This article is 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 plan to revisit this article every few years, or when I have something important to add.

For a more detailed description for how to calculate your own 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, see articles below:

Full disclosure: I’ve actually been calculating and offsetting my carbon emissions 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 since 2016. So what did I learn from looking back at my energy decisions for the last eight years?


My carbon footprint from 2016-2023

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 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).

My carbon footprint from 2016 to 2023

Flights: The biggest contribution to my carbon footprint

Unsurprisingly, air travel usually contributed the largest share of my carbon footprint, aside from the Covid-19 pandemic period when I didn’t travel at all. 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.

Changes in my flight emissions between 2016 and 2023

A traveller at heart, who put her life back together through travel, the 2016-2020 period coincided with significant travel.

I made multiple trips in 2016 and 2019, but the emissions for 2016 were very different than 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 that year’s 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!

By contrast, my post-pandemic travel has been to domestic and near-regional destinations. Even though flying to Vanuatu involved multiple connections, flight emissions in 2022 were nowhere near the years with truly long-haul trips. In 2023, I only flew within Southeast Asia, which made the emissions similar to 2016.


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 27-28 degrees Celcius, if I have it on at all. The apartment is fully electrified, so I don’t use gas for cooking. Therefore, my home energy emissions really boils down to the energy types powering the electrical grid.

Emissions from household energy between 2016 and 2023

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.

Energy efficiency & renewable electricity

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 deducted the months when I was subscribed to the solar energy blocks. It dropped to zero in subsequent years as I moved to full renewable energy subscription.

This is how it’s supposed to be. Carbon offsetting is not an end in itself. It is to accelerate the transition to sustainable energy systems. So first, you try to reduce your energy consumption at home. And then, when renewable energy becomes available in your country, you switch, following which there’s no longer a need to offset.

And because I did it the right way around, my energy consumption is so small that even with my power company’s renewable energy certificate (REC) subscription, my electricity bill only rose a little bit. I usually pay about RM60-70 a month, which is about $12-15.

Personal & public transport

Truthfully, the biggest reduction I achieved in this category was by moving closer to my workplace and to train lines. 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 artefact 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 estimate even if you drove less than that. As for the train commute, train emissions are so low that it hardly matters if you took a few more or fewer commutes.

Mobility emissions from 2016-2023

My car emissions dropped after 2018 mainly because I didn’t make any road trips, and I worked from home more. It looks like it 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 carbon calculator.

2023 looks substantially different, and this was due to a couple of road trips that I made.

The public transport emissions are largely from train commutes. They fell as I worked from home more. After the pandemic, we no longer returned to office full time, so it stayed relatively low in 2022.

Again, 2023 looks substantially different, but this was not because I suddenly took the train more. The train commute emissions were actually similar to 2019. The remainder is due to emissions from the ferry trips to Tioman Island for vacation. As you can see, boats consume a lot of fuel. I personally think that maritime countries should invest a lot more in transitioning marine transport.

Would I change my car to an EV?

In general, I am supportive of the electric mobility transition. My country’s development of the past few decades have encouraged car-centricity. This built environment is now difficult to re-design. There are also cultural considerations for how people move around that means personal vehicles will continue to be relevant to many families. I also understand how important the automotive industry still is to the country’s economy, but also that they need to change so they won’t be in the way of climate action.

Therefore, even though we should be prioritising a shift to public transport rather than just change all the fossil cars to EVs, I understand that it wouldn’t work for large parts of the country, at least for now. So I support the supply side effort to build EV infrastructure, grid upgrades to accommodate the extra power demand, and for car manufacturers to sell EVs to retail customers.

However, I personally would probably keep my car as long as there are still fuel stations. When I bought it more than a decade ago, it was the most fuel efficient car in the market, and it still rates well even today. Switching your car to an EV makes sense if you drive a lot. But I don’t. Despite being a petrol car, it doesn’t produce much emissions at all, because it doesn’t move a lot. No driving, no emissions.

Instead, when I can’t use it anymore, I think I will simply not have a car at all. By then, I hope that it would be possible to just use public transport through a combination of better infrastructure and personal habit changes. And I can just rent a car for road trips. Perhaps by then, the rentals would be EVs.

How much does 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 fairly 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.

US style corporate management promotes senior managers who see staff in terms of their job grade, like parts in a machine. So if two people happen to be in the same job grade, therefore they must be interchangeable.

As a kind of LOTR fan, I have to nitpick the phrasing and clarify that the reason why the One Ring was the least dangerous with a hobbit, is because hobbits just want to live life and get along, ie hobbits aren’t tempted to “rule them all”.

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