We now have access to more information than we can possibly consume thanks to the internet. There is an abundance of websites that offer tips on how to lead a sustainable lifestyle, go zero waste and live plastic-free, build ethical wardrobes and sustainable homes and basically provides steps on how an individual can reduce their impact on the environment.
Not everyone has made lifestyle adjustments and improvements of course. But for those who have, the question that inevitably comes up is this: just how sustainable is my lifestyle really?
There is a tool that helps individuals quantify the environmental impact of their lifestyle choices and it’s called a carbon calculator. For green living enthusiasts, environmentalists and new sustainability advocates, this tool is an essential part of a ‘sustainable lifestyle tool kit’ as it helps you understand your impact and identify ways to further mitigate your greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
With a plethora of carbon calculators offered online, I road test four popular ones to determine how they work, what my annual carbon emissions are and the essential differences between them…
1. WWF Ecological Footprint Calculator
The World Wildlife Fund’s ‘Ecological Footprint Calculator’ comprises a straight-forward questionnaire about your lifestyle choices and habits. It then calculates your footprint score using the answers you provide. The questions are classified under four main categories: food, home, travel and stuff. It takes just five minutes to complete.
The Australian version is “undergoing maintenance” so I use the British version of the WWF calculator instead. This calculator was created with the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York and the University of Leeds. The currency unit used is pounds rather than Australian dollars so I keep this in mind when answering the questions. I also understand methodology will be calculated differently because it depends on data and figures from various UK regulatory bodies, and considering I don’t actually reside there, I expect the results will be skewed.
My annual carbon footprint according to WWF – 5.9 tonnes
After completing the questionnaire, the calculator results show that my total annual carbon emissions is 5.9 tonnes. It also provides a comparison with others in the world so I know that my footprint is much less than the UK average of 13.56 tonnes and just slightly greater than the world average of 5.28 tonnes.
The questionnaire is quick and easy to complete and the calculator is user-friendly. There is also additional information and further explanations provided alongside each question to help you best answer the question. Methodology is provided and when you’re finished answering the questions, provides you with the ‘target’ (the 2020 target as set by the UK government) and where you sit against it. For example, according to the calculator my carbon footprint is within acceptable limits, as I use just 52 percent of my share. It also visually shows the breakdown of my carbon footprint so I understand which lifestyle category my footprint is largest. It also provides a link to resources with advice on how to shrink your footprint.
Although the calculator gives an individual footprint score, it is oversimplified and cannot offer exact matches for each question. For example, I live off-grid in a solar powered home and questions about turning lights off or leaving on standby do not factor my complete independence of electricity and utilities companies. I also don’t use many beauty or makeup products and if I do purchase, my eco-friendly product choices are a little more dear than prices of standard over-the-beauty-counter products. Thus answering questions about average expense makes assumptions about how many items I purchase, rather than taking into consideration that I consume less but spend more for quality. Thus for some questions I could only answer with ‘best guesses’ making my result an approximation rather than an exact calculation of my carbon footprint.
Also it’s UK-centric so was difficult to calculate overseas travel (such as business travel from Sydney to Japan with Toyota Australia) because it used the UK as the country base rather than allowing me to input exact flight data.
2. carbonfootprint.com Carbon Calculator
This free carbon calculator helps individuals and households quantify their environmental impact. The calculator permits you to populate the country you live in, thus allowing proper comparison of your footprint with country and global averages. This calculator has various ‘tabs’ that can be flicked through and you populate the data as required in each tab. At the beginning it gives you a choice of whether you want your carbon footprint worked out as an individual or an entire household, and for this calculator I chose to calculate household footprint.
The tabs are classified under six main categories: house, flights, car, motorbike, bus and rail and secondary. It took about 16 minutes to complete because it required me to input answers (which inevitably meant more research and completing unit conversions), unlike the WWF Footprint Calculator which offers responses and is set up like a multiple choice questionnaire.
My annual eco footprint according to carbonfootprint.com – 7.35 tonnes
The calculations reveal that my total household carbon emissions is 14.69 tonnes. To work out my individual carbon emissions I divide by two, since it is a two-person household. Thus my individual carbon footprint is 7.35 tonnes, higher than what was calculated using the WWF calculator.
The carbonfootprint.com calculator also allowed me to compare my individual footprint with that of the average Australian (16.35 tonnes), and the average for industrialised nations (11 tonnes), as well as the average global carbon footprint (about 4 tonnes). Note that the world average footprint used here differs from the one cited by WWF, 5.28 tonnes.
This calculator requests more information and considers broader facets of your lifestyle. It sought more details about consumptive habits and behaviour such as average yearly mileage of vehicle and expenditure on books, hotels and even pharmaceuticals. This seems a much more accurate way to calculate environmental impact. The methodology is also provided as well as the details and qualifications of each team member to enforce the reliability of the calculator. In addition, it provides the breakdown of carbon emissions for each category and provides a resource link to help your reduce carbon emissions.
