by Karl Coplan

April is the month when Uncle Sam requires us all to provide an accounting of our economic footprint for the prior calendar year. Our government depends on this system of tax reporting and payment. Although the US tax system is sometimes referred to as “voluntary” because it depends on taxpayers taking the initiative to complete their annual accounting, the IRS is unforgiving of cheaters, and has ways of finding them.

The global ecology is likewise unforgiving of ecological “cheaters.” Denial of climate science will not make climate change go away any more than denying sources of income will make the IRS go away. Earth month might be a good time for all of us to make an accounting of our actual carbon footprint for the prior year. Voluntarily, of course. Could you imagine the outcry if together with their tax return US citizens were required to provide a carbon emissions accounting, together with a carbon tax payment? Even the most ardent proponents of carbon taxes don’t propose to collect the tax from individual taxpayers on their annual form 1040.

My sense is that even among the environmental community there is very little sensitivity to the carbon footprint of our individual consumption choices. An annual carbon accounting would increase that sensitivity.

Here’s my own carbon accounting for 2010. My personal carbon footprint goal is to reduce my direct “personal choice” emissions to about 4 tons CO2 equivalent per year – this is about equal to the 2002 global per capita rate of GHG emissions, and 80% below the US per capita GHG emissions. Of course, since my own accounting does not include “indirect” GHG emissions that I can’t control, my actual carbon footprint is probably twice as much – so 4 tons of direct emissions equates to about 8 tons of total emissions, or about 60% less than the US per capita average. This would be within the range (50%-80%) reduction that the IPCC considers necessary, and would be at the upper limit that anyone could consider to be living “sustainably” in terms of their carbon footprint.

Air Travel                               2.6 tons CO2E
Residential heating              1.35 tons CO2E
Automobile travel                  .73 tons CO2E
Residential Electricity            .53 tons CO2E
Commuter bus                      .32 tons CO2E
Meat eating                          .12 tons CO2E

TOTAL   5.65 tons CO2E

I used my actual utility bills to calculate GHG emissions for electricity and natural gas. This year I signed up for a 100% wind power option for a few cents more per kilowatt, so 2011 I should be able to zero out electricity based GHG emissions. Some of the other numbers are estimates based on my commuting habits and the assumption that one-third of the non-commuting miles on the family Prius were mine. This includes plenty of family ski and camping trips upstate.

So, at 5.6 tons of CO2, I didn’t make my carbon footprint goal in 2010. One plane trip (to attend the annual Waterkeeper Alliance conference in La Paz) accounted for nearly half of all of my direct GHG emissions, and definitely broke the budget. I suspect that there is very little awareness, even among the environmental community, to the fact that plane travel is probably the single largest discretionary source of GHG emissions for most upper middle class families. This year the Waterkeeper Conference is in Chicago, so I should be able to get there without leaving the ground.

And when it comes to my annual carbon footprint return, I am definitely “married filing separately.” I’m taking credit for one-third of the gas and electricity at our three-person household, but not for my spouse’s daily drive to her office!