Do you know your carbon footprint? Probably not, unless you are incredibly well informed about the many factors that determine how much impact you will leave on this planet during your journey through life. And now researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have added a new level of complexity to the problem.
One size does not fit all. What works for Uncle Billy in Plaintown, Nebraska, probably won't work for you.
Lifestyle, family income and even age all contribute to a wide variation in the size of an individual's carbon footprint.
Researchers Christopher Jones and Daniel Kammen of Berkeley's Energy and Resources Group have tried to make it easier for a family or an individual to come up with a reasonable estimate of how many tons of carbon they contribute each year.
"Everyone has a unique carbon footprint," said Jones, lead author of the study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. The researchers studied all 50 states and 28 metropolitan areas to determine which strategies would work best in each of those areas.
The bottom line: it is possible to reduce a carbon footprint and save money at the same time. It may not be a huge difference, but multiplied by potentially millions of concerned citizens it could add up to a major impact.
Berkeley Scientists Create Online Carbon Calculator
Jones and Kammen have created a "carbon calculator" that is available to anyone at coolclimate.berkeley.edu. The calculator asks the visitor a few questions and determines which actions would likely lead to the greatest reduction in the size of the footprint.
It's not a perfect solution, because conditions vary so much across the country, even within individual cities and states. But the researchers say it's easy to use and should be helpful to nearly anyone. They picked two locations to illustrate the considerable differences from one region to another.
A couple living in San Francisco and earning $90,000 a year leave a carbon footprint dominated by emissions from motor vehicles and air travel. Their household energy consumption is about half the national average because of a moderate climate. They could reduce their footprint the most by trading their car for a hybrid and reducing their air travel. That would also save them about $2,100 a year, and maybe even improve their social status by choosing a vehicle based on its fuel consumption.
It's a very different story for a household of five living in St. Louis earning $45,000 a year. Their footprint is dominated by emissions from electricity because of the need to heat and cool the house throughout the year. They could reduce their footprint by raising the thermostat in the summer and lowering it in the winter just a few degrees, possibly saving $1,400 a year while reducing their footprint.
Here are some other variations across the country:
San Francisco and San Diego have the lowest household energy emissions, but very high transportation footprints. Minneapolis, which has the lowest household size also has the largest overall carbon footprint, a bit of a surprise. New York, Boston and Baltimore have relatively high household incomes, and low overall carbon footprints. Changing diet (less red meat and dairy products) saved the most money, about $850 a year. Driving a more fuel-efficient car had the greatest impact on the footprint, even if the gain is only five miles per gallon.