Environmental Footprint Calculators - any that aren't bollocks?

I happened to be doing some research on sustainable living recently, and I stumbled across a few Environmental Footprint Calculators. For anyone who’s not familiar with the concept (in which case you probably can’t answer my question anyway - but hey, just follow along here) the idea is to estimate the environmental impact of your day to day living, in terms of the number of hectares it takes to sustain it. You often get a report saying something like “If everyone were to live at the same standard as you it would take 16.8 Planet Earths to support them”

So I took the test and came out at around 3.6 Earths. But I was pretty suspicious about the vagueness of some of the questions, so I played around with it a little. Turns out if I’m an international jetsetter getting on a plane every week and living by myself in an airconditioned penthouse, my footprint is 6.8 Earths. And if I’m a vegetarian living in an unheated caravan with 6 other people, it’s 2.1 Earths.

At which point, my inner mathematician goes “yeah, right

So, is the idea of the “Ecological Footprint” valid in the first place? And are there any of these calculators that are in any way accurate?

The idea is simple but the detailed data-gathering is nigh impossible. Everything is so interconnected these really can’t be very good estimations, especially with the level of detail that’s enterable in 15 minutes or so for your typical survey. The average person doesn’t record all their calories, miles, watt-hours, therms, blah blah. And even if you do record all that to the hour, you still can’t account for societal decisions…

Think of a car – even a 54 MPG one – that takes an entire society to sustain. How do you calculate the energy that goes into the mines that will supply the metals mined by your workers who eat food from hundreds of miles away harvested by tools made in China, which has had to build a vast infrastructure to support their population and cut down how many forests and blow up how many mountains and even then to get it to the users they had to build how many ships using what kind of diesel delivering to which port and shipping via which freight line, and then even once you get the raw materials down how do you account for the 200 years of technological development necessary to arrive at the modern computer-aided wind tunnel testing center and battery development… and then once you have all that figured out what about the the infrastructure in your own country to get the car to you, the highways, the power lines, the fleet of construction vehicles, the security provided by your government, the wars your country fights to maintain its power and get its fuel at the prices it does, blah blah.

There’s a nearly infinite number of externalities and the best you can really hope to do is abstract it out and then divide it by population.

That said, at least one site outlines their methodology.

What exactly about the math bothers you?

If you want a more detailed account, you can do try to do the math yourself. Here’s a writeup from a friend of mine documenting the renovation measures he took to arrive at a zero net energy home (meaning it produces more energy than it uses) and an accompanying building energy audit that would be similar to what professionals do. His report takes into account personal transportation but not (I believe) diet, healthcare, officework, and of course all the other local/state/national externalities.

Those two documents show the difficulty in measuring just your own personal CO2 footprint, but that’s still not the same as a ecological footprint that takes into account the lifecycle analysis of every product that you use or regularly consume – and that sample one, detailed as it is, still doesn’t account for all the externalities of even one product, much less everything before and after it in its supply/disposal chain.

You can spend months analyzing this stuff (people do) and still not arrive at anything more than an educated guess. Don’t expect too much from a short web survey.

Which calculator gave you 2.1 Earths as a vegetarian living in an unheated caravan?

Its not your maths bullshit detector that should be buzzing, its the logic alarm. The maths is sound, but different system boundaries produce different results. Different system boundaries can all have a consistent internal logic but still conflict.

Depending on the assumptions of the calculation, you’ll get different answers, so one calculator I saw recently gave that figure of 2.1 for a vegan living in a caravan while my own working out gave me about 1.5 for the same bicycle riding vegan.

The difference was down to the inclusion of a per capita allowance of public services. My vegan doesn’t use hospitals or libraries, has no support from police and is so uneducated he died of starvation, reducing his Ecological Foot print from 1.5 GHa to zero, (actually to minus something as he was buried in an orchard and turned into fertiliser so adding biomass to the ecology…)

The Ecological Footprint method is very imperfect, but infinitely better than nothing. Also its far better than say Carbon Foot-printing which looks more “Scientific” and “Accurate” but which in real life misses even more data than the EF, making it more misleading.

The answers we get from EF are pretty uncomfortable. Don’t shoot the messenger!

Yes, I’d agree with that, but if guessing is your best shot, and there is no other option, then you have to guess. But there is a real political and economic NEED for EF type indicator, to provide a source of educated guessing for collective decision making. At the moment such a process does not exist.

The fact that no Government or international decision making agency has taken EF up seriously as a policy tool is odd.

You’d have to be an idiot to choose to focus on picking holes in the method which are giving you an error margin of even 50% if the overshoot is calculating out to 200%, but you know what, that’s what happens in academic circles all over the world, and its very very scary.

The calculator that I used is availablehere, among other places. It seems like a popular one (it’s quite purty :wink: ). My major problems with that one off the top of my head:

If you say you’re a vegan locavore, it still tells you that your footprint based on food alone, not counting clothes, housing and transportation, is a hectare of cropland and one and a half of grazing (how are you possibly using grazing land if you’re vegan?), coming to around 1.1 Planet Earth’s worth. So it’s built into the calculator that it’s impossible for you ever to have a sustainable lifestyle, if you live in Australia, no matter what you do. Quite apart from the fact that I don’t believe that (ok, the set of people who grow all their own food and butcher their own meat must be pretty small, but if the calculator is set up properly it should give an accurate estimate of what your footprint would be if you did) it’s a recipe for people throwing their hands in the air and giving up. You can’t be sustainable *no matter what you do * so why bother?

