U.S. Carbon Footprint Difficult to Reduce According to a new survey, even the people in the U.S. with the lowest energy usage have a carbon footprint about twice as high as the average global citizen. What changes can an American make to have a significant effect on emissions?
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U.S. Carbon Footprint Difficult to Reduce

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U.S. Carbon Footprint Difficult to Reduce

U.S. Carbon Footprint Difficult to Reduce

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This is Talk of the Nation Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. Lowering each of our carbon footprints is a goal of fighting global warming and climate change. The footprint is a measure of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases you put in to the air. The bigger a car you drive, the more meat you consume, the more coal-generated electricity you use, the bigger the footprint is.

And Americans, as you may have guessed, have some of the biggest footprints in the world, and now it turns out that downsizing that footprint may not be easy. According to the researchers at MIT, Americans who consume the least amount of energy, who tried the hardest to make that footprint as small as possible, still have a yeti-sized footprint twice the size of the average global citizen.

Timothy Gutowski is a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT in Cambridge. He led a class project that looked at the lifestyles and spending patterns of different Americans and estimated their carbon footprint.

And in writing in the IEEE International Symposium on Electronics and the Environment, he found that even the most modest lifestyles in America, like Buddhist monks and the homeless, have impacts much larger than the world average. He joins us now. Welcome to Science Friday, Dr. Gutowski.

Dr. TIMOTHY G. GUTOWSKI (Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Hello. Hi. I'm glad to be here.

FLATOW: How do you measure the footprint? In your study, did you measure the flow of money?

Dr. GUTOWSKI: We did. We used - actually, this was a class project, and we used a number of tools that were already available. So, the way you get at this problem, when you want to look at all the different pieces, or one way to get at this problem is to look at the economic exchanges between different sectors in society. So, we used what is called "environmental input/output model."

And so, we had to connect that. We had to put together several pieces which start with people spending patterns, and then translate those spending patterns in different sectors of the society and different sectors of the economy into different kinds of impacts including carbon, global warming, energy used, that sort of thing.

FLATOW: And you found what - I guess, what's expected is that, if people who spend a lot of money have a bigger footprint, but you also found that people who don't spend a lot of money happen to - don't have a choice in having a bigger footprint, sometimes.

Dr. GUTOWSKI: Well, we have a carbon-intensive society, and by and large, I mean, you may argue with the, you know, new answers of this, but by and large, we try to take care of the people that the lower end of the spectrum. And so, there are a number of subsidies that come in to play to support people.

So, we look, for example, the person with the lowest carbon footprint was a homeless person. Well, this homeless person would eat at soup kitchens and would sleep in homeless shelters. Well, somebody has to run the soup kitchen. It could be a local charity. It could be, you know, a number of different ways. But these all have some carbon, some energy use and some carbon associated with it.

FLATOW: And so, they - it really was out of their control, that footprint?

Dr. GUTOWSKI: It is. It's - I mean, what this says is there's a certain part that's in your control, and then there's a certain part which is systemic. I don't know if I would say it's completely out of your control, but it - what it points to is that we have a systems-level problem and we need a systems-level solution.

FLATOW: Well, you know, you can see that in everyday life, for example. If you work in a modern office building, and you want to save energy, you can't open the windows in these buildings, can you?

Dr. GUTOWSKI: Precisely. I have the same problem in my office here.

FLATOW: I mean, I - sometimes the air conditioning is on when it's cold inside. When you could just open the window and get a little bit of fresh air, you can't do that.

Dr. GUTOWSKI: Well, I mean, it brings like - you know, I thought of this the other day, that it emphasizes noise control and quiet. I mean, if you want to encourage people to just open their windows and not turn on the air conditioning, then it's got to be quiet outside...

FLATOW: And I guess...

Dr. GUTOWSKI: Or they won't do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, I guess that means you're talking about a whole infrastructure that needs to be rethought, if you're thinking energy-conservation-wise.

Dr. GUTOWSKI: Well, if we want to get serious about this - first of all, let me just say that you can make - I mean, to half your carbon footprint would be a dramatic improvement. The lowest carbon levels we saw were less than half of the American average. But these were generally not lifestyles that people aspire to. OK?

These were people living on very little either by choice or not by choice. But - so it will be a challenge, but there's some room there for - there's significant room for improvement. But it would certainly help if we both address it at the individual level and at the system level.

FLATOW: And since you were - you were following the money, if you can figure out a way, I guess, of spending less money, then we'd have a smaller carbon footprint.

Dr. GUTOWSKI: Well, that's true. I mean, it's - when you look at the different levers that you can manipulate to try to improve things, growth in the available spending is one of them.

FLATOW: Now, you had your students who were studying this, did they learn anything of, you know, about their lives while they were studying it?

Dr. GUTOWSKI: Well, I think we all did. I mean, I think we all went away sort of examining how we lived and what we do. In fact, this year - so we're actually following up on this again with the students in the class this year. And they're going out and interviewing people and then running through the model and then coming back and making suggestions on different ways they could lower their carbon footprint.

And then, we're asking them, you know, are these things feasible? Is this something you would do? And we don't have all the answers in, but yeah, it indicates that people are willing to do a little bit. But some of these changes would be big sacrifices would require a huge change in lifestyle and people generally aren't willing to do that.

FLATOW: Thank you, Dr. Gutowski, for taking time to be with us.

Dr. GUTOWSKI: You're welcome.

FLATOW: Timothy Gutowski is professor of mechanical engineering in MIT. And he led this class project that looked at the lifestyles of Americans and estimated their carbon footprints.

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