Atoc Maguen cooking indoors


2019, Arctic circle. The last flight I took. Return to LA, Premier Economy, 6.9 tons CO2e emissions. (Resurgence calculator)

So why is it that so many carbon footprint calculators claim to be able to offset my 6.9 ton return flight, by persuading Atoc to further reduce her already minuscule footprint?

And charge me a pittance to do so.

Apart from this being bizarre and arrogant, something doesn’t add up here. Mike Berners Lee agrees:
”Offsetting’ is a seductive concept, especially when it is offered at prices as low as £3 per tonne….At that rate, the whole climate crisis could be solved for a trivial 0.2 per cent of world GDP. If only that were true. Sadly, it is nonsense….
To achieve these prices , the schemes look to enable others (generally in the developing world) to reduce their carbon footprint, through providing more efficient cooking stoves, for example,..’
(How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything. Revised ed. 2020)

To help me sort this out, I’ve recently become ‘Carbon Literate’, by taking an excellent short course run by my wife Dr Susi Arnott. The course is taught live online to small groups, working and discussing together. There’s also some homework and a qualification accredited by Manchester Met. University. I’d recommend it to anyone who is concerned about the climate crisis.

Many people believe that individual behaviour change is meaningless, pointing to the need for ‘system change’, as though the rise in CO2e is all a plot against us by the military industrial complex, or other sinister state and corporate actors. In reality, all of us in the global north are complicit in the crisis and should not be shirking our responsibility.

The free OU course Tread Lightly on the Earth divides responsibility three ways:

‘‘I’ (as an individual consumer or citizen), ‘we’ (my household, workgroup, community) or ‘they’ (the government, business, other countries, and so on).’

And estimates that
‘A sustainable carbon footprint is likely to involve an eventual reduction of at least 80% in the mean carbon footprint of people living in rich, developed countries.’ 50% of this can be achieved by individual action, the remaining 30% must come from ‘we’ and ‘they’.

To achieve this, it is vital to measure our emissions. So, I thought I would compare a bunch of different carbon footprint calculators.

I grouped them into those which limit themselves to transport emissions, those for individuals and households and those for organisations. I then looked at the individual/household calculators in more detail, working out my own footprint with each of them. I rated them by the following criteria:

  • Comprehensive rather than travel only
  • Include scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. Definition here
  • Don’t use the calculator as click-bait to sell offsets
  • Give running totals and allow iterations to see effects of behaviour change
  • Promote change
  • Include methodology, sources etc
  • Reasonably easy to use

My favourites are:

Carbon Independent. Very much a one-man band from Ian Campbell, with excellent notes and an emphasis on change. Gives a running total and a printable summary.

Open University calculator. Requires you to create a free account, but allows you to save multiple scenarios for change.

Resurgence Just as comprehensive, but scope 3 emissions are only calculated by your income bracket. Gives conversion factors for energy and comes in quick and accurate versions.

Here’s the comparison table I made. Feel free to adapt and add to it. Let me know what you think.

Note. None of the calculators tackle pension funds and investments. By retirement age these may constitute an individual’s largest source of emissions.


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