visualizing my 2019 carbon choices

2019 marked a change in the global discussion of climate change and carbon emissions. I’ve been conscious of my impact for a while and generally tried to make good choices. However, while reflecting on my 2019, I realized I needed to do more.

I think of myself as a logical problem solver, but I’ve been approaching the problem of my environmental impact from an emotional standpoint. I feel guilty for having a negative impact on the environment and to alleviate this guilt, I do things that feel like they help, like eating less meat, buying from “eco-friendly” retailers, and avoiding single-use plastics.

Not to say that these aren’t fantastic things to do (I continue to do them), but I had a sneaking suspicion that those weren’t the actions that had the most impact. I chose them because of how they made me feel, not the benefit they had on the planet.

For 2020, I decided to take a more data-driven approach to the problem of my carbon footprint. That starts with understanding what impact my current actions have, so I can make improvements that have the most benefit. As a start, I did research to determine the relative impact of some of the choices I made in 2019.

Before I get into it, I want to give a couple of disclaimers:

  1. There’s some controversy about whether or not individual actions matter at all1 and whether discussing the impact individual actions may actually be harmful. Some research indicates that emphasizing individual solutions to big issues can reduce support for government efforts2. That being said, I am still of the opinion that individual efforts can be worthwhile if done correctly, so I want to share mine.
  2. I decided to start with data about my carbon footprint because that’s the easiest thing to quantify. I’m open to feedback about other types of impact I should be measuring.

To get started, I researched the carbon footprint of a selection of things I did during 2019, both positive and negative. This helped me get a feel for what actually made a difference. Once I started researching, the answer became clear very quickly.

the carbon footprint of some things I did in 2019

Bar chart displaying my 2020 carbon emissions in metric tons per year.

Bar chart displaying my 2020 carbon emissions in metric tons per year.

Some actions matter a lot more than others, and at least for me, it’s not the ones that feel particularly good (or bad).

I flew from Seattle to Sydney for work, business class (yes, cabin kind of makes a difference3), in the fall of 2019 to deliver a workshop about Python and data science. Everything else I did last year, good or bad, was almost negligible compared to that one round-trip flight.

In 2019 I also made the change from being totally vegetarian to eating some meat (pretty much only chicken) and felt really guilty about it. It turns out I shouldn’t have. Every flight I took, even the small hop from Seattle to Denver (in economy), was more than double the impact of me eating chicken all year long.

In contrast, I also felt really good about cutting down dramatically on my car use by taking transit into work every day. It turns out… I shouldn’t have. While exclusively taking transit to work more than made up for me eating chicken, it didn’t matter compared to my 3 different flights from Seattle to Pittsburgh (again, business) for work.

I’d seen this infographic around the internet: Infographic of personal choices to reduce your contribution to climate change

Source: Environmental Research Letters

And I “knew” that flying was bad. But it took me creating the above graph about my own life and choices to really get it.

People can’t be perfect. Sometimes we have to fly! To really make a difference, the system needs to change. But as an individual motivated to do my part, the actions I should take to help are very obvious.

I’ve committed to flying less in 2020, especially for work, and encouraging my teammates to do the same.

the boring stuff

how I calculated my carbon footprint

a quick note on carbon offsets

the tl;dr is that the majority of carbon offset projects don’t pan out 4. They mostly serve as a feel-good “pass” for individuals and companies to use carbon, guilt-free. Maybe I’ll write about it!

source code

View the code for how I did my analysis & created my carbon footprint visualization as a Gist here.

I (try to) cite my sources