Calculators Missing Carbon

It has been reported that 99% of green advertising claims are false; the OECD is concerned that biofuels do more harm than good; and various scholars wonder whether ethanol is a bane or a benefit.  Clearly, thinking and saying you have a “zero carbon footprint” is much easier than knowing you are right.  At the center of the gulf between hope and hard fact is the carbon footprint calculator (software that lets you calculate how much carbon dioxide you annually put into the atmosphere).  A quick search of the Web produces a plethora of calculators that transform heating and cooling costs, fuel and travel costs, and occasionally other purchases into tons of emissions.  These calculators have the capacity to inform individuals and governments alike as they make lifestyle and political decisions. 

Unfortunately, today's footprint calculators don’t do a very good job.  The best ones account for purchased electricity, heating costs, gasoline and travel.  However, most ignore the carbon dioxide emitted to harvest, ship and brew my morning coffee and to keep me warm or cool while I wait in line at the coffee shop.  The calculators charge me for carbon dioxide created to generate the electricity to operate my TV, but not what is created to manufacture it.  They measure part, but not all, of my footprint.

There is, however, one carbon calculator that is unerringly precise.  It is our planet, or more particularly, two planetary measurements—gaseous carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and dissolved carbon dioxide in our oceans.  Because natural processes generate and consume approximately equal amounts of carbon dioxide, the combined increase in the two measurements gives us a reaonable estimate of the carbon dioxide created by man's activities.  Our planet-sized calculator is free to all, easily checked, and unaffected by wishful thinking, government propaganda or slick marketing campaigns.

Unlike its man-made counterparts, the planetary calculator does not provide results on a person-by-person, country-by-country or product-by-product basis.  It tells us what we do as a six point six billion strong species, but it won’t let me compare my footprint to yours, or more importantly, how various choices affect the size of a person’s or a nation's footprint.  On the other hand, merely knowing its output gives us some rules that can render our man-made calculators far more accurate.

Rule No. 1—The sum of all of the individual footprints must equal humanity's total footprint.  This rule sounds tautological, and it is, but it is a rule that virtually every man-made calculator ignores.  For example, because cement production produces about 5% of human-created carbon dioxide, we need to decide who should be charged for the carbon dioxide created when garage floors, runways, office buildings, or hydroelectric dams are built and maintained.

Rule No. 2—Products generate carbon dioxide.  When I purchase a new refrigerator, I am encouraging steel production, manufacturing processes, and the creation and maintenance of a distribution chain.  I am also encouraging a retailer to build, heat and cool an inviting space.  The planetary calculator catches each step.  Man's should do the same.    

Rule No. 3--Services generate carbon dioxide.  When I go to the barber, I am causing someone to heat a facility, buy products, take deliveries, clean premises, etc., all of which create carbon dioxide.      

Rule No 4—Governments generate carbon dioxide.  We live in a country that has a robust court system, that protects us militarily and that provides us roads.  Court houses are heated and cooled; the military drives trucks and flies airplanes; and roads are built with cement and heavy equipment.  .

Rule No. 5—Every pound of human-created carbon dioxide has to be allocated to someone.  This rule is actually a restatement of the first rule, but sounds more stringent in light of Rules 2, 3, and 4.  The fact that carbon dioxide is created by purchasing activities is not controversial when it is applied to gasoline and heating oil, but it gets very controversial very fast when it is applied to ethanol, biofuels and destroyers.

Rule No. 6—Carbon offset calculations must observe Rule No. 5.  Carbon offsets are becoming increasingly common.  For example, I pay for a scrubber for a plant.  The scrubber reduces the plant's carbon dioxide output.  I then offset the amount of carbon dioxide that the scrubber keeps out of the atmosphere against the carbon dioxide that goes up my chimney.  If I buy enough offsets, I can reduce my carbon footprint all the way to zero.  However, if I am allowed to take advantage of offsets, Rule 5 requires that the plant owners must still compute their carbon footprints as if the scrubbers had not been installed.  If they fail to do so, the benefits of the scrubber are being double counted.

Rule No. 7—Computing product-based and a service-based carbon dioxide creation is excruciatingly difficult.  The best scientists in the world continue to bicker about how much (or even whether) corn-based ethanol reduces carbon dioxide output.  If a decade of analysis fails to answer something as important as ethanol, what chance do we have as we try to choose between paper, plastic, reusable or corn-based?

Rule No. 8— Computing product-based and a service-based carbon dioxide creation is absolutely necessary.  If we simply throw up our hands and fail to even to try, consumers, regulators and lawmakers will have no guidance whatsoever as they try to accomplish their stated mission—reducing planetary carbon dioxide numbers on an agreed timetable. 

Rule No. 9—Until a more sophisticated system is eventually developed, a doable approach is to start with the assumption that every dollar spent generates an equal amount of carbon dioxide.  Expenditure-based carbon counting is a rough guess.  I cannot prove that if I spend twice as many dollars, I am responsible for twice as much carbon dioxide.  On the other hand, at some level the assumption is consistent with basic economic theory.  Carbon dioxide creation is almost always accompanied by the use of scarce and expensive resources.  Each carbon dioxide emitter compares the benefits (i.e., it is cheaper to produce a product by creating carbon dioxide than to produce the same product without creating carbon dioxide) to the cost of the scarce resource.  Rational competing manufacturers tend to make similar cost-benefit analyses and thereby tend to create similar amounts of carbon dioxide per dollar of sales.  Producers of disparate products, because they must share a common resource, will have a less direct but extant relationship between the price of their products and the total amount of carbon dioxide generated. 

Rule No. 10—Expenditure-based carbon counting can and should be modified in the face of verified numbers.  Hiring a babysitter who lives next door generates no carbon dioxide at all.  Buying a gallon of gasoline generates a great deal.  All would agree that both should be treated as special cases.  On the other hand, if I claim that using wind-generated electricity adds nothing to my carbon footprint, I ignore the carbon dioxide created by manufacturing, installing and maintaining an extraordinarily expensive machine.  I ignore the portion of my bill that pays for transmission, the utility's corporate headquarters and the gas-fired peaker plant that covers me on windless days.  Rigorous calculations will almost certainly show that wind is better than coal, but they will also show that wind energy's footprint is not zero. 

As we read calculator outputs and as we make decisions based on those outputs, we must be constantly force our calculator to produce real results, and not wished-for results, not marketer-induced results, not politically correct results.  At a minimum, results must match the output of our unrelenting and unerring planetary calculator.  We may not like the constraint of tying our man-made calculators to the planetary one, but the only thing worse than confronting the pain of real numbers is making decisions based on comfortably false ones.