Your ESA Carbon Footprint

Every year I wonder about the carbon footprint of thousands of ecologists traveling to some city from all around the country to attend the Ecological Society of American annual meeting, many of whom are there to discuss the affects of climate change. Ironic, no? This year, one of my grad students expressed concern about attending the meeting because of the fossil fuel cost of getting to Baltimore from Los Angeles. So I decided to do a rough back of the envelope calculation to crunch some numbers and see the real cost.

In the past, ESA has paid for some carbon offsets associated with the meeting, although I assume these were associated with carbon produced by the meeting itself and not the travel of attendees. I could not find any information about carbon offsets for this year’s meeting in Baltimore on the ESA website. So if you want to pay for your own carbon contribution, you’re going to have to do it on your own. The easiest way to do that it to walk or bike to the meeting, but since that’s not an option for most of us, let’s look at some rough numbers: has a cool calculator where you can calculate your carbon footprint for various activities

For my flight from Los Angeles to Baltimore, I will use 1,720 pounds of CO2 equivalents. Note that I did not include Radiative Forcing, which would have driven this number much higher. But wait, I have to get home too, so that’s 3,440 pounds of CO2.

Ok, so what does that number really mean? Well, the average American uses 50,000 pounds of carbon equivalents per year. Yikes! That round trip flight is nearly 7% of my total carbon footprint for the year. That’s assuming I’m average. But I fly about 6-8 times per year, work in an overly air-conditioned building, and commute 25 minutes to work in Los Angeles traffic, so maybe I’m well above average. On the other hand, I drive a Prius, eat a mostly plant-based diet, and try to be fairly conscious about energy use…but I’m not sure that balances out the other stuff. But for the sake of argument, let’s say I’m average. By skipping one to two meetings per year,  I could reduce my annual footprint by somewhere around 15%.

When I started crunching these numbers, I was sure that I could offset this to a great deal by eating vegetarian or vegan at the meeting. My initial plan for this post was to inform everybody about how going vegan at the meeting would offset their footprint. Let’s see how that works out. Some more rough numbers:

Consuming beef and dairy are a pretty big use of carbon relative to most other foods, so let’s start there. Eating a cheeseburger is equivalent to using 5.18 kilograms of CO2 (source here), which is 11.4 pounds. For the worst case-scenario, let’s say you’re a giant carnivore and eat the equivalent of a cheeseburger every day for 5 days at ESA for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Heavy, I know, but let’s go with it. Your carbon use due to beef and dairy for the meeting would be 171 pounds of CO2 equivalents. That is a huge amount of carbon and certainly you should be aware of the impact of what you eat, but cutting that out entirely doesn’t even come close to offsetting the 3400 pound cost of the flight. Yikes again!

Despite that, I will still put in a plug for eating less meat as a possible remedy for climate change. See this Meat Should Be A Treat post. Let’s say you eat 5 cheeseburger equivalents per week, which is probably not unusual for the average American. I’m not saying people eat 5 cheeseburgers per week, but think about the amount of other meat, milk, and cheese we eat and it’s not unreasonable to get up to that equivalent amount. If one switched from that to a vegan diet, you’d be saving somewhere in the neighborhood of 3000 pounds of CO2 per year, which comes close to offsetting that cross-country flight. But that’s also a big commitment for a full year to offset a one week trip.

My point here is that the actions of one individual DO have a really big effect in terms of climate change. But that also means that the actions one takes to remedy those actions can also have a big effect. The cool or awful thing is what these numbers could mean when you start multiplying them by millions or billions. But getting millions of people to make such big changes isn’t an easy effort. We could cancel ESA this year and have a really big effect. But I also would like to go hang out in Baltimore, hear about a bunch of cool science, and talk to colleagues and friends. I’m not ready to give that up just yet. It should be part of the conversation though. As ecologists and scientists, we don’t always put our money/actions where our mouths are. But I’m working on that vegetarian/vegan thing in the meantime…

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