Finding Our Carbon Footprint

Fighting climate change requires action in the areas of politics and personal practice. Last week’s post was about political action – mobilizing to defeat a premier who is a notorious climate change malefactor. This week’s is about personal practice.

My undergraduate class’s climate change action group referred me to the University of California at Berkeley’s CoolClimate Network. The network’s “mission is to massively scale up the adoption of climate solutions.” As part of its mission it has developed climate footprint calculators for households and businesses. I calculated the footprint for our household of three in suburban Toronto. And, as a small exercise in scaling up, I shared the calculator with the members of my Sunday morning Zoom discussion group (a running-and-brunch group in the beforetimes).

The Big Picture

Our household produces 47 carbon-dioxide equivalent tons per year, which is 24 percent better than the average for households of our size and income level in the US. The calculator uses inputted information about travel, the home, food, and purchases of goods and services to derive the footprint. (The calculator allows you to input Canadian locations and metric units, but the currency used is US dollars and comparisons are with US populations.) Not surprisingly, the carbon footprints were similar for the other members of the Zoom discussion group, who are (semi)retired people living in Toronto, Ottawa, and Baltimore also with lives that have recently been circumscribed by the pandemic.


One type of travel that makes a big difference in your footprint is air travel; airplanes use a lot of fuel and they discharge it in the upper atmosphere (NSS). However, a recent New York Times article observes that “currently, carbon estimates for flights are all over the map.” When a consensus is reached, I assume that the CoolClimate calculator will adopt it. No one in my household has flown since the start of the pandemic, so I inputted zero. As a sensitivity test, in 2016 I made round trips to Peru, Taiwan, and the UK (twice) and several short flights, and this increased our household’s carbon dioxide output by 8 tons, to a total of 55. Yes, air travel matters.

Looking ahead, I expect our air travel to remain much lower than in the beforetimes because I will be doing much less business travel. I regret that: as discussed in a previous post, I would always add to my business trips an extra day, or two, or three as a tourist.

Bill Gates, in his recent book about climate change, observes that air travel accounts for only 2 to 3 percent of total carbon emissions because only a small percentage of humankind travels regularly by air. Unfortunately it is unlikely that air travel’s carbon footprint will shrink because battery-powered aircraft are technologically unfeasible and hydro-carbon fuels are vastly more expensive than jet fuel.

The calculator doesn’t ask whether you buy carbon offsets for air travel, perhaps because there has been considerable debate about whether they are effective mitigation or mere greenwashing.

On other types of travel, we’re doing okay. We have two small cars that use approximately 9 litres per 100 kilometers (close to 30 miles per US gallon). We will eventually replace them with hybrids or electrics. And we always take public transit downtown.

On the Home Front

Because most of Ontario’s electricity is produced by hydro or nuclear, our electricity footprint is minimal (.24 tons). While this is too fine-grained for the calculator, Ontario allows households to choose between block-rate and time-of-day pricing and provides a calculator to show you your electricity bill under both. That calculator says that our bills would be similar, but I’ve chosen time-of-day pricing because I appreciate the discipline of running the dishwasher and doing the laundry off-peak.

We heat our home with natural gas, as do most  Torontonians, and that contributes a massive 6.7 tons to our footprint, counteracting our miniscule electricity footprint. There is only one house in our neighbourhood – and I’m certain of this because I walk a lot – that has solar panels. If, as a matter of public policy, Ontario moves to cleaner home heating, it would make a big difference.

The Dining Room Table

We have decided to eat healthier, with more vegetarian meals, lots of grains and fruits and vegetables, no red meat, occasional fish or chicken, and very few soft drinks. Our carbon footprint for food is 6.3 tons, which is 18 percent better than the average for three-person households in the US at our income level.

Goods and Services

The last two categories in the calculator are goods and services. Goods includes furniture, clothing, paper and books, auto parts, and medical devices. We just don’t buy a lot of stuff: my wife and I now rarely buy printed books but use Kindle readers. Our goods footprint is 4.6 tons, which is 67 percent better than the average.

On services, we don’t do nearly as well, with a total of 15.7 tons of carbon, which is 17 percent higher than the average. We use Ontario’s health system a good deal, as our age would lead you to expect. We all have cell phones and rates in Canada are not cheap. Our cars must be serviced. We have our house cleaned weekly. We use financial advisers, accountants, and lawyers. As the saying goes, “someone who represents himself in court has a fool for a client.” We don’t have these skills and learning them doesn’t seem to me to be a valuable retirement project.

The Bottom Line

Using the CoolClimate calculator was an enjoyable and enlightening experience. I liked comparing myself to the average, though would have preferred a Canadian average. I appreciated its approval of our choices in urban transportation, food, and purchases of goods. I have started thinking about whether we should replace our natural gas heating with something cleaner. I’ve also started thinking about how much air travel we should be doing and whether there are credible carbon offsets we could buy.

Using the calculator took less than an hour. Try it.

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