Analyzing My Carbon Footprint

Pre-pandemic, I loved airports. Gazing at all the planes, seeing the people load and unload luggage, it is so inspiring to think about the engineering and reliability that goes into planes. Presently, the amount of time I’ve been spending in airports has me horrified with the sheer amount of dubious mask wearing. I’ve had to take several flights to finally move to Boston, the most flights I’ve taken in years (I have not flown since 2019 rip). Long waits in the airport left me wondering about plane emissions, and what kind of damage I was doing by flying.

My first thought to calculate my carbon emission was to default to an online calculator. A carbon footprint calculator that I found from conservation.org states that I probably produce 17.3 tonnes of carbon. Which is kinda insane.

But I had a lot of issues with this calculator. It only made me put vague numbers about the miles I drive and heating and cooling bills (which changes, as I’ve moved several times this past year). I wanted to dive deeper to really understand what my footprint was, and which areas of my life I could improve upon. My footprint will be broken into: air transportation, car transportation, eating, and housing.

Air Transportation

My air travel consumption was pretty easy to calculate, and is listed below

FlightDayDistanceCarbon Emissions
DEN-ATL8/2/2119000.352
ATL-BOSTON8/2/2115000.284
BOS-MIAMI8/6/2120000.369
MIAMI-DEN8/6/2128000.484
DEN-MIAMI8/17/2128000.484
MIAMI-BOS8/17/2120000.369
BOS-MIAMI8/19/2120000.369
MIAMI-DEN8/19/2128000.484
DEN-BOS8/20/2128000.493
TOTAL:20,6003.687 tons
Flights I’ve taken in the last two years (Aug 2019-Aug 2021).

Now, I can try to justify the flight schedule, but staring at how high that emissions number is, I’m not going to bother. From the table, you’ll notice I have a lot of layovers, which I’ve always opted for to drive down the price of a flight ticket. But doing these calculations has made me think twice about this behavior. While it may save me a few bucks, the additional leg is just an astronomical amount of pollution. I am fortunate enough to be secure financially, and in the future I think I will be opting for direct flights only.

Car Transportation

The benefit to living in a totalitarian state that tracks my location at any given moment is that google tells me the number of miles I drive per month. A year breakdown of my driving habits is shown in the table below. This number was generated using this calculator, which factors in car model for fuel efficiency.

MonthMiles DrivenCarbon Emissions
August 20205,0501.62
September 20201,4990.48
October 20201,492048
November 20206260.20
December 20202,7400.88
January 20214,8981.58
February 20217900.25
March 20216840.22
April 20212,3370.75
May 20212,6110.84
June 20216,0151.93
July 20212,2450.72
TOTAL:30,9879.95 tons
Miles I’ve driven in the Past Year and their consequent carbon emissions

Once again, I didn’t expect these numbers to be good but the sheer scale of them surprised me. My car was a Honda Accord, fairly fuel efficient (38 mpg on the highway), and I know at some point you cant offset the numbers you drive but the fact that I spent a month generating the same amount of pollution as a 787 flight is crazy.

I’m presently car-less, so my driving habits will be better for the planet temporarily. However, I can’t promise the same abstinence to car travel as I do with plane travel, but these numbers give me a lot to think about. As I’ve had to run to get literally everything (its a half marathon to my mailbox), its made me rethink if I really need to make the trips I’ve been making.

Eating

I don’t track my eating habits with the same regiment that I do with traveling. I could spend a long time soapboxing on how women’s interactions with food are policed so heavily, but for now I’ll just share that I don’t track my calories/macros/general food very closely. Therefore, for the past few days, I tracked what I ate, but when I went to do a more in-depth evaluation, it is really dependent on the grams of each amount of food, and I wasn’t willing to go that far. For now, I’m taking the L on understanding my food carbon footprint.

Housing

Living on on-campus housing makes it hard to have absolute knowledge of the energy consumption. The heating and cooling numbers are pulled after extrapolating what the homeowners paid using numbers on Zillow and average heating and cooling costs for dorms.

Place Lived DatesHeatingCoolingCarbon Emissions
Colorado Springs, COAug 1 – Aug 140$$880.64
Kappa Alpha Theta, MAAug 27 – Dec 160$0$0
Flagstaff, AZJan 7 – Jan 21$880$0.64
Kappa Alpha Theta, MAJan 25 – June 10$0$0
Boulder, COJune 6 – July 310$$13.440.20
TOTAL:1.48

The heating on this table is low, and it’s not because I am a saint, its because MIT put me in a room that didn’t have heat. While that was hellish to live through (or maybe coolish?) it was better for the planet for me to be wearing three layers throughout winter to stay warm. KAT also does not have AC in the building, and I did not have an AC unit, which is why that number is 0$.

The numbers for Flagstaff, Boulder, and Colorado Springs were pulled from the Average Utilities Cost for the area, converting it to carbon emissions per year, and then scaling the cost to the number of days I was there. This should be considered as purely a back of the hand estimate, and undoubtedly my actual footprint was higher.

This calculation was also the hardest to do, because I don’t know if I should be factoring in heating of common areas as part of my carbon emission, and I am not a homeowner with information about the heating and cooling of each location. I feel like I didn’t gain a lot of insight from this portion of the analysis, and its mainly because I need more information about the building and more consideration about what sort of heating they’re really pumping in.

Wrap-Up

After adding up the numbers of all the subsections, my total carbon footprint per year is 15.1 tonnes. If we throw a 20% margin of error to account for the ambiguity of calculation for my diet and my housing, this brings the number to 18.1 metric tonnes. Therefore, the initial calculator was actually pretty good. While this number is depressing, I do think think there was a lot of worth in doing this sort of in-depth inventory of my habits. It can be painful to think about the ways each of us damage the planet, but its important to look at the damage head-on rather than continuing to hurt the planet idly.

When we talk about measurable things we can do to protect the planet, I think there’s this general despair that it’s out of our hands. And to some extent this is true, there will be broad, large, systemic changes required to reverse the effects of climate change. However, that doesn’t absolve anyone from doing their best to reduce their carbon footprint. If I had just taken direct flights, that would have drastically cut my air travel pollution. Being car-less means I could be reducing my potential carbon emissions by 1 ton per month. Those are significant changes to my past behavior!! and worthwhile and meaningful to me regardless. Hopefully this self study might inspire others to look a little bit closer at their own carbon emissions.

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