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Early retirement carbon footprint

I try to be a good citizen, and hopefully I mostly am. These days, being a good citizen includes minimising our impact on the environment, and my instinct is that my carbon footprint is reasonably good. In my favour are:

  1. I (along with my wife) live in a compact apartment (61m² / 657ft²). It's size and recent construction should make it energy efficient.

  2. My estimate is that we drive twice a week on average, which doesn't seem that much.

  3. I don't have lots of stuff, and don't buy things for the sake of it.

  4. I follow a vegan/plant based diet.

On the less good side of the equation:

  1. Our vehicle is a diesel campervan (although it is modern and it's quite small).

  2. In 2022, I took 3 trips that involved flying.

So, when I decided to calculate my carbon footprint, I was expecting to receive a feel good answer and give myself a congratulatory pat on the back. Boy, was I wrong!

The process of calculating my carbon footprint was more difficult than I expected. Firstly, there are a lot of different calculators out there, so which one should we choose? I tried a couple, and they didn't come up with the exact same answers, possibly because they vary a little in the information they ask for. The other difficulty I had is that our heating and hot water is supplied centrally for our apartment complex and I've had to make some assumptions and guesses around this item.

Early retirement carbon footprint
My early retirement carbon footprint - help!

Anyway, without further delay, this is what my carbon footprint looked like - a whopping 16 tonnes. My result has a red background and, in this case, red means bad! Whatever good citizen credentials I imagined I had seem to be in doubt.

Although I'm certainly not the smartest of guys, I figure I'm also not completely stupid. But I was far off the mark in thinking that my small apartment and vegan diet would translate into me being some kind of environmental superhero. I know that flying and driving are not good for the environment, but until I saw the result of the carbon footprint calculator, I had no idea just how significantly bad they were.

The chart below provides a little more analysis:

Early retirement carbon footprint

Aircraft: CO₂ emissions of 5.0 tonnes

This is from 3 trips, which doesn't sound too extravagant.

Trip 1: Switzerland to Finland. Return trip flight time 8h30m for a family holiday

Trip 2: Switzerland to UK. Return trip flight time 3h30m for son's graduation

Trip 3: Switzerland to Philippines. Return trip flight time 36h10m for travel/holiday

I've learned how much flying adds to my carbon footprint, particularly long haul flights, I really didn't realise how significant it is.

Car: CO₂ emissions of 3.1 tonnes

Although we don't use our vehicle (a VW campervan) that frequently, perhaps twice a week, we still cover quite a distance. On average, 25,354km (15,754 miles) per year.

A return trip to see our daughter is 580km (360 miles). Perhaps we did this 6 times.

We drive from France to the UK once a year which is a round trip of 2,170km (1,348 miles).

I drove to Berlin twice last year, a total of 4,500km (2,796 miles).

We took a campervan trip to the South of France last year, I'm guessing close to 2,000km (1,242km).

These trips account for around half the total distance driven - as of now, I can't picture how we get to the other half. It will be interesting to see how this year's mileage works out.

Our emissions aren't helped by our vehicle being a 2 litre diesel campervan which, although modern, is clearly not the most efficient vehicle on the market. We could consider buying an electric vehicle for day to day trips and using the campervan only when we plan to use the "camper" part. However, the manufacturing of a second vehicle would presumably generate CO₂ emissions, so I wonder what the real gain would actually be.

Heating: CO₂ emissions of 4.1 tonnes

To be honest, I'm not sure how much to trust this figure given the assumptions and guesses that I made trying to take account of the centrally provided heating and hot water. We live in a place with snowy winters, so we do need our heating.

Our living area thermostat is set to 22ºC (72ºF) during the day and 18ºC (64ºF) at night

Our bedrooms are set to 17ºC (63ºF) during the day and 20.5ºC (69ºF) at night

We live in a fairly small apartment so we're not heating rooms that we don't use, and the heating is turned off once the weather warms up.

I do need to find out if my assumptions for the centrally provided heating and hot water are correct.

The rest

To be honest, "the rest" is dwarfed by the carbon footprint from my flights, miles driven and heating, so it's pretty obvious where I should focus if I want to reduce my carbon footprint. For information, the societal column, at 1.6 tonnes, is a share of the country's (France in this case) services such as transport infrastructure, defence, healthcare, education, etc split evenly per capital of population.

Next Steps

I'm probably not ready to think through next steps properly, as I only put my numbers into the calculators this morning and the answer was not at all what I was expecting. Yesterday, I was blissfully ignorant, believing my footprint, while not perfect, was likely to be reasonably good.

Now I know that's not the case, but do I stop doing the things I want? Do I abandon the campervan that I wanted for quite a while and give up on the travelling that has both tested me and brought me enjoyment? Right now, I'm not ready to make that choice. However, I am now better informed, and can therefore at least start thinking about those choices.

There are probably others who are further ahead that I am on thinking about their carbon footprint. If you have any comments or suggestions, it would be good to hear them.


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