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25 Apr 2020 : The cold hard truth about my carbon footprint #
Understanding our impact on the environment has always been hard, and I've been lucky enough to live through several iterations of what being green means. At one point environmental impact was measured by the number of aerosols you used. Then it was based on how acidic you made the rain. Then it was the type of detergent you used. There were no doubt many in between that I've forgotten.

The latest metric is that of our carbon footprint: how much CO2 a person produces each year. It certainly has advantages over some of the others, for example by being measurable on a continuous scale, and by capturing a broader range of activities. But at the same time it doesn't capture every type of ecological damage. Someone with zero carbon footprint can still be destroying the ozone layer and poisoning the world's rivers with industrial waste.

Still, even if it's one of many metrics that captures our harm to the environment, it's still worth tracking it in the hope of reducing our overall impact.

With that in mind I recently calculated my carbon footprint using the aptly named "Carbon Footprint Calculator" provided by a company aptly named "Carbon Footprint Ltd.".

I actively try to reduce my carbon emissions, for example by using electricity from a renewable provider, and by walking, cycling or using public transport rather than driving. However I also have a rented flat in Finland (where I live and work), alongside a house in the UK (where my wife lives and works). Travelling between Cambridge and Tampere by boat and train is a three-day odyssey, compared to 11 hours by plane, so I fly much more than I should. Joanna and I don't really enjoy the carbon-footprint benefits of having two or more people living in a single home. Of course, the environmental consequences don't really care why the CO2 is being produced, only that it is, so we need to take an honest look at the output we're producing.

Here's a breakdown of our impact as determined by the calculator.
Source Details CO2 output 2019 (t) Goal for 2020 (t)
Electricity 1 794 kWh 0.50 0.25
Natural gas 6 433 kWh 1.18 1.18
Flights 10 return HEL-LON 5.76 3.46
Car 11 910 km 1.45 0.97
National rail 1 930 km 0.08 0.16
International rail 5 630 km 0.02 0.04
Taxi 64 km 0.01 0.02
Food and drink   1.69 1.69
Pharmaceuticals   0.26 0.26
Clothing   0.03 0.03
Paper-based products   0.34 0.34
Computer usage   1.30 1.30
Electrical   0.12 0.12
Manufactured goods   0.50 0.10
Hotels, restaurants   0.51 0.51
Telecoms   0.15 0.15
Finance   0.24 0.24
Insurance   0.19 0.19
Education   0.05 0.05
Recreation   0.09 0.09
Total   14.47 11.14

Given the effort we put in to reducing our footprint, this feels like a depressingly high total. The average for two people in our circumstances is 15.16 tonnes, but the worldwide average is 10.0 tonnes, and the target needed to combat climate change is 4.0 tonnes per year. So we are way off where we really need to be.

How could we get it down to an ecologically-safe level? Well the cold hard truth is that right now, we couldn't. Even if we took no more flights, converted our gas boiler to a renewable energy source and stopped commuting by car, that would still leave our joint carbon footprint at 6.39 tonnes for the year. Too much.

The danger is that we become nihilistic about it, so we need to set realistic goals and then just try to continue to bring it down over time. Joanna and I have been through and worked out what we think we can realistically achieve this year. The COVID-19 pandemic turns out to have some positives here, since we're not commuting or flying at all right now. We think we can realistically bring our combined carbon footprint down to 11.2 tonnes for 2020, and that's what we'll be aiming to do.

The reality is that reducing our CO2 to a sensible level is hard, and it's going to get harder. I'm hoping having something to aim for will help.


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