Cambridge (MA) - Time to start the finger-pointing again. A class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has begun to track the carbon footprint of different lifestyle in different nations. And the picture painted for the U.S. isn’t pretty: Even the most power conscious people in this country use more than twice the energy of the average person around the world. If you are looking for people with the worst carbon footprint, look among the super-rich such as Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey, MIT says.
It is common knowledge that energy use in the U.S. has been at obscene levels for decades and that nations around the world aren’t happy with the fact that less than 5% of the world’s population is consuming almost one quarter of the energy available worldwide. A new study published by the MIT sheds additional light on this scenario and claims that no matter who you are, you are estimated to contribute at least twice and as much as five times as much greenhouse gas to the atmosphere as those living in the rest of the world.
The MIT class said that it compared the carbon emissions of Americans in a variety of lifestyles ranging from the homeless to multimillionaires, from Buddhist monks to soccer moms and compared them to those of other nations. What is interesting is that the group found that your carbon footprint impact rises with your income. The class estimated Bill Gates’ impact at 10,000 times the national average.
So, what about the average Americans and the ultra-energy conscious? There does not seem to be much hope that Americans can consider themselves as energy-conserving as people living in other countries anytime soon: "Regardless of income, there is a certain floor below which the individual carbon footprint of a person in the U.S. will not drop," says Timothy Gutowski, professor of mechanical engineering, who taught the class that calculated the rates of carbon emissions.
This "floor" below which nobody in the U.S. can drop, no matter what their energy choices are, turned out to be 8.5 tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions, the class found. That was the usage calculated for a homeless person who ate in soup kitchens and slept in homeless shelters. If you look at a self-sustaining level, the person with the lowest energy usage was a Buddhist monk who spent six months of every year living in the forest and had total annual spending of $12,500. His carbon footprint was 10.5 tons. The average annual carbon dioxide emission per person was found to be 20 metric tons, compared to a world average of four tons.
The carbon footprint calculation was based on someone’s impact on the environment, including the array of government services that are available to everyone in the United States. These basic services-including police, roads, libraries, the court system and the military-were allocated equally to everyone in the country in this study. Services that are more specific, such as education or Medicare, were allocated only to those who actually make use of them. The energy impact for the rich was estimated from published sources, while all the others were based on direct interviews, MIT said.
What appears to have a substantial impact on greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. is the economical effect of saved energy and its "rebound effect". "When you save energy, you save money," Gutowski explains. "The question is: How are you going to spend that money?" For example, buying a hybrid car may save you gas money, but people are likely to spend that extra cash something that may have an even larger carbon footprint, such as a long plane trip.
The biggest factors in most people’s lives were the well-known obvious energy users: housing, transportation and food. "The simple way you get people’s carbon use down is to tax it," Gutowski says. "That’s a hard pill to swallow-politicians don’t like to step up" to support such measures. Absent such national actions, he says, it is important to study "what role consumer choices can play" in lowering the nation’s carbon emissions.
If nothing else, the members of this class got a whole new perspective. "The students really got into it," Gutowski says. "It raised everybody’s awareness about the issues."
The results of the study are scheduled to be presented on this May 19 at the IEEE International Symposium on Electronics and the Environment in San Francisco.