What I Learned After 5 Years of Offsetting My Carbon Footprint
This article is about a frank overview of my personal journey calculating my carbon footprint over the years, and how much it changed due to decisions I made. I calculate my carbon footprint with the calculator at Terrapass. For a more detailed description for how to calculate your carbon footprint, go to my other article where I walk you through the whole process.
For preparatory reading, and links to other articles in this Carbon Offsetting series:
Full disclosure: I’ve actually been calculating and offsetting my carbon emissions with Terrapass for quite a bit longer than five years. I’ve been an environmentalist for more than 20 years, and have seen the early attempts to verify carbon projects and link it to carbon offsetting, all the way to the current versions.
So I’ve done this for a while. However, I only began to keep records of every year’s footprint for the last five years. Hence, I only have data to review for this period. I plan to revisit this article every few years, or when I have something important to say.
So what did I learn from looking back at my energy decisions for the last five years?
My Carbon Footprint from 2016-2020
Before we start comparing the years, it’s important to describe the context. A few things affect the amount of your carbon footprint that’s ‘fixed’. For example, what kind of house you live in, its size and whether it needs to be heated or cooled much, or if you live with others, will determine a maximum baseline that won’t change much unless you do something drastic, like move to another place.
In this period I lived in an apartment of my own, fully electrified and relatively energy efficient. However, since I wasn’t splitting the electricity use with anyone, my share of electricity use increased in 2016 compared to previous years (from memory) even though I moved to a more efficient house.
On the other hand, I also moved to a place that made commuting to work by train much more feasible. This meant that my car emissions fell compared to pre-2016 (from memory).
Flights: The biggest contribution to my carbon footprint
Unsurprisingly, air travel contributed the largest share of my carbon footprint. A traveller at heart, who put her life back together through travel, this period coincided with significant travel. Flights are among the most energy intensive forms of travel. Consequently, my annual carbon footprint changed by a lot depending on how often I travelled by air that year, and how far.
I made multiple trips in 2016 and 2019, but the emissions for 2016 was very different from 2019. In 2016, I generally did domestic trips, and made one regional trip to the Maldives to volunteer for whale shark research. However, in 2019 I went to Tonga in the Pacific Ocean, on top of regional travel to Kashmir and Australia. This made the flight emissions comparable to 2017, when I went to Chile and crossed the Pacific to return home to Malaysia.
For further context, I only made one major trip in 2018, to French Polynesia. This alone was enough to take my flight emissions fairly close to 2019. But on the other hand, for Pacific destinations, unless you get a yacht and set sail, flying is not the highest carbon travel option – cruise ships are 100 times worse!
Note that I have zero flight emissions in 2020. This is the year of Covid-19, so I did not travel at all.
Home energy: How did I lower my carbon footprint?
My home electricity use is modest, since I live in a warm country and personally have a good heat tolerance. This means that I generally have my air-conditioning set at 28 degrees Celcius, if I have it on at all.
My electricity consumption rose in the years after 2016 because in this period I occasionally hosted couchsurfers and Airbnb guests. Travellers tend to be less acclimated to the Malaysian heat, and consequently the guest room AC was often set cooler than the rest of the house. (Guests also tend to forget turning off the hot water.)
Now, 2020 electricity consumption is interesting. At first glance it looks like not hosting guests during the pandemic year simply brought my home energy footprint back down to 2016 levels. But this is not the whole story.
Working nearly exclusively from home meant that I myself used the air-conditioning more, and used electronics at home more. After all, normally I wouldn’t be at home in the hot daytime for at least half the working week.
However, there were two things that cancelled out this extra energy use. Firstly, my hot water heater fried itself early that year, and I managed to replace it with a more efficient one before lockdown began. This had the side effect of shaving down my electricity bill (I hadn’t realised how inefficient the old heater was!).
Secondly, this was the year I discovered that I could subscribe to solar energy blocks from my electricity company with a small surcharge. So I opted to virtually buy renewable electricity, which is a form of offset in itself. Therefore, my home energy footprint calculation for 2020 actually deducted the portion that was offset with the solar blocks. And 2021’s footprint would be lower still – possibly zero.
Land transport & carbon emissions
Truthfully, as I recall the biggest reduction I achieved in this category was by moving closer to my workplace and to train lines. But unfortunately, I can’t show this reduction since I didn’t keep my 2015 carbon footprint breakdown. Once in my current location, neither changed by very much.
In part this is an artifact of the carbon calculator itself, and how l simplified my calculations for the office commute. The calculator’s minimum precision for vehicle emissions meant that there’s a minimum estimated unit even if you drove less than that.
My car emissions dropped between 2018 and 2019 mainly because I didn’t make any road trips, and I tried working from home more. It apparently stayed the same in 2020 even though I drove a lot less, because I now drive so little that I’ve hit the minimum unit in the calculator. But then again, nor do I wish to particularly drop it any further. I still want to keep my car to have the mobility options, but once you decide to do this, the car needs to be driven regularly.
How Much Did It Cost to Offset My Carbon Footprint?
Carbon credits are priced differently depending on what kind of project generated them. Some methods of avoiding or capturing greenhouse gases are cheaper than others. Terrapass has a portfolio of different carbon projects. My carbon offsets cost in the range of $17 (2020) to $123 (2017). It’s actually very affordable.
Of course, starting from 2019 I also began offsetting twice. I chose to do this ‘extra’ offset via CHOOOSE, who pre-calculate an averaged footprint for your country based on UN data. Then they purchase carbon credits on your behalf from a wide range of certified carbon projects, which you can choose from.
Have you calculated your carbon footprint? What is your biggest contributor? Which one do you feel most able to change? Share your thoughts below!