Being Carbon Neutral in Houston—Impossible? Well….

Here is my carbon footprint for the year 2010.

Before we do our calculations, some background.

Per Capita Footprints Today

According to the World Bank, the US per capita CO2 emissions is 19.3 metric tons (using 2007 data). That compares to per capita rates of 9.8 tons for Japan, 8.3 for Poland,  4.5 tons for Mexico, 9.6 tons for Germany, 1.4 tons for Albania, 5.0 tons for China, 1.4 for India, 1.9 for Brazil, 10 for Russia, 31 for United Arab Emirates, 17.7 for Australia and 9.0 for South Africa. (See note at bottom).

Parenthetically let me add that CO2 is not the only greenhouse gas, merely the most pervasive. From what I’ve seen, the estimates of CO2 track fairly well with overall greenhouse emissions.

Generally, I’ve seen estimates that for the world to stay within the 450 parts per million of CO2, the US needs to reduce its carbon footprint by 90%. From the 2009  Copenhagen Diagnosis document, I’ve seen this estimate:

To stabilize climate, a decarbonized global society – with near-zero emissions of CO2 and other long-lived greenhouse gases – need to be reached well within this century. More specifically, the average annual per-capita emissions will have to shrink to well under 1 metric ton CO2 by 2050. This is 80-90% below the per-capita emissions in developed nations in 2000.

My Lifestyle

Before I share some numbers, I should mention that my lifestyle is certainly not typical.

  • I am single and live in a relatively small apartment in west Houston.
  • For a good part of 2010 I worked from home. Also from September 2010 to now, I have been out of work.
  • I do not own a washer or dryer. I typically use the apartment’s washing machines and use a clothes line inside my apartment to dry them.
  • I took one trip to Austin in March 2010 and one airplane trip to Ohio. This is slightly less than usual.
  • I own a 1998 Toyota Corolla which runs at 30 mpg.
  • I drove 5582 miles in my Corolla and 150 miles in a rental car during my trip to Ohio.
  • My electricity provider is Dynowatt’s 100% renewable energy plan.
  • I own a small dog.
  • I rarely eat beef (maybe once a month) and try to buy organic. My  general rule of thumb is to prefer organic fruits and vegetables as long as their price is no more than 25% more expensive than conventionally grown food.
  • I bicycle in my neighborhood maybe twice a week to run errands and go shopping.

In summary,  my lifestyle is frugal but not radically devoted to conservation. About the only major lifestyle change I enacted in 2010 was to use a clothes line for drying clothes. This turned out to be a LOT easier than expected and even more convenient.

Home Electricity


In summary I used 5968 watts of energy in my apartment during 2010. This seems to be about 5% less  than what I used last year.

Because I chose a 100% renewable energy plan, I can say that none of the watts I used came from fossil fuels. However, if I were using a typical coal/natural gas plan, the carbon footprint would have been 5,900 pounds of coal per year (i.e., 2.7 metric tons).

In Houston and other cities it is relatively easy to choose a 100% renewable energy plan. When you go to and enter your zip code, you will see the available energy plans. Note: to see the 100% renewable energy plans, you must select 100% renewable at left.


In general, I have noticed that 100% renewable energy plans in Houston hover about 5-10% above the rates for nonrenewable plans.

As an aside, let me say that electric providers will use all sorts of machinations to prevent you from paying the current market rate – even if you choose a variable rate plan. For example, if you choose a 10 cent per kilowatt plan on variable rate and then two months later the same plan sells for 8 cents per kilowatt, you are not guaranteed to take advantage of it; you have to take the trouble to call the energy provider and tell them you need to switch to the current rate. (I have not been been happy with Dynowatt in general and plan to switch very soon). It is with reluctance that I can say that the most reliable way to secure a low rate is to take a 6 or 12 month contract and then mark it on the calendar to call them on the day it expires.  I can pretty much guarantee that these companies will raise the rates on you when you’re not paying attention.  This is true regardless of whether you are using a renewable or nonrenewable plan.

Cities like San Antonio and Austin do not participate in the privatized energy market. Instead a city utility bills you, and often you do not have much choice about your energy mix. For example, CPS of San Antonio had 10.9% wind, 15.8% natural gas, 38.1% coal and 35% nuclear in 2008. Austin was almost as bad (though it is currently trying to improve its Renewable Energy portfolio). The good news is that both city utilities offer special green plans, but you have to request it specifically (and make sure you say  “100% renewable).”   With San Antonio’s plan, you can choose Windtricity where you pledge to pay an extra amount on your energy bill, but you have to calculate the amount to pledge (CPS will not do it for you).

