Considering Footprint Calculators

Don Grant's picture

I have seen and played with ecological footprint calculators for years. Recently I used two calculators as part of an assignment at Royal Roads. Here are the ones we used. Take the Carbon Calculator at the BC Livesmart website and the footprint calculator at the Global Footprint Network,

In general I have some reservations about their value as a tool to assist with social change because they cast our consumption in such a negative light - five earths, nine earths, etc. It is the hit you over the head with guilt approach which doesn't always leave people feeling good about themselves.

What I appreciate about the process is the opportunity to consider your life choices. Every calculator has its own logic and as you go through you find that there are four areas where you can really make a difference.

How You Heat and Cool Your Home - The majority of your greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from heating and cooling and you have the most control over your home. Buying a new or recently renovated home that meets energy efficiency standards is the best, followed by improving your own home. You want to cut the total units of energy used.

How You Use Your Car - No car, no problem. If you have a vehicle then fuel efficiency, total kms driven and solo kms driven are the big factors. Every time you share your car you take a car off the road - a minimum savings of 50%. Travel to and from work is typically the biggest culprit.

Air Travel and Vacation Time - Flying is a killer - your GHG emissions balloon with every flight. Cutting out a short haul business trip is easier than not seeing family or friends or cutting out your family vacation. In my opinion one of the biggest issues with sustainable tourism is social sustainability - ensuring that local people get most of your money. Compare a cruise where you spend all of your time on the boat with a few excursions vs. going to a village in Costa Rica where you know that most of the money you spend goes directly back into the community. If you don't go, they have a tougher year.

Food - What we eat has an impact on GHGs. In particular, our consumption of meat, poultry and farmed fish is a significant source of GHGs. Going vegetarian even one day a week is a great start.

We live in a small house - family of four in 1,300 square feet plus a small finished basement in an older, medium density neighbourhood in Ottawa. My wife walks to work and I work from home, but travel quite a bit to the communities where I work, in good weather months in the smallest, most fuel efficient rental I can find. We live in a fabulous walkable neighbourhood with just about everything that we need within the target 400 m walk or a slightly longer bicycle ride. My two favourite hobbies are road cycling (very friendly) and playing hockey even in summer (very unfriendly) and that keeps me health and happy.

So my footprint is pretty big for a guy trying to 'save the planet'. The total score though matters less than trying to figure out how to make better choices. So I support bike lanes, carpooling, buying in bulk and all kinds of things that I can do to minimize the components of my footprint. I try to get everyone I know on Skype, to make long distance meetings more interesting, and I work hard to bridge the distance between myself and family, friends and clients with frequent, meaningful contact.

So good luck in your communities with footprint calculators. Have fun with them and keep people from going into shock ! The point is to help them see the light and to act, not to pass out from desperation.