3 Things Missing in EPA’s Carbon Footprint Calculator

By Samson Opanda | Updated on October 14, 2021

Combating climate change is one of the major problems facing this generation and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is working on it. As a strategy to reduce carbon emissions, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed a carbon footprint calculator to estimate household-level emissions.

The EPA’s carbon footprint calculator informs individuals and households of their carbon footprint, to help them offset their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but it’s not perfect….

Environmental Protection Agency logo, green background.

EPA’s calculator asks for basic household data such as location, number of cars, electricity consumption, and waste generation. Based on these, the calculator outputs the volume of emissions for a household in equivalent mass carbon dioxide (CO2) gasses released per year.1,2

While EPA’s carbon footprint calculator provides important information, its overall accuracy and impact can greatly improve if the following three sets of data are considered:

  • Updated information;
  • Food emissions;
  • Emissions from new sources identified by research.

Keep reading to understand why these matter…

Three Things That Can Improve EPA’s Calculator

At the moment, the EPA’s carbon footprint calculator seems to have done a great job in computing emissions at the household level. Not only does the calculator account for major emission sources at homes. It also adopts local average emissions data when performing computations to ensure the output reflects the contextual factors in the selected area (using state and regional based energy generation stats).1

However, as with any calculator based on a large, complex sum of data, there is still room for improvement.

An 8 Billion Trees graphic showing what the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does to protect the environment, including regulation, knowledge, and advocacy.

1. The EPA Can Update Outdated Information

The use of contextual data in a carbon footprint calculator is particularly important. Considering the variations in lifestyles across US homes makes local average emissions data much more accurately representative than using national averages.3

While this approach is commendable, the EPA could consider using updated information to increase the accuracy of the data output. Currently, the calculator uses average figures from as far back as 2017.1

The decision to use historical figures is justified by the need to make the calculator robust, stable, and with minimal updates.

Nevertheless, with current advances in information technology, such as the development of Application Program Interfaces (APIs), the EPA’s carbon calculator can still benefit from updated information from various online sources, while maintaining the robustness and stability of the calculator.

Such an improvement will ensure accuracy, and that seasonal variations in emissions are factored into computations for a more reliable output.

2. The EPA Can Incorporate Food Emissions

Seasonal variations in emissions are worth noting – more so, when emission patterns change rapidly due to external factors. For instance, due to the current pandemic, the eating habits of most households have changed, and so have their emissions volumes. With disruptions in the food supply chain, food waste has skyrocketed, and all of that waste now sits in the landfills, releasing GHGs into the atmosphere.7

The EPA accounts for such emissions from food indirectly, by looking at other household factors such as electricity consumption. The assumption here is that an individual’s electricity consumption is proportional to their food emissions, given most people use appliances for cooking.

While this is a smart approach to the problem, directly calculating emissions from foods at the household level would yield more accurate results. The solution is viable, considering data on household food consumption — which the EPA can use — is readily available from various government sources.6

Using an appropriate API and improved equations, the EPA can capture this data and calculate household food emissions as a standalone variable, like waste and transportation. Doing so will not only lead to accurate figures; additionally, it will send a clear message to consumers that foods are a major source of emissions worth addressing at the household level.

Many people are unaware that their diet can have a big impact on their yearly emissions. While most people understand that meat is high in carbon emissions, dairy products also rank high, along with eating out, sweets and alcohol consumption. These habits, when controlled, can have a huge reduction in a household’s environmental impact.

3. The EPA Can Include Emissions from New Sources Identified by Research

Foods are not the only major household emitter that many people do not seem to appreciate. Thanks to research, we now know that even pets, sweets, and alcohol are major greenhouse gas emitters in households.

According to studies, cats and dogs in American households account for 64 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year. This figure is equivalent to the emissions produced by 13 million gasoline cars.5

Similarly, researchers in Japan have observed that consuming sweets and alcohol is responsible for a much more substantial volume of emissions than previously assumed, and reducing one’s intake of these items can drastically improve their carbon footprint.4

The EPA calculator has not factored in these new, and important, sources of emissions in its computations.

From a research standpoint, this decision seems to make sense. Scientific information is coming out rapidly in this century, and proper validation is required before adopting any new insights.

With this in mind, it is understandable why EPA may have shied away from some of these new researches. Unfortunately, by taking this approach, the EPA may fail to include genuine research insights that could improve their calculator.

Accurate Carbon Calculators Can Help Save the Planet

Initiatives such as the EPA’s carbon footprint calculator are commendable in the fight against climate change. Such tools inform individuals and households of their environmental impact, providing the much-needed information to reduce their carbon footprint.

What is more, by using EPA’s calculator, users are sensitized about their emissions and are more likely to take active steps to reduce them. And of course, if everyone were to lower their carbon footprint, the world would see a drastic change in not only the health of the atmosphere, but of all living things on the Earth.

While the EPA’s calculator is generally suitable for sharing basic emission information at the household level, these three changes could improve its overall accuracy, leading to even more benefits for the environment.

Then, people could utilize this information to offset their GHG emissions with tree planting carbon offsets, purchased through one of the best carbon offset providers, to become as close to carbon neutral as possible. Moreover, when people choose an ecological footprint calculator that does include these three things, the measurement is much more accurate.

By incorporating updated databases, accounting for household food emissions, and continually encompassing scientific findings, the EPA’s carbon footprint calculator can become an even stronger instrument to combat climate change and restore ecosystems.


References

1EPA. (2016). Household carbon footprint calculator. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved July 28, 2021, from https://www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator/

2EPA. (2021, July 21). Greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved July 28, 2021, from https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator

3Goldstein, B., Gounaridis, D., & Newell, J. P. (2020). The carbon footprint of household energy use in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(32), 19122-19130. Retrieved July 28, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1922205117

4Harvard University. (2020, January 10). Beyond beef: Study finds sweets, alcohol and eating out lead to higher carbon footprint in households. Science in the News. Retrieved July 28, 2021, from https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2020/beyond-beef-study-finds-sweets-alcohol-eating-lead-higher-carbon-footprint-households/

5Okin, G. S. (2017). Environmental impacts of food consumption by dogs and cats. PLOS ONE, 12(8), e0181301. Retrieved July 28, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0181301

6USDA ERS. (2021, February 11). Food-related data sources. Economic Research Service – US Department of Agriculture. Retrieved July 28, 2021, from https://www.ers.usda.gov/about-ers/partnerships/strengthening-statistics-through-the-icars/food-related-data-sources/

7Hausfather, Z. (2020, September 17). Guest post: Coronavirus food waste comes with huge carbon footprint. Retrieved August 19, 2021, from https://www.carbonbrief.org/guest-post-coronavirus-food-waste-comes-with-huge-carbon-footprint

8Image Source: Environmental Protection Agency. https://www.epa.gov/