The Personal Sustainability Challenge


This paper is designed to find out more about the consequences of personal and household decisions for greenhouse gas emissions. You will be asked to develop and carry out a personal program of greenhouse gas reduction, and report on the results. On the basis of this experiment with your own lifestyle, you will analyze whether we as Americans can change our behavior in time to prevent dramatic climate change and its consequences. By most accounts, this goal requires at least a 75-80 percent reduction in annual emissions from the United States by the year 2050.

You will carry out a lifestyle assessment and an intensive experiment on how you can reduce your emissions. The paper should describe and reflect on your lifestyle analysis and the initial experiment you are required to undertake to reduce your emissions.

Here are recommended steps for going about this experiment, and analyzing the results:

1) As an initial step in the exercise, identify areas of your personal consumption that are promising for you to pursue reductions in your own greenhouse gas production.

A crucial component of this exercise is the use of greenhouse gas calculators, which estimate your emissions automatically when you enter selected data. Over the last several years these have proliferated, but they vary widely in precision, accuracy and general usefulness. Since there is variation even among reputable calculators, more than one is usually necessary to establish what the emissions are. Some of the best calculators target only a specific product or activity, such as travel, rather than all sources of emissions.

To calculate your emissions and reductions for purposes of this exercise, we have selected two of the most comprehensive and precise calculators, plus at least one other. You will be required to calculate results using two of the three most highly regarded calculators, along with one other. You can use any combination of the following calculations, as long as two of them are from choices a, b, or c. (For example, you can choose the Nature Conservancy Calculator and the Cool Climate Calculator, and then the gas mileage calculator).

a) The Nature Conservancy calculator, maintained by an environmentalist interest group,
b) The Cool Climate Calculator maintained by the UC Berkeley Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory,
c) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calculator, maintained by the chief environmental agency of the federal government, and
d) At least one other calculator of your choice (e.g, the gas mileage calculator at EPA).

Web links to the first three calculators along with an assortment of others may be found at the end of this paper.

Use the calculators first to estimate your existing rate of greenhouse gas emissions. To see what difference you can make, experiment by entering in realistic alternative behaviors or products. Results will generally be given on an annual basis (i.e. pounds of carbon per year if you use your stereo a certain number of hours a week). This gives you a chance to assess the cumulative results of any change in behavior over time.

2) Based on this information, develop a plan of action for a short term program of greenhouse gas reductions. You will have flexibility to set when the plan will be carried out, but the period should last no less than two days (48 hours). Using the calculators and any other sources available, try to maximize your reductions.

3) Now carry out your plan. Make sure you keep track of the kinds of reductions, the obstacles you encounter, and any other ideas that come to mind. It will be a good idea to keep a running diary of your reflections as you go along, to generate material for your report.

4) Finally, write up the report on your exercise. There is no required format for the report, but it should include answers to several questions:

a) What were the main components of your greenhouse gas emissions? Be as specific as possible, taking into account the variations in the calculators. A table of your emissions according to the different calculators is highly recommended for this part of the exercise.

b) What sources of emissions did you succeed in reducing, and how much difference did it make? How much were your emissions reduced? (Compare cumulative annual rates before and after to assess this.) Again, specific figures (even if estimated) should be used to assess your reduction.

c) A critical analysis of your experiment and its implications is crucial. What does your experience in the exercise say about how difficult it will be for Americans to attain the reductions that will be necessary to address the greenhouse gas problem? Did you encounter obstacles in accomplishing your reductions (e.g., in finding a product that would make it possible, or using a more sustainable form of transportation)? How could those obstacles be overcome?

Were there aspects of the exercise that were surprisingly easy or fun, or that had other benefits (e.g., saving money)? If so, what does this suggest about what might make reductions easier for everybody?

On the basis of your experience, can we expect that Americans will be able to make many of the changes that are necessary through personal choices alone?

d) For a sustained program of reducing your greenhouse gas emissions, what other measures does your experience suggest you should undertake?

5) Assessment. will be based on
a) the thoroughness and accuracy of your assessment of possible reductions,
b) the seriousness of your program for reductions,
c) the thoroughness and reasonableness of your reporting of the results,
d) the critical thinking you demonstrate in your answers to questions 4(c ) and 4(d), and
e) the style and organization of your report.

You are required to use a standard bibliographic form and scholarly citation form for the references to your paper, including listing in a bibliography at the end. You will be expected to use a standard citation form (the American Psychological Association is the standard form in many of the social sciences, but University of Chicago or Modern Language Association forms are permissible) and to apply it consistently. Attach printouts from calculators used in your research to the back of your paper.


Required Calculators:

The Nature Conservancy (Environmental Advocacy Group) Calculator:
The Nature Conservancy’s carbon footprint calculator estimates how many tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases your choices create each year. The calculator examines the following categories: home energy, transportation, food/diet, and recycling/waste. You can select to calculate your personal carbon footprint or your household footprint. To help reduce your climate impact, climate-saving tips and ways to offset your carbon footprint are given.

The goals of this project are to help individuals and households understand the relative, cumulative impact of everyday activities on climate change, and provide resources to help users reduce their climate footprints. The calculator examines the following areas: Transportation, Housing, Food, and Goods/services. The site also contains a widget with helpful suggestions for reductions that you can also use to calculate the effects from specific measures. Once you have viewed your results, you can compare your emission equivalencies with the EPA Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator at

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the main U.S. administrative agency in charge of environmental policy, maintains one of the most detailed, up-to-date and useful calculators:

Other Lifestyle Calculators:
Carbon Footprint calculator:
One of the more detailed calculators, maintained by a UK company that sells carbon “offsets” to companies and households to compensate for emissions. The calculator includes a variety of transportation choices as well as relatively specific entries for various choices about eating and shopping.

Gas Mileage Impact calculator:
This site offers specific calculations of emissions by vehicle make and model. By choosing the year, make, and model of the car, can get the information on the carbon footprint, annual fuel cost, and the MPG of your car. This site is especially useful if you have future plans to purchase a new vehicle.

Conversion/Comparison Calculator:
EPA Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator:
This helpful all-purpose site enables you to convert kilowatt-hours of electricity or therms of natural gas into tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Also converts vehicle miles traveled to greenhouse gas emissions, based on national averages. But if you already know the make and year of your vehicle, it is best to use another site that allows this more specific data to be entered as the basis for calculating vehicle emissions. The site also enables comparison of different greenhouse emissions sources: you can estimate how many cars your overall energy reductions effectively take off the road, or how many railcars of coal you save!

Sample Solution