Are You Stomping the Environment Flat?

Reducing, recycling and repairing your ecological footprint for Earth Day


Are you an ecological bigfoot? Various environmental groups now offer websites where you can supposedly find out. The site provided by the folks at Redefining Progress informs me that if everyone on the planet lived my lifestyle, we would need the resources of 6.5 Earths to supply everyone. I took the test again, this time selecting all the ecological choices, including living a 500-square-foot apartment filled with second-hand furniture in a large apartment building heated with biomass, using electricity generated by solar panels, equipped with low flow toilets and showers, buying all my food at farmers markets, planting my own garden fertilized by compost from my food scraps, eating a vegan diet, recycling all my paper, plastic, aluminum, glass and electronics, owning no car, never flying and traveling no more than 2,000 miles by bus or rail each year. If everyone lived like that we would only need 0.93 earths to accommodate everyone.

What happens if I choose a slightly less-ascetic lifestyle? For example, what if I decided to drive my hybrid car 10,000 miles per year, added occasional dairy products to my diet, and did not grow a garden? Redefining Progress calculates that the planet would be on its way to destruction because we would need 1.10 earths to provide that same lifestyle for everyone.

The Global Footprint Network (GFN) offers an Earth Day Footprint quiz which appears to be a version of the Redefining Progress quiz. Here I scored even worse—it would take 8.7 Earths for everyone to enjoy my lifestyle. My ecological footprint takes up 39 acres, whereas the American average is only 24 acres. The GFN claims that there are only 4.5 biologically productive acres per person worldwide.

Then there's the Eco-Footprint site by Conservation International. Answering the questions honestly, I scored a 22, making me an "eco-novice" which is much nicer than calling me an eco-criminal. At the end of the quiz, participants are offered a chance to pledge to "recycle, reuse and repair so I use fewer materials and reduce pollution and to make my home energy efficient by using compact fluorescent light bulbs and high-efficiency appliances." By selecting all of the ecological choices I achieved a score of 83, making me an "eco-warrior."

Next, I clicked over to the Carbon Footprint site. Its calculator estimated that my wife and my lifestyle fueled 39 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. The site informed me that this is almost double the American average of 20.4 tons. But since I included my wife in the calculations, it means that we are typical Americans with regard to our per capita carbon dioxide emissions. My chief carbon sin is air travel, which emits more than 15 tons of carbon dioxide per year. The site informs visitors that the average footprint of people living in industrialized nations is 11 tons and the world average is 4 tons.

So in a quest to lower my impact on the environment, I calculated our carbon footprint if we cut our use of electricity and natural gas in half, switched our two cars for a single Toyota Prius and reduced our annual mileage by half, tripled our train travel, and never took an airplane. Furthermore, what if we became vegetarians, ate only local organic food in season, bought only second-hand clothes, furniture and appliances, never went to movies, bars or restaurants, and recycled or composted all our waste? Even then our combined carbon footprint would be 7.3 tons per year, but that would get us just below the world average of 4 tons per capita annually.

The Carbon Footprint site obligingly links to projects promising to offset my annual carbon overindulgence. For example, the site suggests that a check for $600 to fund verified clean energy projects—such as a wind energy project in India or burning biomass in Africa—instead of fossil fuels would offset the 39 tons of carbon dioxide my current lifestyle requires. Or I can buy offsets by funding a reforestation project in Kenya for $800, or pay to plant trees in Britain for $1300.

The bad news, according to the folks at Carbon Footprint, is that "to combat climate change the worldwide average needs to reduce to 2 tons." In other words, the average American must reduce his or her carbon emissions by 90 percent. Where in the world do people currently emit less than 2 tons of carbon dioxide per capita annually? Answer: Places like Togo, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Uganda and Mali.

That brings me to the Global Footprint Network's sustainability calculations. According to the GFN's Living Planet Report (2006), the minimum criteria for sustainability is measured by using the United Nations Development Program's Human Development Index (HDI) as an indicator of well-being, and its ecological footprint calculations as a measure of demand on the biosphere. "We only found one country that meets both minimum criteria, which doesn't mean that they are necessarily sustainable but they are providing long lives and high education and minimum income without using more than what is available globally worldwide per person. And this country is called Cuba," explained GFN executive director, Mathis Wackernagel on National Public Radio's Living On Earth show last November. Wackernagel added, "If we say Cuba meets the sustainable development criteria, we don't say that's the nirvana, the most beautiful life you could imagine." Indeed not.

Comparing the HDIs of the United States and Cuba, one finds that the U.S. ranks 12th out of 177 countries measured while Cuba ranks 51st. In the three primary dimensions, the U.S. is 31st in life expectancy, 19th in educational achievement, and 2nd in per capita income. By contrast, Cuba ranks 32nd in life expectancy, 35th in education, and 94th in income—and that's assuming that Castro's government is truthful in its statistics. According to the U.N.'s HDI report, Cuba's per capita carbon dioxide emissions dropped from 3 tons per capita in 1990 and 2.3 tons in 2004. "If all countries in the world were to emit CO2 at levels similar to Cuba's, we would exceed our sustainable carbon budget by approximately 3 percent," says the HDI report.

And where do countries that emit less than 2 tons of carbon dioxide per capita annually rank on the HDI? Out of 177 countries and territories ranked, Togo is 152; Nigeria, 158; Bangladesh, 140; Ethiopia, 169; Uganda, 154; and Mali, 173.

As noted above, the creators of Carbon Footprint claim that everyone in the world must eventually emit no more than 2 tons of carbon dioxide per year. When did Americans last emit so little carbon dioxide? Around 1870. Taking historical U.S. carbon emissions and multiplying them by a factor of 3.67 in order to derive total carbon dioxide emissions and then dividing that amount by the number of people living in the country, we find that Americans emitted per person roughly 2.5 tons of carbon dioxide annually back in 1870. In those days, per capita GDP was $194 per year which would be equivalent to about $2,500 today.

It is true that many of us in the rich countries could cut back a bit on our use of energy and other resources without too much pain. But 1.6 billion people around the world still lack access to electricity and 1.1 billion live on less than $1 per day. These poor people desperately need access to cheap sources of energy to improve their lives.

Assuming that these ecological footprint calculations have some merit, the upshot is that if one does not want to "redefine progress" as a return to 19th-century poverty (and surely no one does), then accelerated technological innovation aimed at finding low-carbon sources of cheap energy is crucial. How to achieve that goal is what the real environmental debate should be on this 38th Earth Day.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.