How Nature.org Can Improve their Carbon Calculator Results

By Jazmin Murphy | Updated on August 27, 2021

Carbon calculators are critical for empowering individuals to reduce their environmental impacts effectively. Yet, they’re not all made equally. Even calculators belonging to prominent carbon offset companies, such as the Nature.org carbon calculator, have room for improvement.

A good carbon footprint calculator encompasses various options to determine how many greenhouse gasses (GHGs) your lifestyle is contributing to the atmosphere. This figure is then used as a good indicator of environmental damage, as GHGs cause global warming, which then ravages ecosystems.

Therefore, needing a carbon calculator that has accurate results is crucial to the fight against climate change.

Keep reading…

A view of the tops of various trees during fall, including a deciduous tree and pine tree, with an 8 Billion Trees watermark.

The Value of The Nature Conservancy’s Carbon Calculator

The Nature Conservancy, otherwise known as Nature.org, carbon calculator integrates several aspects of the average American’s everyday life, as well as occasional energy-consuming pleasures. The categories include:

To frame all these data points, the calculator takes personal details into account. For instance, users can enter information on the number of people who live in their household, where they live, and their gross annual income.

Though it may seem that such socioeconomic factors are arbitrary within the greater context of environmental degradation, they do help clarify how you might contribute to climate change, even on a small scale.

This type of information is essential for two main reasons. First, experts have shown that climate change consequences will be “more severe” for socioeconomically marginalized communities than their more affluent neighbors. The effects may be more robust in areas with “temperature increases and precipitation decreases.”1

Because of this disproportionate vulnerability, progress in climate mitigation must be tracked in these areas.

Additionally, a person’s socioeconomic status and their geographic location are major indicators of how they interact with the environment. Scientists assert that “most socioeconomic factors contribute to [the] improvement of energy diversity.”1

In other words, people with higher incomes may have more access to various energy solutions, like solar panels on their houses or hybrid-electric vehicles.2 This enables more affluent societies to be more climate-conscious. At the same time, having more money may predispose someone to consume more energy through recreational activities like commercial air travel, or boating.

Financial challenges may also make lower-income communities more susceptible to transportation-related emissions and food and water insecurity. Such issues might also bar people from opportunities to make climate-friendly lifestyle changes.

These are only a few of the strengths underlying the Nature Conservancy’s calculator. It considers measurable, relevant factors to provide users with an accurate emissions estimate. However, given that there are only four categories that contribute to the calculations, it may lack practicality.

What Makes a Good Carbon Calculator?

A good carbon calculator must consider as many relevant aspects of the person’s life and societal context as possible. Along with your socioeconomic status, several additional factors may increase your likelihood of having a more substantial environmental impact than someone else.

For example, the area where you live may have an entirely different carbon footprint than a neighboring country, state, or province. A recent study evaluated land-use practices in Veracruz, a region known for using nearly 68 percent of its territory for pasture and agricultural activities.1

In and of itself, this is a strong indicator of someone’s energy consumption. People who live close to the area have local access to various crops, like coffee, corn, beans, and even resources like hevea rubber. Since Veracruz residents do not have to import such foods to the extent that other regions do, they have a lower carbon footprint in terms of food.1

With that said, it’s great that the Nature Conservancy’s calculator integrates data about the person’s eating habits – including daily caloric intake and the types of consumed food, such as meat, dairy, and grains. It’s also excellent that the calculator considers the intersectionality of these habits and where someone lives.

Additionally, using an individual’s travel habits to determine their environmental impact is practically valuable. In the United States alone, transportation accounts to 29 percent of the country’s greenhouse gases (GHGs).3

An 8 Billion Trees graphic showing the activities that individuals performed to reduce carbon pollution in 2018, showing how 44.3% of these individuals purchased higher efficiency appliances, 24.7% added insulation to their homes, and 23.8% planted trees.

However, here’s where one of the calculator’s weaknesses become apparent, as it only requests details about:

  • The type of fuel used (gasoline versus diesel)
  • The vehicle’s mileage
  • Public transit
  • Air travel

Not only does this not account for nuances in their travel patterns (i.e., their vehicle’s make and model, the type of public transit they use, how frequently they fly), but it fails to address other climate-affecting aspects of the transportation sector.

A total list from the US Environmental Protection Agency includes:4

  • Cars
  • Trucks
  • Trains
  • Ships
  • Boats
  • Airplanes
  • Other

Of all these, the EPA reports that “passenger cars, medium- and heavy-duty trucks, and light-duty trucks… pickup trucks, and minivans” are responsible for more than half of transportation sector emissions.4 With that said, neglecting to incorporate details about the types of vehicles people use could be critical to providing an applicable carbon footprint value.

Effective carbon calculators should also consider a person’s spending habits. This is because consumer activity contributes to the emissions produced by the companies they support. Some common examples include visiting amusement parks that use electricity, or buying goods that need to be shipped domestically or internationally.

Despite the Nature Conservancy’s calculator’s strengths, the organization could improve several facets for better results.

Room for Improvement in Nature.org’s Carbon Calculator

Many aspects of the Nature Conservancy’s carbon calculator leave more to be desired. It addresses only four aspects of an individual’s life, although there are numerous more that should be factored in to establish an accurate carbon footprint. A recent 2019 study found that all the following elements contribute to your footprint:5

  • Food
  • Housing (e.g., square footage, electricity, water and fuel use)
  • Mobility or transportation
  • Goods (i.e., clothes, daily necessities, furniture, home appliances, electronics, hobby items)
  • Leisure services

Furthermore, the categories it does consider are not explored thoroughly enough. This is clear throughout the data input process, particularly in fuel, food, and shopping.

