Carbon footprint calculators, often used to measure one’s environmental impact, are not always accurate –– often providing varying results, according to varios Cornell professors. Currently, researchers are working to understand the validity behind carbon footprints, the associated calculations and what we can take away from carbon footprint calculations.
Prof. Alexandra Moore, earth and atmospheric sciences, said that each calculator makes its calculations differently. Some simply give users around one-three-hundred-millionth of the U.S. carbon footprint, while others attempt to calculate the carbon footprint of every aspect of a person’s life such as traveling, home usage and food consumption.
Moore led a research team and attempted to use the latter method to calculate their carbon footprint, which ended up being much more complicated than they had predicted.
Additionally, calculators do not all record the same measurement. Some calculate only carbon dioxide emissions while others look at the emissions of other greenhouse gases and convert it to the carbon dioxide equivalent, the amount of carbon dioxide that has the same greenhouse effect as the amount of the other greenhouse gas, yet claim to calculate the same carbon footprint.
There is also the question of whether to include production emissions like the amount of carbon dioxide used to produce a new car that was just bought by the person using the calculator. Although carbon footprint calculators generally do not take that into account, Elaina Shope grad notes, “There are just so many factors you have to take into consideration.”
Some believe a variety of calculators should be used to acquire an accurate reading. Andrea Aguirre grad stated that she “doesn’t think there is one single calculator that really allows you to have an accurate emission count. You would have to use a variety of calculators.”
Moore and her research team conducted their research in Hawaii, which skews her finding slightly. Moore did not expect the results she saw. “What really surprised us was that the second largest contribution came from food … electricity, gas and waste fit into about five percent of our footprint.”
Moore explained that the high carbon emission contribution from food was because it is flown all over the country, using a lot of fuel in transport and corroborated the electricity, gas, and waste contribution by saying that they used some solar energy and composted as much as they could.
Even so, Moore stated these findings suggest that oft referred to strategies to reduce emissions such as taking shorter, colder showers, turning the lights off, or setting the thermostat a little higher in the summer and a little lower in the winter do not actually make a large difference in the end. Moore concluded that “our preconceived notions of what is carbon producing as an activity are probably wrong.”
On the other hand, Prof. Jefferson Tester, earth and atmospheric sciences, said, “Twenty-five percent of our energy is essentially used for heating and cooling homes and most of that energy comes from coal and natural gas.” The differences highlight the number of unanswered questions surrounding greenhouse emissions.
Moore noted that “the things you don’t think about like the way you eat are really important.” In advising others, Moore said, yet warns that “you have to ask a lot of questions and the answers are not obvious.” Tester gives similar advice, saying “we all should be conscious of our footprint and be honestly skeptical” of our everyday decisions.