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How Bad are Bananas?

2011-01-23

How Bad are Bananas – The Carbon Footprint of Everything by Mike Berners-Lee is one of my favorite recent book finds.  In it, Mike attempts to calculate the carbon footprint of various items and activities in everyday life.  A few examples include: an email, a web search, a pint of tap water, a newspaper, 1 kg of steel, a night in a hotel, a bottle of wine, a new car, a car accident, and – of course – a banana.  While the numbers that he comes up with are informative, the biggest value for me came from the explanations of how the values were arrived at and the discussions of what factors are really important.

After reading the book, it is hard to escape the fact that almost everything we do has a carbon footprint associated with it.  Looked at another way, virtually everything we do involves the burning of fossil-fuels.  Consider the act of cycling a mile.  Based on data for calories consumed from cycling and the caloric content of various foods he comes up with a range of values from 65 grams of CO2e if you get your energy from bananas to 260 grams CO2e for a cheeseburger-fueled ride to a a ridiculous 2800 grams CO2e if you eat asparagus imported via air-freight from around the world.  Of course, as he points out, these are estimates and exact values will also depend on your level of fitness, your weight, how fast you go and a bunch of other factors.

One of the examples that sticks in my mind is the footprint associated with a single red rose.  His results indicate that a rose grown in a heated greenhouse in the Netherlands will have about 6 times the footprint of a rose grown in Kenya and air-freighted into the UK.  It highlights the fact that buying local, while a good idea for many reasons, may not always result in a lower carbon footprint.  Caveat Emptor!

As of this writing (January 2011), the only place that I have found this book is on Amazon UK which is where I got my copy last November.  Since then they have released an eBook version for the Kindle and, starting in March and April 2011, both the Canadian and US Amazon sites will be carrying the book.  They show a different cover so I’m not sure whether this is the same book with a different look, an update to the first UK edition or a version that has been North-Americanized.  I will update this review if and when I find out (Update Here).

One warning note.  The book is written for someone living in the UK.  That means that is uses a lot of UK terminlogy that most of us in North America may not be familiar with including terms such as lorry, lolly, punnet, and petrol.  More importantly, the calculations are meant for residents of the UK where distances are much shorter than in North America so Canadian or American readers can probably expect that equivalents footprints for this side of the Atlantic are different and in many cases probably higher.  According to the Carbon Footprint of Nations ranking data from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology for the year 2001, an average UK resident has a carbon footprint of about 15 tonnes CO2e per year whereas in Canada and the US these values are 20 and 29 tonnes CO2e respectively.

The author, Mike Berners-Lee, is the director of Small World Consulting based in the UK.  If you want to see some of their work, the carbon footprint report that they created for the chain of Booths food stores is well worth looking at and can be found on the Green Issues page on the Booths web-site.

If you are interested in reducing your carbon footprint, this is a good book to have in your library.

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  1. How Bad are Bananas? (Update) « PonderTerra

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