Try to imagine, if you will, the carbon footprint of a single steak — all the resources that went into growing the feed for the cow, all that methane from its farts, the processing and transportation, the cooking. Now imagine repeating that process for not just one steak, but every resource you consume in a year — your food, home energy, transportation, goods, services, even Snapchat. It’s impossible.
And yet, carbon footprint calculators are everywhere. Fill out a 15-minute online questionnaire and a website will confidently tell you something like how your consumption resulted in exactly 10,681 pounds of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere last year.
That, of course, is pure bullshit. There are just too many variables that go both into the design of the calculator and your ability to give accurate responses quickly to assume that any supposed estimate would be real.
But that’s the whole point: Carbon footprint calculators don’t exist to be accurate. They exist to help people get a sense of which daily activities consume the most global resources, and provide suggestions on how to do your part to fight climate change. With that in mind, here are three online calculators that are easy enough to not make you give up in frustration, and useful enough to not be total garbage.
The Best for Saving Your Money
The United States Environmental Protection Agency wins handily for best calculator overall — assuming you’re American. It starts by asking your household size and zip code, which is a great place to start, because that on its own will bring you closer to your actual footprint than trying to break down your spending item by item, assuming the data is good at the population level.
The calculator is simple to use and offers useful hints on questions to help you make your guesses more accurate. Best of all, the suggestions on how to reduce your energy consumption and your bills are embedded right into the calculator, not relegated to some next step at the end. You can play around with it as you go through, monitoring how your hypothetical reductions will change your overall carbon budget.
The Best for Carbon Offsets
There are lots of places on the internet that will sell you carbon credits, a fancy term for paying someone to keep carbon in the ground that would otherwise get burned up. For example, you might pay a landowner to guarantee not to cut down the trees on her property, which she could have otherwise sold as lumber.
These vary widely in quality, and any purchaser would be wise to investigate both the company providing the service and the offset program itself. But if you’re not sure where to start, try Carbon Footprint Ltd. The site comes with a simple calculator that will quickly add up your home and transportation energy, and it works for residents of just about every country in the world.
One of the coolest features on Carbon Footprint Ltd. is being able to add in specific flight itineraries — this improves the accuracy of the tool, and is useful because frequent flyers are often folks who are particularly concerned about the impact of their lifestyle on the environment. At the end, the tool will offer multiple suggestions on carbon offset programs to buy into, and how much it would cost to cover your environmental deficit.
The Best for Exploring Your Curiosity
If you’d like to learn about how your consumption habits fit into a bigger picture, the Global Footprint Network calculator is for you. The tool starts with country or regional data, and then drills down from there. So far, it’s only available for 15 countries, but that’s enough to get a wider perspective and compare across borders.
The interface is fun and easy, and it’s quick to click through and imagine how your resource consumption might be different if you lived somewhere else in the world. And at the very least, it’s educational to learn about global consumption inequality and your role in it.