Carbon emissions, mainly carbon dioxide, are only one of many things that are important to consider in a sustainable society, but with the looming problem of climate change, they make a good starting point. Looking at carbon emissions allows a person to evaluate their impact with just one number, and this number is usually associated with all those other things that we care about in terms of total consumption, as well as the health of ecosystems and people. Carbon emissions are much higher than they should be throughout the developed world, but are even higher in the US and Canada. These two countries have bigger distances to travel, bigger homes, bigger cars, and in many cases bigger heating requirements.
The US and Canada have very similar consumption, so we will consider them together here. Though estimates vary somewhat, we’ll use numbers from a 2011 study by Jones and Kammen that really breaks down where all those emissions come from***. They show that in the US, each person’s share of emissions is 24 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Of that, about 20 tons (80%), is tied directly to our household consumption while the rest is things like government spending on infrastructure, military, etc. So this 20 tons per person is all tied to our lifestyles, in how we live, travel, what we buy, where we go. In order to stop climate change, we need to get to a point where we are producing no more than about 2 tons per person, so a 90% reduction is the work that we have in front of us.
The figure above (Jones and Kammen, 2011) shows what we think is a pretty intuitive way of displaying the impacts that the average American household has in terms of CO2 emissions. This figure shows the average household emissions (48 tons of CO2) of the average sized (2.5 people) American family. We at Sunshine Saved have elaborated on some of the ways that a person can act in each category to dramatically reduce their impacts. As can be seen, about 30% of our carbon emissions come from our personal transportation choices, 25% from housing, 15% from the food we eat, and a bit more than 10% each from the goods that we buy and the services that we use. All of these are areas that we have some control over, and any individual can make choices that raise or lower their impacts. Individual choices can’t solve the problem alone, but when combined with collective action to push bigger societal changes, great strides can be made.
If you would like to generate a take on your own emissions, the researchers mentioned above have produced their own CO2 footprint calculator that you can use to generate a personalized figure like the one above for your own circumstances. A couple of other examples of carbon emissions calculators include ones from the Nature Conservancy and the US Environmental Protection Agency. Another alternative is to look at how much land is needed to support a lifestyle such as this calculator from the Global Footprint Network.
***This figure of 24 tons CO2 per capita is higher than many other current estimates that we’ve seen for recent years, but there are two good reasons for that. First, this data is from about 2010, and there have already been significant reductions in emissions in the US, especially from reducing the use of coal. Second, the authors of this study explicitly sought to include the emissions for all goods and services that we use, much of which are imported. In typical accounting, all the Chinese goods that Americans buy count towards the Chinese emissions totals, but because it is the Americans doing the consumption it really does make more sense to allocate that pollution to the end users. Regardless, the emissions breakdowns shown in the graph above still make for a good starting point.