A lifetime of Carbon

As the future outcomes of human induced climate change becomes more and more dire I’ve been thinking about the question of personal responsibility, and what impact I have had this mess we find ourselves in. Obviously I haven’t burned down forests, pumped oil from the ground or done anything directly that would contribute to climate change, but for whole life I have been a consumer in advanced capitalist economies. And a big consumer at that. Like most New Zealanders, just from the sheer luck of being born to a middle class family in a wealthy country I find myself now among the 1% wealthiest people in the world. And by extension this means that I’m in the top 1% of consumers and therefore the top 1% of personal contributors to carbon emissions. But how bad is it really? What is the carbon emission impact from my life so far and all the consumption choices that I’ve made? What are the primary contributors of those emissions and how can I lower this in the future? And when I die then is there some way that I can use some of my inheritance to suck all those emissions my life has caused out of the atmosphere? For the past few months I’ve been tackling these questions and, I think I might just have some answers.

Calculating lifetime carbon emissions

Other then the act of breathing it seems that all my CO2 emissions can be traced back to stuff that I’ve spent money on. Fortunately, because I’ve been tracking my finances in Moneylounge I actually know what my family has spent since 2001. This means, for most of my adult life, I can work out how much we’ve spent on groceries, petrol, childcare, utilities bills etc. This is great, but how to convert this financial data to a carbon emission? Fortunately this is exactly what the startup I’m now working for does. CoGo is a New Zealand and UK based tech company that use emission factors to help people calculate their carbon footprint. A bunch of smart data and impact people have figure out what constitutes an average dollar of spend for a particular category. For example they determine what goes into the average grocery shopping basket at an Australian supermarket. From this they can examine the supply chain of those items in that basket to determine an emission factor – the amount of carbon required to put $1 of that basket in a consumers hands. These emission factors can then be calculated for all sorts of different spend categories, such as petrol, retail electricity, hardware etc. Once we know these emission factors it’s simply a matter of multiply the amount spent on something (say $100 on groceries) by the emission factor of that category (i.e. 0.5 kgCO2/$) to find the carbon ‘cost’ of that transaction (50 kg of CO2). Add everything up and bingo – we arrive at a lifetime carbon footprint

So, how did I go?

In Moneylounge I added a Carbon Footprint graph, which does all these calculations for me. Overall I calculated my household carbon footprint over the past 20 years to be a whopping 560 tons. Given that the average Australian has a carbon footprint of 15 ton/annum (600 tons for two people over 20 years) we came out about average, which feels about right. Still, 560 tons seems a massive amount of CO2 molecules to have been responsible for. I dug a little deeper and found the number one culprit for our particular emission profile was air travel. It alone came out to 180 tons, and that’s probably understated because I couldn’t calculate frequent flyer flights, many many business trips and flight prior to 2001. That means at least 33% of our household emissions came from one almost completely discretionary activity. Nothing else came close. We all have different carbon profiles and the outcome of a calculation for each household will be different. It might be that we need to drive less, or stop eating so much red meat, or buy less fast fashion. For me the message is loud and clear – if I’m to be serious about managing my emissions then I need to stop flying so much. Or stop flying altogether.

My household emissions over 20 years. Blips are usually for when I’ve flown.

There’s a few caveats in these calculations. I used New Zealand emission factors in all the calculations despite the fact that we’ve spent 4 years living in Europe and 6 years in Australia. I haven’t included the cost of big asset purchases. We’ve bought three houses and about seven cars in those 20 years but all were ‘secondhand’ so the supply chain cost would have been worn by the original purchaser or builder (in the case of a house). I haven’t included the ‘cost’ of having children, other than feeding them, educating them and so on. I also haven’t considered the carbon cost of investments that I’ve made because there isn’t a way to do that. This is purely the carbon cost of our household spending, which is revealing enough by itself.

How to repay that 560kg?

Like many wise economists I do feel the easiest way to reverse climate change is introduce some sort of carbon tax, to be paid by individuals, companies and governments. Put a price on carbon pollution and people will naturally find ways to lower that cost. However, in the absence of any Australian government initiative to do this it seems that I’ll need to do this myself. This means I’ll need to offset my lifetime of emissions. At the time of writing the average price to offset 1 ton of carbon is A$19. This means that if I were to die today then the amount I’d need to offset is (560 ton * $19) = $10,640. While $10,000 sounds like a lot of money it’s repaying 20 years of debt to the planet. In that context it’s not much. The stamp duty tax I paid on my last house purchase was twice that. If I’m willing to pay that much tax for a place to live than paying half that amount to help save the home that we all live on doesn’t seem unreasonable.

For me the this introspective study of my personal impact has revealed a bunch of tough truths. Firstly, that the comfortable middle class lifestyle I’ve enjoyed has had a measurable cost to the planet. Secondly, not only do I feel I have a responsibility to repay that cost but I also need to lower it, and in my case that means less flying. Finally – I do need to find a way to offset our lifetime household emissions. I’ll be calling my lawyer and seeing if there’s some way that I can include this in my Will. Ideally this sort of environmental cost accounting would be baked into our economic system, but until it is I feel I need to do it for myself.

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