Calculating my Carbon Footprint

My calculations are relatively easy to compute. Dozens of online carbon calculators exist, but I will be using EPA’s Household Emissions Calculator.

  • 4,923 lbs of CO2 per year for my driving.
  • 0 lb of CO2 per year for my electricity (because I use 100% renewable energy).
  • 747 lb of CO2 for my Ohio flight. (calculated by this flight carbon footprint calculator).

Total ==  5670 lbs of CO2 for 2010  (2.57 metric tons)

Buying a Carbon Offset

Here is a list of companies which sell carbon offsets with their offset certifications. Here is another list.

There is some controversy about whether these offset companies are correctly calculating the amount of  carbon they are offsetting. I’ve been told that Green-e is the best carbon offset certification, so look for that.

Terrapass is a leading green-e carbon offset seller. Currently, the price for 1000 lb of CO2 is $6.  For 5670 pounds the means the price I’d need to pay to be carbon neutral in 2010  is $34.02.

There. We’re done!

What have I forgotten to calculate?

Some might say that my numbers are funny. Are they?

Let us look at the assumptions behind my calculation.

  1. I assume that my 100% renewable energy provider in fact is directly providing wind power. In fact, I am authorizing an electric provider to purchase wind power on the open market, but the nearest source of electricity more like than likely is using natural gas or coal.  This is true but irrelevant. In essence I am funding the construction of additional windmills somewhere in Texas. I will leave it to the utilities and power providers to figure out the most efficient way to produce electricity according to my specification. The important thing is that I am sending a message to my power provider that I refuse to pay for any energy generated by dirty sources.
  2. I have not taken into account the carbon footprint of a pet.  There is a rumor going around that pets use as much carbon as an SUV. However, this rumor was analyzed and debunked pretty thoroughly. Basically the original calculation assumed that dogs were being fed the equivalent of sirloin steak. In fact, most dogs are fed waste products which would otherwise have been discarded.  The analyst writes, “But since most dogs get their calories and protein from the waste products of people food, the idea that the environmental impact of dog food is additional to the impact of human food is simply wrong.”
  3. I assume that carbon offsets  accurately offset the increased carbon emissions.  I have not taken into account the fact that using offsets often results in increased consumption. I don’t really wish to address this point except superficially (for more, read this). Basically, carbon offsets work only when their impact has been properly assessed and verified by trusted  third party observers.   These third parties may not be perfect, but they are the best available means we have today. Let’s assume the worst case scenario and that these offset sellers only offset 50% of the actual carbon footprint. In my case, that just means that I need to $68 instead of $34 for 2010. That isn’t a showstopper. Finally about carbon offsets leading to increased consumption, that’s ridiculous for my case because my emissions are less than they were in 2009 and probably won’t increase. But even if offsets did result in increased consumption, at some point the resulting higher prices of carbon offsets is going to constrain my overall  pattern of consumption.
  4. I have not taken into account the carbon footprint of  the manufacturing process used to produce the products I bought or own  (such as my laptop or my ipad).  I am sure that products like the iPad and my laptop have a substantial carbon footprint  (see this long discussion).  I am sure my electronics equipment and food used a lot of carbon to produce it, but that is not my concern; it is the company’s concern. The problem is that the company is not providing me with this information (and probably never will) until there is some law requiring it.

How can the consumer ever know accurately the carbon footprint of the manufacturing processes used to produce something they buy?

There is an easy answer to this question: build it into the price. How can companies do this? The only way to  is to make companies calculate its own carbon footprint. Sure, for some, their price may go up as a result (resulting in  lower consumer demand), but at least consumers will have an accurate signal of what the true price of a consumer good is.  Complaints that it is impossible to calculate the carbon footprint of manufacturing begs the question: they are impossible to calculate only because the companies haven’t factored it into the price; they are essentially hiding the cost of such externalities from the American consumer.  By refusing to introduce some form of carbon pricing, the American government essentially makes it impossible to know the true carbon footprint of anything.

There are two ways you can allow the free market to solve this problem:

  1. companies can label the carbon footprint of each thing they sell.  That way customers can know which products to avoid or to buy (or the amount of offsets they need to buy) OR
  2. companies can simply factor the carbon footprint into the price.

Relatively speaking, implementing #1 would be a bureaucratic nightmare. You’d have to enact truth-in-labeling laws, plus you’d be forcing consumers to make thousands of microdecisions (and  keep track of the  tally over the year). I personally would favor a product that claimed  its manufacturing process to be carbon neutral, but without a way to independently verify this, it would be futile.

