Complicated footprints

Let’s say you are sitting on a bench in San Francisco and see a man who is riding a bike. You watch him yell at two people passing by in a car, because they are polluting the environment. The man on the bike may actually be creating more of a carbon footprint, depending on what he ate for lunch, what kind of car drove by, or where his bike came from. The further you look into carbon footprints, the more surprises you find.

What exactly is a carbon footprint? The general concept is to measure how many resources you consume to do a particular activity. In the book, "How Bad Are Bananas?" by Mike Berners-Lee, he uses a standard unit for each of the items discussed called Carbon Dioxide Equivalent (CO2e). Most fuel emissions are some combination of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and refrigerant gasses, but the combination will vary per activity. CO2e is a standard unit of measure Berners-Lee uses to quantify the energy used by everything in his book.

In "How Bad Are Bananas?" Berners-Lee explains how much energy is used by everything from sending a text message to hosting the World Cup. He explained, “If your cycling calories come from cheeseburgers, the emissions per mile are about the same as two people driving an efficient car.”

If your bike calories come from airfreighted asparagus, you are creating a similar carbon footprint to desalinating 130 gallons of water with a reverse osmosis filter.

Some things that relate to the heating and cooling industry have an outlay of energy, but result in massive CO2e savings. For example, it would create 350 kg CO2e to insulate the attic of an average three-bedroom house. Over 40 years, you would save 35 tons CO2e, because of the more efficient use of heating and cooling energy.

I have heard a critique of solar that claims the materials and processes involved in building and installing a PV collector are worse for the environment than not building a panel in the first place. It would be about 3.5 tons CO2e to install an array capable of producing 1,800 KWH of photovoltaic solar. (For reference, a flight from LA to Barcelona and back is 3.4 tons CO2e). Over the life of the panels, however, you could save 50 tons CO2e. You would start saving CO2e in the second year.

The amount of energy required to produce the things we use isn’t the whole issue; using some resources instead of others is another part of the equation. Michael Specter wrote, “Paying attention to the emissions associated with what we eat makes obvious sense. It is certainly hard to justify importing bottled water from France, Finland, or Fiji to a place like New York, which has perhaps the cleanest tap water of any major American city. Yet, according to one recent study, factories throughout the world are burning eighteen million barrels of oil and consuming forty-one billion gallons of fresh water every day, solely to make bottled water that most people in the U.S. don’t need.”

However, the products grown nearby aren’t always the smallest footprints, either. According to Specter, wine from Bordeaux, France requires less energy to get to New York City than wine from California. Since the wine from California will likely come by truck or airfreight, it requires more energy to transport than a cargo ship across the ocean. If you lived in Columbus, Ohio, it would be about the same footprint for either wine.

Outside of your poetry circle discussions at a local bookstore/vegan espresso shop, why is carbon footprint important to average U.S. Citizens? During the recession, there was a lot of talk about people getting in over their head with mortgage debt because they were living outside of their means. Living within your financial means is a principal conservative thought and it is the opposite of how we treat energy use.

As Americans, we are living well beyond our energy means. While we may have coal and natural gas reserves under our country to last us for some years, we won’t be able to continue for generations in the manner we are now. If you look at the objects around you and the food you ate today, they are probably from all corners of the earth. Whether or not you are interested in reducing your carbon footprint from a green lifestyle standpoint, the carbon footprint associated with our American lifestyles isn’t something we will be able to do forever.

It is hard to find solid answers for universal ways to reduce your carbon footprint. Shopping for locally produced products is a good rule of thumb. Organic foods generally have less of footprint than pesticide and fertilizer laden produce. However, reducing the amount of red meat you consume seems to be a universal way to reduce your footprint. Across the world, forests are being torn down or burned to make room for grazing cattle. This is a multi-faceted problem, because cows are energy intensive animals to raise and the trees cut down to make room for them had been capturing the CO2 in the atmosphere. The number one killer of U.S. Citizens is heart disease; so cutting down of red meat may help you live longer, too. Overall, just cutting beef out of your diet reduces your footprint by 1.4 tons CO2e annually. (For reference, the entire footprint of the average Chinese citizen is 3.3 tons CO2e/year).

Statistically, if everyone on Earth lived the American lifestyle, it would take about five times the Earth’s resources to support us. We only have one Earth and every day more people in more countries would like to live the typical Western lifestyle. There aren’t enough resources left in this world to feed everyone a cheeseburger, and the amount of people ordering cheeseburgers goes up every second.

My fear is that a hundred years from now, the history books will look at modern day Americans the same way we look at the people who shot buffalo from the windows of the transcontinental railroad in the 1870s. We are treating our resources like they are unlimited and consuming them frivolously, despite the lessons we have already learned by decimating the buffalo populations. Burning down rainforest land to lower the price of a hamburger is worse than shooting a buffalo from a train. Fresh water, produce, metals, energy, and meat aren’t limitless or quickly replenishing resources.

The average world citizen accounts for 7 tons of CO2e/year. The average North American will produce 28 tons of CO2e/year. Your carbon footprint may not keep you up at night, however it will undoubtedly have an effect on your children or grandchildren. I am not suggesting that we all go live in caves off-grid to fix the problem. International commerce is an incredible thing, especially coupled with the connectivity of the Internet. However, we are well past the average lifestyle this planet will support. Living the American Dream is still possible if you cut a few pieces of red meat out of your diet.


Max Rohr is currently an outside salesperson at Shamrock Sales in Denver. He has worked in the hydronics and solar industry for 10 years in the installation, sales and marketing sectors. Rohr is a LEED Green Associate and BPI Building Analyst, and is RPA’s Education Committee Chairman. He can be reached at

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