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    • I have seen a number of "carbon footprint" calculators, and I have read there are many more. But the ones I have seen are simplistic. I mean, they contain a lot of information, but they all run into the problem that they are not complex enough. The problem is this: what is the carbon footprint of an apple? How does consumption of apples in YOUR daily life affect the atmosphere as compared to MY consumption of apples?

      Apples are grown in certain regions of the world. It seems reasonable to assume that all the apples in a region share equally in their production cost. Of course, the first apple of the day that is harvested will be driven around the field all day, whereas the last apple of the day must only be carried to the sorting house. However, we cannot tell these apples apart. We say they all have the same harvesting costs; the same processing and packing costs. We take these costs - the carbon emissions that arise from apple processing - and divide them among the quantity of apples that are consumed. Now, if you live in an apple-growing region and you eat a lot of apples, you might buy apples at the packing plant. Maybe they sell cases? You drive a few miles in your car and you have apples all month. Contrariwise, for me to buy an apple it must be transported by truck cross-country, loaded onto a ship, travel an ocean, be transported to a warehouse, be distributed to a grocery store, and then I have to go to the grocery store to get it and take it home. In some of the transport chain, it may be refrigerated.

      Whether we each devote our apple-purchasing trip to only buying apples, or whether we make multiple purchases on the same trip - this affects the carbon footprint of the apples we consume. The accounting would be mind-numbing. So we can't do it that way. We have to somehow develop an estimate of our carbon footprint without having to elucidate our entire life history. And yet, our life history is what makes our carbon footprint bigger or smaller!

      I think there can be some simplifying assumptions made. Everyone who uses electricity can be assigned some responsibility for carbon emission based on their particular power supplier's generating method(s). It might not be easy to assign that per-kilowatt-hour carbon footprint to that utility, but once it is done then those customers can each calculate their share of the utility's emissions. Likewise, people in a region can calculate their carbon footprint based on the amount of fuel they burn in cars, once they know the local footprint of the fuel based on distance from the refinery. The carbon footprint of durable goods and commodity items of various sorts can be developed on a regional basis, by similar means.

      I thought I would tackle this - try to calculate just MY carbon footprint. Wow, it is almost impossible! I found a calculator on BBC that would tell me the carbon footprint of my groceries. But it is only good for maybe London? I grow avocados - there is no carbon footprint for them here. But for Londoners, the carbon footprint includes a lot of transportation. The calculator doesn't help.

      Can there be a universal carbon footprint calculator? Is anybody working on one? What have people seen? Is there interest in determining one's carbon footprint? If you knew that certain of your activities contributed significantly to your total carbon footprint, would you be inclined to change those activities? I'd like to have discussion on this and suggestions!

    • Interesting topic and one that should be of significant interest as far as saving the planet from “Climate Collapse.”

      I think calculating your carbon footprint with apples is useful if you are weighing it against alternative consumables. If my choice is apples from a farm 50 miles away or Kiwis from New Zealand, apples are the clear choice in minimizing my carbon footprint.

      Eliminating beef from your diet can reduce your carbon foot print tremendously. I read an entire book on the damage cattle production causes to our environment. The book’s title escapes me but here’s a good article on reducing beef consumption from last month.

      Reducing or eliminating international travel is another huge way to cut your carbon footprint.

      And of course, growing your own avocados 🥑 is an amazing idea on multiple levels.

    • I agree with @apm that this is probably most useful in terms of alternatives and averages, and with your assessment that calculating something like an exact footprint is likely impossible. If we could, we would probably optimize for the wrong thing anyway.

      Going back to your apple example, if you could pick the exact apple that was harvested last, you would do it because doing so optimizes your exact footprint. That choice doesn't make the first apple of the day go away, though, so someone else will buy that one and thereby worsen their exact footprint. In terms of overall carbon emission, this is a zero sum game that doesn't help the planet, so it really makes sense to consider all apples to be equal.

      Instead, what is much more useful is to recognize that locally produced stuff is generally better than imported stuff. I like avocados, too - but when I see that they are mostly imported via air freight from Israel, I need to face the facts and eat more apples instead. For me, that's where the "average" comes in. I won't abstain from eating avocados completely - but having one each month rather than one each day, and checking that they are in fact coming from Israel and not places that are even farther away, already goes a long way towards reducing my avocado-related carbon footprint.