Implementing #2 would be relatively easy because every entity   knows what carbon emissions they are directly responsible for. Supermarkets know about their  building’s energy costs; they do not know the carbon footprint of transporting bananas or the carbon emission of  beef. On the other hand, a cattle producer is likely to have a much better idea of the carbon emissions that he is directly responsible for. And so on.  Yes, I’m sure there will be disputes about how to calculate. On the other hand, I can almost guarantee that Exxon or Shell  of Archer Daniel  know exactly what carbon emissions are resulting from  their manufacturing process.

The big question mark of course is China. How can an American consumer know for sure to trust the reporting from a Chinese factory about the carbon footprint of a consumer product like the iPad? The answer: they don’t, and that is why Apple (an American company) needs to be accountable for this question. That is also why reform needs to be implemented as high up as the World Trade Organization to ensure that these carbon accounting methods are transparent and verifiable.

Think of it another way. Chinese factories are producing  a disproportionate percentage of the carbon-intensive  products while the American manufacturing base is slipping. What would happen if we had true carbon pricing? Prices on Chinese imports would probably be much higher in comparison with American companies. Prices on items produced in the US would become more competitive as a result. That can only be  a big win for American manufacturing and the American economy.


James Fallows has slightly different numbers from his 2010 article about coal. I’m not sure why his numbers differ (although Fallows interviews a lot of energy experts, so I suspect his numbers may not be “official” but based on private estimates for the current year 2010).  The relevant section is worth quoting in its entirety:

On a per capita basis, that would mean about six tons for each of the planet’s 6-billion-plus people. But of course it doesn’t work that way. For the United States, emissions are about 25 tons per person. For Europe as a whole, they’re about 11 tons. (The difference is smaller houses, smaller cars, fewer sprawling suburbs, and in the case of France, much heavier reliance on nuclear power to generate electricity. Nuclear plants are expensive and obviously create waste-disposal problems, but they emit practically no greenhouse gases.) Japan’s level is slightly below Europe’s. For China, the emission level is about eight tons per person. Overall, China’s economy is more energy-intensive than America’s or Europe’s—its bias toward construction and heavy manufacturing, plus its on-average shoddy standard of building insulation, mean that it takes more fuel, electricity, and raw energy to produce a dollar’s worth of output in China than in the U.S. But overall living standards are still so much lower in China that per capita emissions there are barely one-third the U.S. level. India’s per capita emission level is about three tons per year, less than half of China’s (because India has so many fewer factories). For Kenya and other barely industrialized countries, it’s about one ton per person per year.

The range of these figures suggests the technical challenges ahead. As one climate scientist put it to me, “To stabilize the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, the whole world on average would need to get down to the Kenya level”—a 96 percent reduction for the United States. The figures also suggest the diplomatic challenges for American negotiators in recommending that other countries, including those with hundreds of millions in poverty, forgo the energy-intensive path toward wealth that the United States has traveled for so many years.

Indeed, in comparisons between the United States and China, the emissions figures probably understate the real gap in per capita energy use. David Mohler is the chief technology officer for Duke Energy Company, which is based in Charlotte and is a leading electricity and natural-gas provider in the Carolinas and parts of the Midwest. He travels frequently to China, and he took me through a comparison of electricity use in the two countries, as a proxy for overall energy use and emissions. At face value, he said, there was about a 5-to-1 difference between U.S. and Chinese per capita electricity-use levels. Each American is on average responsible for about 13.6 megawatt-hours of electricity use per year, counting residential heating and lighting, a pro-rated share of industrial and commercial demand, and so on. For each Chinese, the average is about 2.6. “But around half of that Chinese electricity consumption was for manufactured products for export,” Mohler said. That is, China’s surge in electric capacity has disproportionately gone toward its factory- export boom, rather than toward home air-conditioning and lighting, elevators, TVs and computers, electric cars, or any other in-China use by Chinese people (though to see a blazingly lit Chinese city at night is to recognize that plenty of power is already being used). “So in a sense, their ‘real’ per capita use is only about 1.5 megawatt-hours,” Mohler said, “and ours, counting what went into the products we import, could be 10 times that much.”



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One response to “Being Carbon Neutral in Houston—Impossible? Well….”

  1. Rob Preece Avatar

    Hi Robert,
    Interesting analysis. Congrats on doing so well and being responsible, especially given your employment situation. I really don’t understand the resistance to a carbon tax. Clearly carbon has costs, and those costs are being paid by someone. Making those costs explicit is the capitalistic way…should be huge with the Tea Party set. It also would generate significant tax dollars which could be used to reduce income or payroll taxes or corporate income taxes, which means not only would we correct a distortion caused by not including costs, we’d also reduce the distortion caused by other taxes. In California, we’re also concerned about water. My water-friendly yard would have made my Dallas neighbors sick.

    Rob Preece

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