Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Carbon Calculations

I've never taken the time to enunciate why I think stressing about one's "carbon footprint" seems ridiculous. I'm not talking about the gross legions who do their best to waste and pollute at every turn. I mean the average person. I take only mass transit. I recycle (some of the time). I'm very good about not wasting water or light. But this blogger does the enunciating for me:
Doing this stuff is impossibly difficult, as is amply demonstrated every time someone tries to figure out the comparatively narrowly-defined problem of biofuels' net energy balance. This is the first problem: literally every human endeavor consumes energy — and of course, it's very hard to reduce any action in civilization to just one step. It's tough to figure out how much energy something took, very tough to accurately guess, and nearly impossible to know how much carbon it took to generate that energy.

This came up when I was out in San Francisco for work (a trip that was unambiguously environmentally awful, I'll be the first to admit). Over beers Michael told a story about a passenger on his flight jealously guarding his trash, refusing to surrender it to the flight attendants unless they promised it would be recycled.

But it's not that easy, right? Last I heard, metal is unambiguously beneficial to recycle; glass takes more energy to recycle than it's worth; and plastic — well, who knows? It probably depends on the type of plastic and where the recycling plant is.

Or take the great coffee cup debate: if a given ceramic mug is likely to get less than a thousand uses, you're better off drinking from a styrofoam cup. Probably, anyway. I'm sure it depends on your dishwasher, or its settings. Or if you don't have a dishwasher. Or the detergent you buy. And probably how far you are from the water pumping station, right? Maybe how much rain your area gets, or has gotten this year, or what floor you live on.

Which is the other problem: as individuals it seems like we all pretty much live within the margin of error on these questions. It adds up over the population, of course, but for one person it's nearly impossible to know what the right thing to do is. There are unambiguous things, of course: don't leave the water running when you brush your teeth, and minimize electricity use, and don't leave your car idling. Although sometimes even those wind up ambiguous: I've heard that restarting a car takes about as much gas as running it for a minute.

...And the press is more than comfortable enough with their anecdotes and innumeracy to continue publishing hunches they had while shopping at Whole Foods, as if a half-day's worth of googling and algebra was sufficient to untangle the world's unimaginably complicated economic and energy-use web (a pursuit that I admit I've indulged in myself — but at least nobody paid me for it).
I found this through Megan McArdle and, as always, the commenters at her site had a lot to say about the subject.


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