve got an important meeting to get to, but we can re-evaluate the true cost of flying. $200 round trip for that weekend getaway may sound like a good bargain, but the costs of climate change are not priced in to that. From a climate point of view, unless we develop electric jetliners, we should all try to fly as little as possible. Your summer vacation needs to be a road trip, not a quick and easy flight. It sucks, I know, I know. And I’m not saying if a family member is dying on the other side of the country, you can’t fly out to be with them. I’m just suggesting you try not to fly whenever you have the option, and maybe consider keeping your vacations closer to home. It’s inconvenient as hell, but them’s the facts. One of the many, many things we have to do to curb climate change is probably going to be to make air travel a luxury again, rather than an ordinary option.

Car exhaust is probably your biggest contributor to your carbon footprint
Auto exhaust is probably your biggest contributor to your carbon footprint Photo by Khunkorn Laowisit from Pexels

As far as cars go, of course, swapping out your current gas-guzzling truck with a more efficient vehicle, or even an electric vehicle, is another great option. There’s a couple of points about that, though. First, obviously we can’t all afford to just pop off and buy a new car. Obviously, if your budget is tight, then your options are limited, and you’ve got to make sure you and your family can get by before you worry about anything else. If anybody tries to carbon-shame you because you are still driving a 15-year-old SUV instead of spending 24 months worth of your income on an electric car while you’re struggling to make rent payments, just tell those people to fuck right off unless they want to buy it for you. There’s no point in upgrading your ride if it’s going to mean you’re going to end up having to live in it. Just do the best you can, when you can afford to. And it doesn’t have to be an electric or hybrid if that’s out of your price range. Even getting a rig that gets 25 mpg is better than one that gets 20.

The other issue is, it’s not always actually a good trade-off to get a greener vehicle. If your current car gets 40 miles to the gallon, is running great, and you bike to work anyway, then don’t sweat it. Hang on to that thing until it starts giving you more trouble than it’s worth. Then you can get that sweet affordable Tesla model that they keep hinting they’re going to make one day but nobody really believes them because Elon Musk, while possessing remarkable vision, is kind of a flake. Remember, producing a vehicle, electric or otherwise, has its own carbon cost associated with it, so you should only upgrade if you think it’s going to have an impact right away. If you aren’t driving much or already have a very efficient vehicle, then it can wait until you would have gotten a new car anyway.

Beyond that, we can all just travel less. This can mean no more flights to New York City for dinner (rich people, amirite?) but it can also mean just trying to group all your daily errands in to one trip during the week. Do you really have to have that gallon of milk today, or can it wait until a few days from now when you’ve got 3 other things you need and a prescription to pick up while you’re out? Can you walk to the corner store and pay a buck extra rather than drive to the big box store for the better bargain? Any time you go to get in the car, ask yourself, is there a more efficient way to do this that’s within your budget?

Flying your beef in from Japan was a bad idea

The other thing you can start doing right away to reduce your carbon footprint is to eat less meat, and especially less beef.

I know. Look, I know, okay? I can hear you screaming from here. It’s a hard sell and nobody wants to hear it. You think I don’t know that hamburgers are the iconic American meal? That steak is the definition of a fancy dinner? That you, personally, probably are craving meat just from having read this? I’m very much aware of all that. I mean, I’m not even really a vegetarian myself. But again, thems the facts. The data is in. The carbon footprint of a kilogram of steak is about FORTY TIMES than that of a kilo of tomatoes.

But before you go off ranting about how those damned liberal politicians want to get rid of your hamburgers and airplanes, remember what I actually said. I said to eat less meat, not no meat. I ain’t gonna sit here and tell you that you absolutely have got to cut it out of your life. I know damned well that if I said we all had to be vegetarian, it would make some people go out and start chewing on live cows just out of spite. So realistically, our goal is to just reduce meat consumption, and beef in particular. Not necessarily eliminate it. Remember how I said flying should be a luxury, not something every middle class family does on the regular? Same goes for beef. If we priced the cost of the climate crisis in to that hamburger, suddenly McDonald’s would be the place snooty people went to show off their wealth and put pics of their dinner on Instagram.

So just keep that in mind. You don’t have to go full blown vegetarian. Just be mindful of what you eat, think about the carbon footprint, and try to cut back on the meat. You may be surprised how little you can get away with and not really miss it. And when you do go carnivore, pick fish or poultry whenever you can. Make beef a truly rare meal in your life. Again… I know it’s a bitch. I know you hate me for even suggesting it. It’s an extremely unpopular position. But, what can I do? You can’t cherry pick your science, ignore it when you don’t like it. You gotta go where the data takes you. Speaking of data, here’s the hierarchy of food items from a carbon standpoint:

graphic comparing the carbon footprints of different types of food
You gotta eat a LOT of ketchup on your burger if you want to match the carbon footprint of the ground beef in it

Basically, meat is the least efficient food source and the most polluting, and by a long shot. Beef is dramatically worse than anything else. Fish is your best meat option, followed by poultry. Any grains, fruits, or vegetables are much less carbon-intensive than meat, no matter what they are. Eggs and milk fall in between. In fact, the difference between plant-based food and animal-based food is so dramatic that all that fuss over how far your food travels and how it’s raised turns out to be pretty minor in comparison. It matters, just not near as much as your decision to get the eggplant parmesan instead of the sirloin steak. So, still pay attention to the other stuff, but don’t choose the hamburger over the chicken just because it’s locally raised. That won’t make enough of a difference in the CO2 output to make up for the bigger differences between food types.