The richest people in our society earn 10 or 20 or even 30 times as much as the poorest - but the most profligate lifestyle is only 3x the footprint of the most destitute? Doesn’t pass the smell test.

I can see that the multiplying factor they put into car travel for “I almost always drive with others” is only about 0.7 or so. Wildly innacurate in my case, and could easily have been avoided by a more precise simple question like “what’s the average number of people in your car when you drive”
At the end of it all, the calculator gives you an illusion of accuracy with a “Planet Earths Multiple” with a decimal point in it. But really, all I can honestly say I got out at the end are motherhood statements about how it’s more sustainable to eat plants rather than animals, and use solar power rather than coal fired. Which I knew already.

I shall go and look at some of the other links in this thread now and see if they satisfy me more :slight_smile:

That’s in fact the study whose methodology I linked to, if you’re curious. Not sure how you’re getting the exact numbers but I chose 0 animal products and “100% local” and the grazing land section was veeeeery thin in the bar graph, maybe as thin as it could be.

From a quick browse of their literature, grazing land is basically a measure of how much animal feed a country uses AFTER subtracting available feed grown from their croplands. The deficit is a rough measure of how much grazing land they’re using.

It’s an estimation of land use for all animal products, not just food (meaning wool, hides, etc.).

They also for some reason lumped “other wooded lands” into the category of “grazing lands”, and I’m not exactly sure how that’s defined and how much of an impact it has. You can read their literature more fully or email them if you really want to know.

Again, from what I can tell (not 100% sure) the numbers are gotten by taking a country’s stats and dividing it by population, which means you suffer from averaging if you’re super-green and your countryfolk are not. A design flaw, if accurate.

I think a part of the lesson here is that small individual changes alone won’t make up the ecological deficit (their term). The idea of the footprint is to emphasize the need for global, systemic changes, not a few thousand people here and there going vegan. See my rant about societal externalities, above – basically, you don’t live in isolation from your country and you share in the ecological costs of services provided to all your countryfolk.

I’m not sure where you got those numbers. The “nightmare American consumer” I just made up uses 24.3 Earths, whereas another one I made earlier used 1.x (forgot exactly how many) Earths.

Look at the “writeup” link in my second post for a list of metrics you can actually measure. If you want accuracy, record your own daily consumption (or use smartmeters and the like) instead of relying on a calculator that averages national statistics.

In terms of the grazing question, I just noticed that my bacon-inhaling American still uses next to no grazing land, which (off the top of my head) seems accurate for this country, where most animal feed is grown as crops and then fed to livestock.

In other countries, livestock might have more direct access to the land and so use more grazing land than cropland.

(ETA: In case it wasn’t obvious to you, the version you were using is customized to Australia. The one on their home page lets you choose from several countries.)

I just re-did this part using the “detailed” rather than “simple” section. So if instead of saying I’m vegan I put in specifically no pork, no beef, no dairy etc etc then it takes away all the grazing land and brings it down to 1.1 planets’ worth

I see. Seems like a bug (or at least a bad assumption) that the simple slider doesn’t just move all the complex ones the same distance.

I put pretty much the same answers in for the US and the Australian one, and got 1.6 Earths in Australia and 3.3 in the US. Averaging is obviously a factor here. Also, some stuff wasn’t applicable- we don’t have a natural gas hookup in the house, but I could only get it to go to “I don’t know” or “$8 per month”, not “0”. Interesting.

The fact that you can’t get an answer less than 1 Earth tells you what the real problem is - there are just too many people on the planet, regardless of how they live. I haven’t tried it, but probably wouldn’t get a very good result and not just because of my diet, even though I do use CFLs and other energy-efficient appliances. On the other hand, I probably have at least several dozen times more electronics than the average American due to my hobby (over 100,000 components in everything I’ve built), and many of them use rare metals and highly processed materials like ultrapure silicon, although I do pick up a lot of it off the street so that prevents them from being landfilled, and I use lead-free solder, if for personal health reasons.

On the calculators I’ve played around with, the only way to get a less than one earth footprint was to say you live in a non-developed country.

So wait? China’s way of living is sustainable? Or many of the other countries shown on this list? Surely ANY country that has any form of electricity (grid), cars, TVs, cellphones (even in African countries, historically the least developed countries) and all of that can’t possibly be sustainable.

Depends on how many people, where, etc.

From what I understand, part of it is that our government’s environmental footprint gets spread onto all of us. That’s obviously a big one for the US, given the amount of fuel our military uses even during peacetime, to say nothing of our ongoing overseas adventures.

I guess it is a somewhat legitimate consideration, but it sort of pushes you towards the conclusion that the actual personal choices you make have less of an effect, which I imagine is the opposite of what they want.