Carbon Calculator Systems
If sustainability is important we need to be able to measure it. Unfortunately the notion is often used very loosely to cover a wide range of concerns, each measured in a different way, with different units. You cannot simply add everything up.
For reasons given elsewhere, I and many others have concluded that most serious environmental problems correlate strongly with greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) provided that all gases are included and are given appropriate equivalent 'forcing' values. These emissions can be accurately measured, and crucially, you can add them up. They can therefore be used as an averaging indicator for a wide range of physical environmental trends.
The resulting 'carbon footprints' are so useful and versatile that we have developed a substantial 'stable' of calculator systems for measuring carbon emissions of individuals, households, organisations, business enterprises and events. These are usually spreadsheet-based, so a user simply has to answer questions or enter numbers and the results are calculated automatically.
Very often what users find most helpful is not so much the total 'footprint', which is just a number and sometimes hard to relate to anything real, but the way the footprint breaks down into specific categories that users can relate to their choices in real life. This breakdown pattern we call the 'Fingerprint', and it differs widely from one person to another, just like real fingerprints.
For this reason we call our series 'Fingerprint Calculators', and they have an important distinctive property: that the pattern of the average individual fingerprint pattern is the same as that of the national fingerprint. This is simply a corollary of the assumptions on which the calculator is based, but imbues it with extra philosophical and political voltage.
Most effort has been spent on household fingerprinting, and a quick introduction can be found in an interview conducted by the Open University:
A short Interview introducing the Open University Calculator 2009 (doc)
Practical household calculator systems have to manage a tension between precision and concision. If they are to be fully accurate, very many questions have to be asked and the calculator questionnaire gets tediously long. On the other hand if they are too short they are highly inaccurate and lack credibility. Over the years we have sought a reasonable compromise, and a recent example is a household calculator used by activists to promote carbon awareness at festivals.
Festivals Fingerprint 2014 (Excel Spreadsheet)
Slightly more precise, is one used for university student exercises:
Classroom practical household calculator 2014 (Spreadsheet).
This is usually used to probe lifestyle choices for different kinds of households, and has generated some suggestive results about the relationship between income and emissions:
An extremely quick early version was turned into a phone app by my former colleague Alex Randall:
Carbon Gym Mobile Version 2010 (spreadsheet)
Quantitative carbon analysis can be applied in many other ways, and for several years we measured emissions associated with one of the UK's most environmentally-conscious festivals, showing yearly transformations of both footprint and fingerprints, guided in part by the results. Here is a report for 2012:
Other calculators have been devised for institutions. Here is an example, for rural museums:
Rural Museums calculator 2007 (Spreadsheet)