    • I was once an earth scientist working in environmental water and air testing and you're right, there are so many factors. After years of struggle and research I've come down to this: buying plants without all the packaging, at your local farmer's market, cuts your environmental impact at least in half — probably much more.

      It's a gross average. For example, leafy greens probably have a higher environmental footprint than pork per calorie.

      Where the picture gets really complicated is what are the effects after the calculations are made and the food is consumed. For example, if you eat whole plant foods, you don't get heart disease or type II diabetes. You have to eat animal and refined plants (sugar, oil, white flower — plants with the fiber removed) to get those diseases.

      How can we calculate the environmental impact of all the extra hospitals and medications we need to treat the health effects of pepperoni pizza? I hate to be terribly morbid, but don't we also have to calculate the savings in environmental impact of losing people to heart attacks in their 40s and 50s?

      👆 Ugh, sometimes it can be awful to have me jump into a conversation, I know...

    • 👆 Ugh, sometimes it can be awful to have me jump into a conversation, I know...

      What? No - that was great! Both because I actually like "terribly morbid" things, and because it puts things into perspective. Obviously, we could all decrease our carbon footprints to a minimum by simply ceasing to exist. That's not really a solution, though.

      After posting my above reply yesterday, I thought about this some more. While I still think that complete "exactness" can't really be the goal here, there's something else that I really would like to see.

      Using the previous examples I understand that, generally speaking, apple < avocado < steak when it comes to their relative carbon footprints (smaller being better). What this doesn't take into account are local factors: If the steak comes from a local source and I'm having it with a side of locally sourced potato wedges, but the avocado is flown in from the other end of the world and I'm adding olive oil from Greece and a bit of garlic from who-knows-where - which of these dishes has a better "complex footprint", and by how much?

      Depending on these numbers, perhaps it turns out that I shouldn't remove avocado from my diet after all, but actually should eat more avocado as long as they replace steak meals. What this boils down to is that I want to decide based on facts, not guesswork.

      Another, more abstract, way to put this would be the following: Assuming my current quality of life is 100% (QoL), and my current carbon footprint is 100% (CF). If I change any aspect of my behavior, both of these values might change. Assuming that we're only looking at changes that decrease my carbon footprint, if we calculate delta_QoL/delta_CF and sort the results by increasing value, the top of the list would contain changes that wouldn't affect me that much (or even in a positive way, if the calculated value is negative). Can this be done, at least for some averaged values, and what would be necessary for this?

    • Environmental impact and quality of life are both fascinating. For the environment, this chart (source) is interesting (click it to see bigger):

      In my mind, this chart can be made to look much worse or much better for animal agriculture.

      Worse if it took into account the devastating impact on chicken manure destroying the Chesapeake Bay, food-borne illnesses like Salmonella, which come from tainted water from animal farming, depletion of our oceans from fishing, deforestation to make way for animal farming, etc.

      Better if it were in units of calories produced instead of Kg of food consumed. Low calorie foods like broccoli and tomatoes wouldn't look as good on the chart then.

      Potatoes rank as high as they do because they take a lot of cooking.

    • Quality of life is tougher because I suspect by quality of life you may mean how much you enjoy your food whereas I may mean health. Donuts are seriously yummy but sadly I no longer eat them because health, but I consider my quality of life to have improved. I tell myself cherries are yummy too so no loss, but most people would say donuts > cherries on the standardized metric yum scale.

      I think the evidence is now overwhelming that plants > animals for human health but most people think cheese is very yummy.

    • if we calculate delta_QoL/delta_CF and sort the results by increasing value,

      I feel that we need to install the LaTex expansion pack for Cake to fully express the math involved. 🤣

      What I find interesting about your idea is that it lends itself to the creation of a personal carbon tax. For example, beef’s carbon footprint is four times as much as chicken. If a grilled chicken sandwich costs four bucks at a typical fast food joint, shouldn’t a Big Mac sell for $20 with Climate Collapse tax included?