The calculator didn’t provide all airport locations (such as South Korea) and this limitation meant my air travel data was slightly incorrect as I couldn’t add one of my trips. Less interactive as other calculators also but this is personal preference only.
3. EPA Victoria‘s Australian Greenhouse Calculator
The Australian Greenhouse Calculator (AGC) offered by the Environmental Protection Agency in Victoria is an initiative supported by the state government and is maintained by RMIT University’s Sustainable Building Innovation Laboratory (SBi Lab).
This calculator comprises an interactive questionnaire classified into 11 categories: transport, air travel, heating and cooling, hot water, clothes dryer, lighting, refrigeration, cooking, other appliances, food and shopping and waste.
My annual carbon footprint according to the Australian Greenhouse Calculator – 4.72 tonnes
After completing the 15 minute questionnaire, the calculator results show that my annual household carbon emissions is 9.43 tonnes. Since this is the calculation of a two-person household, this means my individual carbon footprint is 4.72 tonnes. Compared with other calculators, this is the lowest carbon footprint I’ve calculated so far.
The Australian Greenhouse Calculator calculator is easy-to-use and is highly visual, making it clear what my GHG emissions are in each category. There are 11 categories of questions about your lifestyle, implying that its calculation is more accurate as it factors in more information about habits. For example, it requests the type of white goods owned, such as washing machine (top loader, front loader) and dishwasher and how often these are used.
Furthermore, the calculator compares my footprint with the ‘typical’ Australian household and that of the ideal ‘green’ household by way of a coloured visual at the top of the page. Click on the orange ‘plus’ button and I’m provided with definitions, additional information and explanations, as well as calculations on averages and other relevant data. Once complete, it showed me a visual breakdown of my carbon footprint and how it compares with the ‘typical’ and ‘green’ households.
It doesn’t seem as though the calculator is completely reliable because in the ‘waste’ category, I estimated the percentage of packaging we recycle is about 80% or thereabouts (it’s a sliding scale rather than an exact figure) and it didn’t change the GHG total which I would expect would increase given my assumption that anything sent to landfill increases carbon footprint. In addition, when I click on the area to review methodology and ‘assumptions’ the document is dated 2010, which suggests the calculator and the statistical assumptions it relies on, may be out of date.
4. Carbon Neutral Charitable Fund Carbon Calculator
The Carbon Neutral Charitable Fund (CNCF) is a registered environmental non-profit organisation working with the community to reduce and offset carbon emissions and invests carbon credits into education and tree plantings to restore Australian natural bushland. These are verified Gold Standard projects which are considered effective carbon offset projects.
The calculator collects information about your lifestyle habits, classified as follows: vehicles, electricity, gas, waste, food and drink, air travel, public transport and events.
My annual carbon footprint according to CNCF – 10.02 tonnes
After doing quick calculations using the ‘standard’ calculator the total annual carbon emissions calculated is 20.03 tonnes, the highest recorded emissions of all the calculators used. Since the result is the household’s total emissions, I calculated my personal carbon footprint is 10.02 tonnes.
The CNCF’s standard carbon calculator is a simple-to-use calculator that works on Australian averages. There is also an ‘advanced’ option to help calculate carbon emissions much more precisely, but using the advanced calculator requires the inputting of more data. For example, if travelling by car, you are required to use the type of fuel it uses, details about fuel consumption or distance travelled and fuel efficiency. By using the standard calculator I was able to work out my GHG emissions in five minutes just by taking estimated (and very conservative) estimates. It also requested information in areas of my life that the other calculators hadn’t factored in. The other benefit of using this calculator is that it is tied to a relevant Gold Standard carbon offset program so once calculations are done, you can just hit the ‘Save and Offset’ to proceed to offsetting your carbon emissions (and that’s exactly what I did, offsetting more than 20 tonnes of household carbon emissions at the cost of $500).
While there are helpful hints at each calculation step, I wasn’t provided with any information on how I compared with the Australian average or global average. In addition, the data is lost when you flick back. I learned this the hard way when I forgot to take a screen shot of my calculations and when I pushed the back button, had to complete the entire calculations again as it didn’t store the totals. Luckily the data was still pre-populated and all I needed to do was click on the ‘Add’ button at each category to fast track calculations. Links to additional resources I think are essential but are nowhere to be found.
While carbon calculators help to quantify the environmental impact of your lifestyle, the results vary depending on the methodology, assumptions and data used by each organisation. If you are offsetting your carbon emissions I would recommend erring on the conservative side and using the highest GHG emissions you’ve calculated as basis for your carbon offset (like I did). This way you are doing more than enough to mitigate your climate impact so that instead of being carbon neutral, you are closer to being carbon positive.
Want to take the next step and offset your carbon emissions? Need information about the best carbon offset programs? This detailed post about carbon offsetting will help.
Need to reduce your carbon emissions further? Check out these tips to help you live a zero waste lifestyle.