A carbon footprinting tool for a cool climate

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More and more people are interested in carbon emissions analysis and management. You can see this in the growth of awareness-raising campaigns to promote lower-carbon lifestyle choices, as well as voluntary carbon offset programs and proliferating  online household carbon footprint calculators. 


Now that interest is being harnessed at the community and country level. At the World Bank, partnerships for low-carbon communities are underway with over a dozen cities, as well as several countries. These include efforts to analyze carbon emissions profiles. At the city level, it’s the first step to prioritizing action to not only reduce emissions, but also deliver better services to the poor.


Calculators and tools help people understand the greenhouse gas benefits of effective climate action, but not all tools are created equal. A good calculator should be comprehensive and sophisticated, but also transparent and user-friendly. The best ones not only calculate emissions, but help people manage them.


One example is the CoolClimate Calculator which was developed by a team of students under my direction at the University of California, Berkeley. Chris Jones, Mia Yamauchi, Joe Kentenbacher, and Gang He, among others, developed the tool at the University of California, Berkeley. It measures carbon impacts of specific transportation choices and of energy use, but also includes impacts of water, waste, food, goods and services for both households and businesses. These indirect sources of emissions account for more than 50% of the total carbon footprint of the typical U.S. household.





Benchmarking is an important underlying feature in all CoolClimate tools, as it shows users how they are doing compared to groups of similar size or character. Without meaningful comparisons among households or businesses, even the best footprint analysis is just a collection of numbers. It’s like knowing the score of just one of the teams at a football game—accurate, but not very useful. “Your footprint is 40 tons” is good information, but “your footprint is 13% better than the footprint of other three-person households with the same income,” is meaningful information.


For mayors and policy-makers, location-specific benchmark values rank emissions from each category—transportation, housing, food, goods, services—for each city or region. This is essential for good carbon management, as the size and composition of carbon footprints can vary dramatically from place to place. For example, in California, with its moderate climate and relatively clean electricity production, household electricity accounts for only about 5% of total average household carbon footprints, while motor vehicles account for nearly 40%. In other U.S. states, emissions from electricity and other forms of household energy are larger than emissions from motor vehicles. Within each region, emissions profiles also vary from one household to the next. For high-income households, air transportation is an important source of emissions, while for low-income households, food is a bigger overall contributor. This means that different actions should be prioritized for different target groups, based on the analysis, if policymakers and program developers want to have the greatest impact.


Differences in households’ carbon footprints are even more pronounced between different countries. A Brazilian version of CoolCimate calculator being developed by Amigos da Terra, shows that meat consumption, due to its relationships with Amazonian deforestation, is the single largest contributor to household carbon footprints, far greater than household energy or transportation. All this information provides a customized “diagnosis” of major emission sources. The next step is to develop a detailed climate action plan from a list of recommended actions using CoolClimate’s “Take Action” page. Carbon footprint and financial savings are calculated for each action pledged, and summarized at the top of the page. Actions include a growing list of behavior changes and energy efficient technologies, from upgrading vehicle efficiency to line-drying laundry.


The end product is a personalized climate action plan: a full footprint analysis, comparisons to benchmark values and customized pledges. California users can save their climate action plans to a profile, which links them to fellow “Cool Californians” working to reduce emissions in their community. Community pages compare carbon footprints and climate action plans of users within and between each city and county in California. Users can also form online action groups with their friends, co-workers or social organizations. A U.S. version of the social networking features is being developed. This tool will be used with low carbon action plans in East and Southeast Asia, and in small island (AOSIS) states.




Daniel Kammen

Former Chief Technical Specialist for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency

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