    • I don't quite understand the graph. It looks like someone calculated emissions of various food types based on the amounts of those foods consumed, and they happened to consume a lot of lamb. If they divided the emissions by the consumption, and had an emission PER kilogram consumed, then it might be more universal - I mean, a vegan might decide they have a low footprint based on eliminating all the first nine foods, but they make up for it by eating many more kg of the foods to the right.

      Anyway, I think, like with the apple example, we have to separate production and transportation components - as this chart tried to do. All the apples are charged equally for their harvesting (assuming all the apples are subsequently purchased from "cases") - all the lamb is charged equally for costs of feed, biogas production, and processing. This is the green part of the graph. Then the apples or the lamb enter the distribution chain and incur some additional charges. The chart has such values, but they almost have to be location-specific. It looks like potato and turkey might not be locally produced, for example. The red part of the graph is almost like a location fingerprint.

      Some foods are going to have inherently higher post-production cost because they require energy-intensive refrigeration or freezing. Some foods are going to need more packaging and that packaging might include non-recyclable plastics. The carbon footprint of canned goods could be high due to the cost of the metal refining for the cans. Wouldn't cans from a place that does a lot more metal recycling (say, China) have a lower footprint than a place that is involved primarily in the manufacture of steel from mined ore? My thought is that the entire production and distribution chain is what makes the carbon footprint and without trying to assess the whole picture, it is likely that consumers can make counter-productive errors in their purchasing decisions.

    • yeah, that is what I want to do: know how to make smart decisions: I guess we do it all the time in a qualitative way. We (wife is not looking, imperial 'we' is acceptable!) dry our clothes on the clothesline. If it is a rainy day, we don't do laundry. But if we have clothes on the line and it turns damp, we put the clothes in the dryer and finish them off. The dryer has an operating carbon footprint (propane fired), thought the electric motor and controls are running on a solar-powered off-grid system. We are trading off carbon footprint for quality of life: if the clothes mildew because they remain wet, then various calamities ensue. Our neighbors have no dryers and must expend considerable extra labor hanging and collecting clothes from drying lines when the weather is more inclimate. What value am I placing on my quality of life vs. my carbon footprint? How does that compare with the ratio for eating a steak vs chicken, or driving my car vs taking public transportation?

    • I found this as the probably original source for the graph:

      According to that page, the numbers are actually given in kg CO2 per kg edible substance. Lamb is that high on the list because "lamb generates more emissions per kilo in part because it produces less edible meat relative to the sheep’s live weight".

      @Chris suggested doing the same graph in terms of kg CO2 equivalent per calorie, so I just plugged the numbers into a spreadsheet, found calorie values by doing a Google search for "calories of _____" and did the math. Looks like I should eat more peanut butter. ;)

    • quality of life is an inherently individual issue: your choice of healthy diet over "yum" is based on your situation. A terminally individual might well choose the yum factor, and who could dispute it? Even issues of meat vs. vegetable might have to go into individualized choice: although we can stipulate climate effects, some individuals special health needs might make them justify other dietary choices. Not to say they might not have to pay the higher carbon tax (or maybe there would be exemptions for medical necessities?)

      With a carbon tax, consistently applied, the whole carbon footprint question could be eliminated: each step of the transport chain would raise the cost of an item - it would quickly become obvious from economics, how to minimize one's footprint. Until that day, we are left with a seemingly impenetrable maze. :(

    • Looks like I should eat more peanut butter. ;)

      Great job on that graph! Very impressive.

      I know you're all very focused on carbon and I love it, but coming from a water testing background I believe the world has hardly woken up to the magnitude of that problem. It isn't just how much water it takes to produce food, but how polluted our water becomes as a result.

      My ears picked up when you mentioned peanuts because they don't take much water compared to almonds or beef, and like all legumes they add nitrogen to the soil so we don't have to use so many chemical fertilizers that drain into our waterways.

    • Regarding peanuts or the "Nuts" column (which probably includes peanuts even if they aren't nuts), I already wondered about that. There's a factor of >30 between nuts and lamb, and still an order of magnitude between them and what must be the average value for our typical diets.

      I like nuts - and they are readily available, so a meal takes no time to prepare - so replacing at least a part of my diet with nuts or something like trail mix would even play into that whole "not reducing quality of life too much" idea. If they are also good in other regards, that's even better.

