It’s a red letter day when a chap gets to be on NPR (Fresh Air) and in the New Yorker in the same week. Michael Specter was talking to the urbanely detached Terri Gros about his article on the problems of computing the carbon footprint of products. It recalls my discourse on the greenness of Peruvian white asparagus. It turns out, however, that it’s a lot more complicated than you might think. Undoubtedly there is far greater public awareness of climate change in England, though I am not entirely convinced that anything really substantive is being done at the individual level. I don’t, for example, see any public outcry against low-cost short-haul air travel, perhaps one of the greatest contributors to the nation’s carbon footprint; and then there are all the parents dropping their little darlings off at Dulwich college, creating massive traffic jams generating masses of carbon, instead of making them walk or take the bus.
Anyway, back to the point after my little digressive diatribe. The piece makes the point that the carbon footprints of produce are not intuitively obvious. Did you know, for example, that a Kenyan tulip is less carboniferous (to misuse a word) than a Dutch tulip if purchased in the U.K. Further, the New York wine drinker who places environmental consciousness above personal taste should purchase Bordeaux rather than Californian cabernet. Apparently, more carbon is generated trucking the Californian wine to NYC than is generated by boating the Bordeaux equivalent across the pond. The calculations are very geo-specific since the picture shifts when one is making the comparison in Chicago. Am I correct in thinking that my Oregon Pinot is eco-acceptable if quaffed in G.E., or should I be importing grossly over-priced Burgundies instead?
One can envisage carbon consciousness reaching absurd levels. It is not outside the realm of possibility that products will one day have their carbon footprint on the label. I understand that one brand of English crisps (Walkers) already does so. More carbon is emitted in producing the crisps than is contained in the bag. Will people stop eating crisps now? I doubt it.
The calculation of a carbon footprint is fantastically complex if one tries to do it properly. At first glance, the idea of accounting for the energy consumed in making something seems simple enough; but begin to dig deeper and the calculation takes on a fractal quality, becoming longer and longer at ever-decreasing dimensions of scale. So it is unlikely that we will be padding round the grocers with our carbon footprint calculators any time soon.
The take-away is though that some qualitative comparisons are still possible and that our choice of products can be guided to some degree by these kinds of comparison. Yet, as the earlier examples show, the results are not always obvious. So back to the asparagus: is the white greener than the green or not?