The most surprising emissions source of the year

Weekend driving can still emit tons of carbon (pun intended)
By: Lauren Rosenberg

TerraPass offsets all emissions generated from all employee travel and commutes to our headquarters in downtown San Francisco each year. Most of us are carbon footprinting geeks, always eager to calculate our personal carbon footprints, from activities like weekend driving, flying, and home energy use, to make sure that our footprints are covered across the board. When we saw the findings of our most environmentally-committed  colleague, Nick, we were a little surprised to see how much driving contributed to his total footprint.

Nick is committed to taking public transportation, eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet, and riding his bike around town on the weekends. He lives with his fiance, Jamie, just across the Bay Bridge  in Oakland. She works from home, so their weekday driving is low if not zero. Even with their earth-conscious lifestyles, the second largest source of emissions for them was from driving: a whopping 39%. How does that work out?

They share her 2000 Honda Accord, which gets average milage for a midsize non-hybrid car; around 25 miles per gallon (MPG). Their annual driving, primarily from weekend driving and road trips around California,  is only 7,000 miles per year, or about 3,500 miles per person per year.  The average American drives 12,000 miles per year, and the average MPG  of vehicles in the US hovers around 21, pushing the average driving footprint up to 5.1 metric tons (about 11,000lbs). This puts Nick and Jamie at about ⅓ of the US average, yet they still produce about 7,000 pounds of carbon each year.

As expected for frequent domestic travellers, flying was the biggest contributor to the couple’s carbon footprint. Five round-trip cross country flights for each of them make flying produces nearly 8,000 pounds of CO2, or 42% of their total emissions. Natural gas use for heating came to 10%, electricity 9%.

So should we stop visiting our grandparents over the holidays, or travel to our favorite vacation spots via paddleboat? Of course not. We can still live a full life while being conscious of our actions, and taking responsibility for your carbon footprint.

If you are not lucky enough to have your the offset of your commute carbon footprint sponsored by your employer, consider finding ways to lighten your footprint on a daily basis. If you don’t live in a place with ample public transportation, walk or bike to work. Public transportation is the most efficient method for longer-distance commutes, followed by carpooling. For air travel, always fly non stop, and swap business travel for video conferencing whenever possible.

What was your 2012 carbon footprint? Have you lowered your emissions in the past year? If so, what lifestyle changes did you make?


  1. Matt Kling - January 16, 2013

    If Nick’s car was a Prius, how would this change the analysis?

    • Nick Facciola - January 16, 2013

      With a Prius instead of my 2000 Accord, the split changes to 61% flights and 13% each for driving, electricity, and natural gas for heating. So I suppose that really brings the driving footprint down to the same level as my modest home energy usage- great question Matt! Now when do you suppose we’ll ever see commercially available alternative-fueled jets to bring down my flight emissions???

      • angus powelson - January 16, 2013

        It might be helpful to consider the impact of the car, not just its fuel consumption
        I have read that it is about 6 tons of C02 to make one car. Given that, then the annual cost to the environment includes that 6 tons amortized over the life of the car.
        In California, I see daily cars that are over twenty years old. Mostly Toyotas,
        Cost per year pretty small for these cars, but must be higher where and when car lives are shorter.
        There is also the impact on the waste stream. We are pretty good on the waste steel, getting better at waste plastic, but we have nothing much accomplished for Lithium batteries or computers.
        I hope this is helpful.

  2. Frank Zaski - January 16, 2013

    My biggest emissions surprise is the extent and devastation of methane leakage.

    Methane, the prime ingredient in natural gas, has 25 times the GHG impact of CO2, 72 times the impact in the first 20 years)

    According to the EPA, if the total leakage exceeds 3.2%, naturel gas becomes worse for the climate than coal.

    There are new studies that suggest that methane leakage from fracking alone can be 9%, plus there is additional leakage thru distribution, storage and consumption.

    The leakage rate for pipes alone is estimated to be 1.4%. EPA stated that of the methane released by the natural gas industry, 37 percent comes from transmission/storage, and 24 percent comes from distribution and 27% during production.

    There are 305,000 miles of major US natural gas pipelines (and probably many more miles in our neighborhoods.)

    All told, methane leakage probably far exceeds the EPA estimate (3.2%) making it more of a global warming threat than even coal. Minimizing world-wide consumption of coal, natural gas and oil is the best solution.

    • Sharon - March 27, 2013

      Driving through North Dakota last year, where much of the fracking is underway, you can see north of I94 a huge smoggy cloud, I estimate about 1/4 the size of North Dakota, floating over the land. If you look at that recent picture of Earth lighting (it came out about December 2012 I think, and look at North Dakota, there is a lighted area the size of Chicago. If you zoom in, it’s not as dense, but it’s just as big. These effects are both from the excess methane being burned off in the fracking fields. It’s really a crime, especially in such a pristine area.

  3. brian - January 16, 2013

    Once again the Terra Pass people try to villify the automobile. Give it up will ya…
    The average Leaf blower emits more pollution than even some of the bigger trucks.
    these folks have an itsy bitsy Honda… cut them a break.

    And if you want to pick on Honda- feel free. They make all those nasty 2 stroke and 4 stroke motorcycles and lawn equipment that have absolutley no pollution controls on them….. I repeat – NO POLLUTION CONTROLS.
    Pick on Honda – they make the vile things !

    • Duncan Noble - January 18, 2013

      brian you appear to be confusing different kinds of pollution. The only way to reduce carbon dioxide pollution from cars is to reduce fuel consumption (i.e., increase mpg). Leaf blowers and other small engines emit far less carbon dioxide pollution than cars, but more non carbon pollution. The automobile industry has reduced a lot of non-carbon pollution (e.g., those that cause smog, etc.).

  4. Jamie - February 2, 2013

    Unfortunately for me, it’s been almost the same as the previous year. I think this is due to the fact that I still make the same amount of travelling and I don’t feel like have any other choice than to take my car with me everywhere. After all, it makes sense to be driving around especially if my job requires me to do so.

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