July 31, 2007
Kermit the Frog may have started the trend years ago, but today, all of us are going green. Conservation is on everyone’s agenda, especially as the effects of global warming become harder to ignore. From Leonardo DiCaprio to the neighborhood coffee shop, it’s never been more en vogue to start reducing your carbon footprint.
A carbon footprint is a measure of the impact human activities have on the environment in units of carbon dioxide. Driving to work, flying in an airplane, using the air conditioner, and yes, transporting produce across the country are all examples of activities that produce greenhouse gases. Now, several organizations are popping up with the goal of educating consumers about carbon footprinting and ultimately, decreasing its effects.
The UK-based Carbonfootprint.com is one such organization. Their mission is to encourage people to make the right choices, both at home and at work, to help ensure a healthy Earth for future generations. They say the average person’s total carbon footprint in the USA is about 19,000 kg per year. To stop climate change, the world-wide average needs to be reduced to about 2,000 kg per year.
Here’s how their site works. First you calculate your carbon footprint based on household bills and personal travel. Next, you are given suggestions for reducing your footprint, like buying electricity from a renewable energy supplier or using public transport instead of a personal vehicle. Finally, there are options for offsetting the footprint – the main one being the purchase of one or more trees, depending on the footprint’s size.
For example, a single round trip flight from New York to London results in a carbon footprint of 1,300 kg. Recommended offset? Two trees. Driving 5,000 miles annually (the average person drives 9,900) gives you a footprint of 2,415 kg. That’s three trees. Using 6600 kilowatt hours of electricity per year produces a footprint of 4,000 kg. Five trees. And so on.
Sites like Safeclimate.net, and the Inconvenient Truth website Climatecrisis.net, work similarly. Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is getting in on the action. Their personal emissions calculator results in two numbers: one that represents the footprint, and one that represents the footprint after factoring in hypothetical emission reduction methods.
Another calculator site, Zerofootprint.net, takes a more holistic approach to footprint reduction. Their site is interested in calculating both carbon use and the footprint made by water, land and tree consumption. Deborah Kaplan, Zerofootprint.net’s Executive Director, says their site is unique because it teaches users to calculate, manage and track their footprints over time, and compare their footprints to those of other users.
“We provide a benchmark from which to start from, and then help you modify your lifestyle to make informed decisions and live more sustainably,” she says. “This type of awareness is growing in relevance as our resources become increasingly constrained.”
And where do food miles factor into all of this? A study published last month from The University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada found that the amount of greenhouse gas emitted during the transport of organic produce over long distances could mitigate the environmental benefits of growing the food organically in the first place. Environmental costs were comparable for bringing conventionally grown produce to market.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA) says that produce in the U.S. travels, on average, 1,300 to 2,000 miles from farm to consumer in trucks. According to the calculator, that equates to approximately 1000 kg of carbon dioxide – per delivery. Kaplan says investing in forest restoration projects is a start, but one that requires more vigilance than a simple donation provides.
“You can plant a tree in your backyard, but you can’t really consider it a viable carbon offset. A legal structure needs to be in place to protect that tree from being cut down when you sell your house, for example. Our carbon offsetting program focuses on forest restoration projects that meet ISO standards.”
Zerofootprint.net is also currently developing product seals that show the carbon range associated with a given food product. Sort of like a nutritional facts label for carbon footprints. The UK’s biggest food retailer Tesco introduced carbon labels on some of their products earlier this year.
Kaplan adds, “It’s important to understand how far your food has traveled to get to your table. It’s just as important to know how many other natural resources are being used. We need to better understand our entire ecologic footprint.”