Calculating Your Emissions Profile

The amount of carbon emissions that each of us is responsible for, and the sources of those emissions, may surprise you.

May 01, 2005
May/June 2005
A version of this article appears in the May/June 2005 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
Click here to read more articles about Homeowner Education

        Most people—even those who are motivated to become more environmentally responsible— are not very familiar with the energyand carbon-related impacts of their dayto- day activities. Some people think that turning off lights, recycling cans, and becoming vegetarians are the most significant choices they can make. Although these behaviors often reduce energy use and CO2 emissions, their overall effect is minimal. Meanwhile, unwitting persistence in other activities, such as frequent air travel and using electricity as a source of heat, can lead to significant energy use and CO2 emissions.Well-designed and credible consumer information campaigns are needed to help consumers make better-informed and more-effective choices.
        As a first step toward making effective choices, consumers need to be informed about the energy use and the related environmental impacts of their activities; in short, each consumer needs to understand his or her own profile of CO2 emissions.
        Several tools are available to help people acquire that knowledge.Home Energy Saver (, developed by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is an online tool that demonstrates energy use and expense by end uses in U.S. homes.An online personal CO2 calculator (, developed by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, calculates the CO2 emissions from home energy use and personal travel.The Climate Change Calculator (www.climcalc. net) is an online interactive tool designed to raise Canadians’ awareness of the greenhouse gases that they produce through their lifestyle choices.
        All of these tools estimate the energy use or CO2 emissions that are directly associated with a consumer’s actions. The Individual CO2 Emissions Estimator, or ICEE, is a stand-alone software program that I designed that goes one step further.This program reflects CO2 emissions that are both directly and indirectly influenced by consumer activities. The direct influences in the current version of ICEE include home energy use and personal travel; the indirect influences include food consumption, car purchases, and recreational activities.
        In designing ICEE, I tried to include enough behavioral variables so that the CO2 emissions resulting from consumers’ purchase choices and use behaviors would be fairly modeled. I assumed that the more personalized a tool can be, the more likely it is that users will accept it as a reflection of their reality; and that the larger the number of behavior variables, the better the chances of developing a good experimental tool for the study of individual choices.

Examples of Emissions Profiles

        Few people have an exact sense of how much CO2 they emit in a year. I conducted a small study to find out how people respond who are given this information, and if the information leads them to make more environmentally responsible choices. Three people from Pittsburgh participated in my study. The ICEE was used to calculate each of their CO2 emissions profiles.The first participant was a white man who works at UniMart as a clerk. He is in his mid-20s and lives alone. His annual income is below $15,000. The second participant was a 20-something African American woman with a graduate degree. She lives with her mother. Both mother and daughter are employed in white-collar jobs.Their household income is about $65,000 per year. The third participant was a 40-something white woman. She and her husband have three children.Their household annual income is below $50,000.
        All three participants were asked to give household demographic information, such as the number of household members, and, using ICEE, to fill in a questionnaire on household consumption related to home energy, personal travel, food, and entertainment. After a participant clicked a calculation button, ICEE presented his or her annual CO2 emissions distribution by consumption activities. ICEE also provides the average CO2 emissions for a single person in the United States for comparison purposes. Then participants were asked what choices they would like to make in light
of their estimated annual CO2 emissions. The impacts of their chosen changes were translated into calculated emissions.
        Participant 1 lives in a small row house without cooling. He uses natural gas for space heating,water heating, and cooking. His dryer is powered by electricity. He usually takes a bus to work, logging about 5,200 miles per year.He has no car. He spends about $20 a week on food. He spends $500 a year on magazines and books. His annual CO2 emissions total 2.8 tons, only 30% of the total for the average U.S. consumer. About half of his energy consumption is attributable to his home energy use.
        Participant 2 and her mother live in a large single-detached house. They use natural gas for space heating. Room temperature is kept at 76°F during heating seasons, and 72°F during cooling seasons. Their water heater, dryer, and cooking appliances are fueled by electricity. They watch 25 hours of TV each week.The household has more than 20 100W incandescent light bulbs, each of which is used less than four hours a day. The household travels 14,000 miles per year by bus and car; 85% of those miles are used for commuting. They travel about 7,200 miles by air, all for leisure purposes.They spend $100 a week on food and about $200 a year on books, magazines, and newspapers.The annual CO2 emissions per household member total 12.4 tons, 38% higher than the U.S. average. Personal travel (6.8 tons) and home energy (5.2 tons) are the main contributors.
        Participant 3 lives with her large household in a medium-sized singledetached house,with no cooling in the summer. The household uses gas for space heating,water heating, and cooking. They keep the indoor temperature at 68°F during heating seasons. They have an automatic-defrost side-by-side refrigerator, which they bought after 1995.They watch about 45 hours of TV a week.They have 14 100W incandescent light bulbs, each of which is on for four to eight hours a day.They have two cars, which they drive for a total of about 24,000 miles per year. Half of those miles are used for commuting. They spend about $220 a week on food. They spend $900 a year on pet products and services and $250 on recreational books, magazines, and newspapers. The annual CO2 emissions per household member total 7.7 tons, about 85% of the U.S. average.

Lessening the Impact

        Although all three participants expressed great interest in the results generated by the ICEE, they didn’t all express a desire to reduce their carbon emissions. Participant 1 said clearly that he did not intend to try to reduce his emissions, and Participant 3 planned to wash her family’s clothes more often. These results support earlier research, which found that feedback was effective in reducing consumption for high consumers, but that it may have the opposite effect for low and medium consumers. Participant 1 is an example of a low consumer  and Participant 3 is an example of a medium consumer.
        Participant 2 was interested in reducing her level of emissions, but she seemed not to know how to do so.As the pilot study shows, all of her strategies for being environmentally responsible involved lifestyle sacrifices. None of these sacrifices—cutting down on showers, watching less TV, and eating less restaurant food—had a significant impact. She used electricity for water heating and cooking but she was unaware that she could use natural gas instead. She could have reduced her emissions dramatically by switching to a gas-fired water heater and gas cooking appliances, and she wouldn’t have had to make any hard sacrifices.
        This pilot study was so small that the results and conclusions presented here should be interpreted and generalized cautiously. But these results do suggest that people still lack accurate information on actions that they can take to reduce carbon emissions, such as fuel switching (from electricity to natural gas) for dual-fuel home services such as water heating, space heating, clothes drying, and cooking. (For more suggestions, see “What You Can Do to Reduce CO2 Emissions,” p. 16.) Research from the ’80s found that people think of energy conservation in terms of visible curtailment actions, such as turning off lights, watching less TV, and using less hot water.Certainly Participant 2 thought this way.
        In our recent study to determine how consumer activities contribute to carbon emissions, Professor Hadi Dowlatabadi and I found that services and products related to the home and personal transportation are prime targets for energy conservation and carbon mitigation. In contrast, the reduction potential of food and clothing consumption is relatively limited. Educational campaigns are needed to let people know which reduction strategies are most effective.

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