Cutting my carbon footprint - Designer Edition

Posted July 30, 2013. Reading time: 4 minutes.


I want to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas that I'm responsible for. I started by looking at the amount of carbon dioxide my day-to-day work produces, and found it scarily large: about 20 tons a year. But I hope to cut that to 5.


Comparing footprints

Here are some carbon footprints for comparison. Figures in tons/CO2e/year:

  • 17t: Average for a US citizen
  • 4.7t: global average per person
  • 3t: a sustainable global average (what we should be emitting to keep within the carbon budget and roll back global warming)

Sources: US vs World footprint.


Analyzing my footprint

I want to know which activities are producing the most CO2e, and concentrate on reducing them first. I've put them in a public spreadsheet. The most carbon-costly activities are linked to travel and purchasing technology.

The energy-using activities of a UX designer probably isn't very different from the average white-collar worker, except with more user interviews and post-its.

The spreadsheet has a reduction column so I can compare my current behavior to sustainable alternatives.

Some of the more surprisingly large savings (shown in CO2e a year) I've found so far include:

  • Biking instead of driving (half the time): saves 2750kg for a short commute*
  • Drinking black coffee made at home instead of buying a latte: saves 160kg
  • My a new computer slightly less often: saves 180kg
  • I spend a ton of CO2e just on USING a mobile phone - 4g LTE networks are incredibly power-hungry - those base stations are really pumping it out.

* I'm cheating - I don't drive to my current job. But most people do, so I included a commute anyway

It turns out more than half my projected footprint for 2013 comes from flying - a possible 9 tons. And that's only for 2 trips.

My spreadsheet keeps growing and will probably never be finished, but I've got enough data for a basic summary. My starting guesstimate for my professional CO2e footprint is about 19 tons. Cutting air travel cuts that in half. Making lifestyle and professional changes cuts that further, to 5 tons.


What about offsetting?

If you want to pay off your carbon guilt, you can - the typical cost for a ton of offset is $19. I could write off my emissions without changing any behavior for $380 (20 tons x $19). But.

The problem with offsetting is that buying one doesn't magically remove the CO2 I'm responsible for from the atmosphere. Instead, the money goes to schemes that might have positive environmental impacts in other ways. Which is great, but when we're staring down the barrel of a greater than 4c temperature rise, then CO2 reduction has to come first.


Scaling up

I don't know how many UX designers there are in the world. The biggest LinkedIn UX group has 70k members, for what that's worth. If we all had a 20t footprint, and all reduced it down to 5t, then: 70k people x 14t = a potential 980,000t saving - very worthwhile. Offsetting that much CO2e would cost $26.6m.


What next?

Attacking my personal carbon footprint is just the first step. I'm optimistic that as a designer I can have a far greater impact by bringing a carbon-conscious sensibility to the sites and apps I make, too. Here's the plan:

  1. Reduce the amount of CO2e from day-to-day activities: tick (kinda)
  2. Run projects in a less energy-intensive way (a work in progress)
  3. Design sites and apps that are carbon-conscious, through optimized design and green hosting: made a start (see my presentation on optimizing design.)
  4. Use design to influence user behavior along more climate-friendly lines.

Follow along here or on twitter for more of this sort of thing.


DISCLAIMERS

Calculating Carbon Footprints is imprecise. Most measures of footprint for any given product or activity are approximate, and highly dependent on local variables. In making my estimates I've used the best data I had to hand (sources listed end of article), but you should typically assume a large margin of error.

Regional differences also make a big difference - the carbon cost of electricity is about 1.2lb of CO2e / kWH in the United States (yay coal), but much lower in Iceland (where there's lots of CO2-free Geothermal power).




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Resources

Footprint calculator for driving

How bad are bananas? Useful book full of footprints for common objects and activities

Carbon footprint of paper.

Turn down the heat - a World Bank Report. A digestible and sobering description of where we're headed

Comparing national footprints per capita