      Generally speaking, I think this shows the problem @CadeJohnson brought up, again. It would be great to have some valid resource to look up all sorts of footprints (carbon, water, land use, humanitarian, ...) of all the stuff we eat, consume, throw away, ... - this would allow the people interested in that sort of thing to better decide what parts of their lifestyles they are willing to change, and in what direction.

      Currently, I don't even know how something as simple as bread, or dried fruits, perform along those lines. Are they good, are they bad, are they "average"? And we haven't even talked much about non-dietary stuff so far.

    • I think it's fascinating to analyze the factors and I'm so glad there are people like you and Cade who are willing to dive in and really think about it. I do think though that a few simple rules get us 80% there:

      1. Eat plants, as locally grown as possible.

      2. Find recipes to help us eat more legumes and less animal foods.

      3. minimize processed foods like coconut oil and donuts.

    • I started building a spreadsheet on this and it became huge and full of guesses very quickly. I was not even trying to make it general, just get some idea of the carbon footprint of the things with which I am already quite familiar. I will clean it up and export it to a google sheet in coming days, and we can look at it together and maybe expand it somehow? Well, I mean not just @Factotum but any readers here who have an interest. I will post the link; it might be a few days . . .

    • This page is in progress, but the carbon footprint calculations for direct fuel consumption and public transportation options are largely complete. Now I am working on food and non-durable goods. Will do durable goods last. This is view-only, but if you want to play with it, I can post an editable version - or I think you can just copy it to your own google sheet and then edit all you like. I will add reference citations.

    • Interesting, Cade. It looks like diesel, air travel and burning trash are the big things, no? Maybe what's most surprising to me is how little you actually drive and fly but how they stand out on the spreadsheet.

      We're not allowed to burn trash in my part of California and it has become so socially unacceptable to burn wood in our fireplaces, none of us do it anymore. I used to love a warm fire, even the smell of it in the neighborhood conjured great feelings.

      When we had our last major fires, we became hooked on the website Purple Air. They have a real-time map of air quality and when ours would get into the red, around 150, I would compare to other areas. I was often surprised at how high the readings were in Europe. Here is London-ish a few minutes ago:

    • I have a solar panel system and no utility connection, and I am retired; so we do not drive much (groceries twice per month), and there is hardly ever anywhere I'd rather be, so no need to fly there! But even before accounting for food or other goods, we already seem to have a far higher footprint that average in this country. I think because so many here use a lot of public transportation.

      As for trash; if I don;t burn it in my pretty efficient trash-burning incincerator, they just burn it in a very smoky way at the local landfill. We separate burnables from compostables and non-burnables (old sailor habit). So the trash fire is pretty small and unnoticed. It is a rural area; you can't have trash fires all around in urbanized areas.

      The only wood I ever burn is a little pressure-treated lumber scrap. Most of my neighbors cook on wood, though. I have to be vigilant to keep them from picking my woodland areas clean of deadfall. I want that deadfall to make soil, not ashes.

    • Great air quality mapping tool. We are in the 30s, so I could see why Cincinnati is in the 100s by comparison. But how do you explain this area in Maryland?

    • The density of sensors is much higher in our area than other parts of the country, and we saw a couple outliers like this at a park near us, so we walked over to figure out what was up. Turns out there's a couple near the park that burns firewood almost continuously in the winter. You can smell it in the neighborhood with the sensors.

      Fires are illegal on 'spare the air' days here, when the particulates get above something like level 150.

    • On the morning of Christmas Eve, the valley below our house was filled with smoke as if the nearby village had burned! There were several small plumes of smoke still rising into the trapped valley-filling layer. There is a very popular tradition here of eating roasted pig on Christmas eve. The pigs are roasted over wood fires - often in mass-roasting operations where sheets of roofing tin are erected around the fire pit to improve the heat focus and where the pigs are lined up over the fire 8 or 10 at a time; with more lashed to 10-foot skewers leaning against the nearby buildings. It is really tasty, but hard on the pigs. Nobody seems to mind the smoke in this situation; and of course it all blows away right after sunrise when the tradewind breaks through the evening island-effect calm.

    You've been invited!