And again, you have to balance all this with what’s actually reasonable for you and your financial situation. I know that those massive packs of low quality ground beef at the grocery store can be a good bargain, and if you’ve got mouths to feed and every penny counts, I ain’t gonna judge you. I know that if you live in a food desert and the nearest grocery store takes an hour to get to, your options are going to be limited. Unfortunately, sometimes being green is a luxury. It shouldn’t be, and we have to change that, but until we do, just do the best you can.

Quit tracking carbon footprints on the carpet, I just had it cleaned!

Finally, the last big place you can quickly make a difference in your carbon footprint is in powering, heating and cooling your home. The easiest thing to do here is to set the thermostat a little cooler in the winter and a little warmer in the summer. This will have the benefit of saving you a few bucks as well. Besides, it will give you an excuse to wear your cozy pajamas all day in the winter and to go full on nude in the summer! Or fine, whatever, wear clothing if you want, you prude. Point is, every degree less that you’re heating or cooling your home, is that much less carbon dioxide that’s being generated. Assuming you’re not running on 100% renewable energy, of course. Beyond that, it basically boils down to just using less electricity.

Lights don’t need to be on when nobody’s in the room. Likewise the television or computer. And when the opportunity comes up and to the extent you can afford it, upgrade your house insulation, your windows, and your appliances to more energy efficient versions. You may even be able to get a tax break for some of that. You can also check with your power provider and see if they offer an opt-in program to buy electricity from solar and wind sources rather than conventional power plants. It will probably cost a bit more, but if you can swing it, that’s a great option. Obviously, if you rent, you’re probably not going to be buying new windows or refrigerators, but you can still mention the long-term energy savings from making those investments to your landlord/lady/count/duchess/why do we still refer to them as royalty like we live in 14th century Europe?

Now, even with all that, you’re probably not going to get yourself down to 2 tons of carbon dioxide per year. I haven’t. But every step you take makes a tiny difference, buys us a tiny bit more time to figure this shit out. But, truth be told, even if everyone who gives a damn does everything they can to reduce their carbon footprint, it won’t be enough without both industry and government taking aggressive measures. Like the problem with plastic waste, there’s been a lot of focus on personal responsibility without nearly enough examination of the role larger entities play.

Big, beefy, systemic change

We’re going to need really big, systemic, societal changes. We need to shrink the carbon footprint of entire industries, of cities, of nations. That’s going to be very hard, expensive, and politically challenging. And there’s only so much you or I can do as individuals to accomplish that. But the more of us that make climate-friendly changes in our own lives, the more our leaders will feel pressured or empowered to make those changes. Every time you make a choice for lower carbon emissions, it’s sending a signal to energy providers, manufacturers, and farms that there’s a demand for this, that their customers are willing to punish or reward them based on how climate friendly they are. Money talks, so make yours speak volumes.

Sorry to say, but you’ve gotta get a little political, too. In my opinion, climate change isn’t a partisan issue… at least it shouldn’t be. The survival of the biosphere as we know it is much, much bigger than anyone’s views on tax policy or their interpretation of the Constitution. So don’t worry if you don’t know your libertarians from your democratic socialists. That said, it doesn’t hurt to tailor your message to fit your audience. If your senator, governor, or mayor is very pro-business, then remind them that massive droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, and sea level rise are going to be bad for the economy. If they’re already on board, let them know you appreciate it, but also that they have to do more, that they need to speak louder. And if they’re a climate change denier, let them know that you aren’t, that you vote, you’re not alone, and that their position is becoming more and more unpopular.

It’s gonna be a bitch to get this work done, but the good news is, you do actually have some control over your own carbon footprint. You can nudge others in the right direction. And collectively we can force corporations and governments to transform to a greener economy. We’re not helpless. So get out there, walk to the store, buy some kale, and eat it stark raving nude in your sweltering apartment in the summertime while leaving voicemails for your state legislators. Do it for the planet, not for the hidden webcams secretly installed in your living room. The subscribers to “Hot-XXX-Veggies.com” pay for the candid aspect of the website, and they’ll know if you’re just putting on a show for the camera. So, actually… maybe you should just forget I said anything.

MORE READING:
Climate change: Should you fly, drive or take the train?
Which form of transport has the smallest carbon footprint?
You want to reduce the carbon footprint of your food?

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