Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Measuring Your Carbon Footprint Made Easy

This article (via and these posts by Arnold Kling got a chuckle out of me.

CDD introduces the New Yorker article thusly:

“The carbon footprint of apples imported to New York from New Zealand can be less than for apples from fifty miles away. How can people make the right decisions? The answer is ...”
The answer is way simpler than anything proposed in article.

To begin, of course things will be missed and there will be unrecognized distortions and mistakes made in any method used to calculate carbon emissions or Green House Gas equivalents. Counting airplane stickers and carbon units are likely to mislead you, but getting an accurate measure isn’t necessary to reduce your energy consumption (and therefore GHG emissions). There is a better and easier way that has been in practice for thousands of years.

Cost. Reduce your costs: Reduce your consumption: Reduce your emissions.

It won’t always be perfect (there are always distorting effects), but in general dollars represent energy, whether it be from calories or solar panels, that ultimately comes from the fossil fuels needed to develop and produce them (energy produced from solar panels will reduce costs once/if-ever the output exceeds the manufacturing and development requirements). Common to all goods and services, and included in the price, is the effort/energy to produce, transport, and develop products, perform services, and to sustain the producers, creative minds, politicians, and managers.

Cost should almost perfectly translate into energy consumption. Whether it’s the cost of transportation fuel, electricity for production, or producing the calories to feed employees and bureaucrats who regulate, in some way costs ultimately translate into energy resources. Somewhere in price is all the energy used directly in production and indirectly by financing the consumption of employees, owners, or funding of government welfare programs. Even for scarce, highly demanded materials (like diamonds) the price includes energy efforts to locate, extract, transport, and regulate. Beyond that, the high price funds the carbon intensive lifestyles of profiteers.

Things do get a little fuzzy. Just because someone profits highly doesn’t mean that they will consume more. The best way to be carbon efficient is to be prodigious in work and investment and frugal in spending. By investing, people can increase the production and decrease the costs (energy needed) of the goods and services that satiate the demands and desires of others. By minimizing cost and maximizing profits, we automatically meet more people’s demands, more fully, with fewer resources. The two things that people are most meticulous in measuring are their efforts and their finances. And, as shown here, when activities pose an externality on others, people are excellent at making them accountable.

Things do get even fuzzier. As mentioned in the New Yorker article, GHG like methane don’t correspond to price quite as well. However, growth in such emissions is much lower than CO2 (and emissions may possibly even be declining). And looking out more broadly, such gas levels are likely to be ultimately determined by interplay of the broader biosphere and atmosphere as CO2 concentrations increase. Regardless, if warming is your concern, you should be more focused on changes to lands and water. Changes to albedo and increases in humidity driven by changes in land use may cause more warming than the GHGs. And energy/carbon efficient practices aren’t necessarily less polluting. Shipping is more efficient than trucking and produces less GHGs, but produces far more pollution.

UPDATE: Wow! Solar panels may take more than I thought.

hi- you left a comment on marginal revolution suggesting that there was "a lot wrong" with my "article." it was actually a personal essay piece not intended for all this wonkish scrutiny, but I do take such criticism seriously. you assertion that detroit was "not the most dangerous city" is something I agree with in theory (I live here---downtown) but it was ranked by one of those listmakers as the most dangerous city in america for 2007, when I wrote this piece.

if you are going to allege that I am wrong in other ways in a public forum, I would be interested in you backing that up rather than simply making the blanket allegation.

I do realize that, if you also look on your post, I left a much more pleasant comment there.

I'll take a look again to see what I else I find. You're probably right that's there isn't much else to be critical of though.

I didn't realize crime had climbed so much recently, but given the current economy it makes sense. I still find it spurious too. Probably depends on who does the study.

IIRC, for a long while DC and Flint were higher.
Just reskimmed it. Yeah, the comment on detroit being the most dangerous is the only things I could be skeptical of. Don't know what I was thinking. I must have confused MR comments with your post.
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