Caveats in Users’ Fuel Consumption

The calculator does not ask users what kinds of vehicles they drive, yet it also doesn’t inquire about the type of fuel they use. The only options available are Diesel or Gasoline, but these aren’t the only fuels available on the market.

As of 2019, biofuels comprised 7.3 percent of “total motor gasoline, distillate, and jet fuel consumption.”6 This equates to more than 13.8 billion gallons of fuel, about 4 percent of the fuel Americans consume every day.6,7 The number is expected to rise to 9 percent in 2040.

Restricting users to two choices that may not reflect their current fuel consumption patterns is inaccurate and will skew the results, making it less effective for mitigating individual climate impacts.

A worms eye view of redwood trees in Sequoia National Park with the 8 Billion Trees logo.

Drawbacks of the Food Calculations

The Nature Conservancy carbon calculator’s food category is lacking as well. The importance of food in your carbon footprint is highly nuanced… It cannot be boiled down to a calorie count, or arranged by sections of the nutritional pyramid.

The ingredients in your food play a significant role in your meals’ environmental impacts. For example, Snacks containing palm oil will be far more burdensome on the planet than those without it.

Palm oil accounts for roughly 40 percent of the world’s yearly need for vegetable oil. This is then used as food for human consumption, animal feed, and fuel. Unfortunately, its production is costly for global ecosystems, contributing to 3 percent of deforestation in West Africa, a whopping 50 percent of deforestation in Malaysia Borneo, an as well as other devastation.8

The specific sources of your food influence the likelihood that this ingredient, among other harmful ingredients, will be in your food. Ethical Consumer reports that these are just some of the brands and companies that use palm oil in their foods:9

  • Walmart
  • Nature’s Bounty
  • Burger King
  • Subway
  • TGI Friday

This means eating out, versus growing your own food, versus buying from a local farmer’s market can all expand or shrink your carbon footprint. Yet, the Nature Conservancy’s calculator does not take this into account.

Problems with the Shopping Category

Concerning shopping, the types of products you’re buying and where they come from are critical to determining the purchase’s environmental impact. Supporting a local mom-and-pop shop is not nearly as detrimental to the environment as buying products on Amazon.com every day.

Recent studies revealed that delivery vehicles used to transport products to online shoppers could increase in number by 36 percent in top cities by 2030, contributing further to CO2 emissions and traffic congestion.10

There is also the matter of how consumers use their products in a sustainable fashion. Consumers who purchase single-use plastics over eco-friendly reusable products, or participate in fast fashion more so than thrifting, will have a significantly higher carbon footprint.

The Nature Conservancy’s calculator only asks consumers about whether they buy “goods” or “services” and how much money they spend monthly. This provides a very superficial look at how a user’s shopping patterns may influence environmental degradation. However, it does not draw on enough details to give a practical calculation.

Find a Carbon Calculator with Accurate Results

The Nature.org carbon calculator is essential to empowering individuals to join the climate fight. It hits nearly all the right points, showing users some of the most environmentally impactful activities they engage in daily. Still, there is room for improvement.

It appears as though their primary categories were boiled down to only a few options that may not accurately reflect people’s real habits, especially concerning the nuances and caveats associated with fuel use, shopping, and eating.

These oversimplifications may lead to inaccuracies in carbon footprint assessments. For that reason, it’s best to go with a trusted carbon footprint calculator that incorporates the little details to ensure your calculations are right on the mark, preparing you for a better future with a few clicks of a button.


References

1Esperón-Rodríguez, M., Bonifacio-Bautista, M., & Barradas, V. L. (2015). Socio-economic vulnerability to climate change in the central mountainous region of eastern Mexico. Ambio, 45(2), 146-160. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-015-0690-4

2Liu, J., Fujimori, S., Takahashi, K., Hasegawa, T., Wu, W., Geng, Y., Takakura, J., & Masui, T. (2020). The importance of socioeconomic conditions in mitigating climate change impacts and achieving sustainable development goals. Environmental Research Letters, 16(1), 014010. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/abcac4

3US Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Carbon pollution from transportation. https://www.epa.gov/transportation-air-pollution-and-climate-change/carbon-pollution-transportation

4US Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Sources of greenhouse gas emissions. US EPA. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions#transportation

5Koide, R., Lettenmeier, M., Kojima, S., Toivio, V., Amellina, A., & Akenji, L. (2019). Carbon footprints and consumer lifestyles: An analysis of lifestyle factors and gap analysis by consumer segment in Japan. Sustainability, 11(21), 5983. https://doi.org/10.3390/su11215983

6Shi, E., & Hanson, S. (2020, March 9). EIA projects U.S. biofuel production to slowly increase through 2050 – Today in energy – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=43096

7USDA Economic Research Service. (2021, July 20). U.S. Bioenergy statistics. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/us-bioenergy-statistics/

8US Energy Information Administration. (n.d.). Use of gasoline. U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/gasoline/use-of-gasoline.php

9Meijard, E., Brooks, T. M., Carlson, K. M., Slade, E. M., Garcia-Ulloa, J., Lee, J. S., Santika, T., Gaveau, D. L., Juffe-Bignoli, D., Struebig, M. J., Wich, S. A., Ancrenaz, M., Koh, L. P., Zamira, N., Abrams, J. F., Prins, H. H., Sendashonga, C. M., Murdiyarso, D., Furumo, P. R., & Macfarlane, N. (n.d.). The environmental impacts of palm oil in context. Nature Plants, 6, 1418-1426. https://www.cifor.org/knowledge/publication/7898/

10Ethical Consumer. (2020, December 7). Brands and companies that use palm oil. https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/palm-oil/brands-companies-use-palm-oil