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August 20, 2007

Whose Carbon Footprint Is the Smallest?

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See if you guessed right (for the record, driving, flying, heating your place, and using electricity are the heaviest-weight carbon offenders. What you eat and buy generally makes a more subtle, but still important, difference).

The Judge
We called in Robert Henson, author of The Rough Guide to Climate Change and a writer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, to weigh these women’s eco-virtues against their eco-vices.

JOSIE: the biggest footprint
Big-city dwelling is often more eco-friendly than living elsewhere. “Josie gets major credit for taking public transportation and sharing a townhouse — the common walls keep energy costs lower than they might otherwise be,” says Henson. Josie’s fashion approach (buying fewer but higher-quality clothes) is also eco-smart.

But Josie’s wanderlust caused her footprint to balloon well above average: One flight from New York to Shanghai and back produces more greenhouse gas per person than a year’s worth of typical driving. If she worked some of her pleasure trips in with her business flights, she could make a huge difference, says Henson. The next best thing is to purchase carbon offsets (you pay a company to do something green-virtuous) to assuage guilt and lighten your eco-load.

MELISSA: midsize footprint
She’d be the winner if not for the fact that she burns so many tons of fossil fuels commuting from her rustic home to the city. “If she got a small hybrid for everyday commuting, she could cut the biggest part of her carbon footprint by a third or more,” says Henson. Melissa gets climate points for avoiding beef — the average American eats more than 60 pounds of it a year, and those cows generate a lot of greenhouse gas, both directly and indirectly. On the downside, as Melissa herself points out, she indulges in organic veggies grown halfway around the world — and shipped as far to her table. “A few more trips to the farmer’s market would help freshen her diet and further reduce her carbon footprint,” Henson says.

The eco-winner: NIKEA: the smallest footprint
WHY: You don’t have to nix dirty martinis or nights out on the town just to live lightly on the planet. Taking the bus to work, walking to get groceries, and sharing a modest duplex with a friend score her beaucoup eco-points. One simple step — putting in compact fluorescent lights — would seriously lower emissions and shave her utility bill. And if she signed up for her power company’s wind-power option, she could make her electricity emissions-free. One of Nikea’s small indulgences — bottled water — may be her biggest climatic transgression, Henson says, considering the fuels that go into the plastic and the energy used in shipping. Tap filters or in-refrigerator jugs would give Nikea fresh water without the extra emissions.

How do you stack up?
Check out the Daily Green's Carbon Footprint Calculator.

The Top 3 Carbon Evils

What Is a Carbon Footprint?

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