# Displaying carbon footprints

2010-05-17

Environmental activist organizations are always dreaming up new pranks to try to get media attention. Here’s one that occurred to me.

You could build some pedal-powered vehicles, a bit like bicycles. They would differ because they would be geared to allow someone to slowly pull a heavy load, rather than to move just themselves relatively quickly. Behind them, representatives from different countries could tow weights equivalent to the mean amount of carbon dioxide equivalent emitted each year by their fellow nationals.

You could have a little procession, arranged from the countries with the lowest per-capita emissions to those with the most. The representative for Bangladesh would only need to tow 900kg. That would be equivalent to a cube of water 97cm to a side, which would weigh about as much as a small car.

Following could be a representative from Sweden towing a 7.5 tonne cube, approximately two metres to a side. It would weigh about as much as three small cars, plus a Hummer H1.

Then, you could have an American towing a 22.9 tonne cube of 2.84 metres to a side. That’s akin to about two Greyhound buses.

The unfortunate Canadian and Australian would be hauling 24.3 and 25.9 tonnes, respectively. Those are cubes of 2.9 and 3.0 metres, each equivalent to about a 20-foot shipping container. That is akin to towing a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Those people would not be moving quickly.

Another way to look at this is to say that it would take the entire payload capacity of the Space Shuttle to carry the average Canadian’s average annual emissions into space.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Byron Smith May 18, 2010 at 8:42 am

I like the idea, although intuitive estimates of volume (and of the weight of water) are often significantly out. How many people, when asked to estimate the equivalent of two Greyhound buses in cubic volume of water would say a cube just under 3m on each side? Outside the developing world, we rarely carry large volumes of water and so my guess is that most of us would underestimate water’s weight.

Though speaking of visual metaphors to demonstrate energy usage, I heard of a TV programme (though didn’t see it and don’t know the name) where a typical family were moved into a typical suburban house with cameras to record their movements. They thought they were were in a reality TV show, but actually the show was watching their unthinking energy usage during the day and next door was another building with a team of people on bicycles, who had to provide the electricity demanded by the family’s activities through pedal power. Seeing the army of pedalling bikes needed to power a few household appliances was very effective (or so I hear from those who saw it).

Alena May 18, 2010 at 9:38 pm

I like this comparison as I can never visualize how much carbon dioxide individuals actually emit. The reality show idea is also a practical demonstration.

R.K. May 18, 2010 at 9:43 pm

[I]t would take the entire payload capacity of the Space Shuttle to carry the average Canadian’s average annual emissions into space.

Well there goes my carbon disposal plan!

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