Books on climate change tend to finish with a list of things we can do to help: buy a green bag, ride instead of drive, hang up your washing rather than using the dryer, turn off the lights, decrease consumption … The thing is, when it comes to the big scheme of things, comparing our individual actions to the actions of corporations, government and military: what difference does it actually make?

I want to know where I should be putting my effort: is more effective for me to cut my personal emissions, or write letters to encourage governments or corporations to cut theirs? Does the carbon emissions from the military trump that of residential, or the other way around? What is more important? What difference can I actually make? And how?

I’ve spent days searching websites, carbon footprint calculators, emailing data providers, for some kind of comparison. I found some great tools, but failed to find any real answer to my question. It’s made all the more complicated my mixture of measurements. This is my first attempt to pull together what I’ve found, and start some kind of comparison for myself…

Apologies in advance for the mixture of Aussie/British/American spelling & measurement systems. Who is to blame for complicating that process –  someone’s idea of a funny joke around 2-300 years ago? Measurements index: 2000 pounds = one tonne; 1kg =0.001 tonnes; 1kg = 2.2 pounds; I’ll mainly use tonnes, kg & grams where I can.

Let me start on a positive note. According to The Guardian, our efforts to reduce carbon dioxide are actually reducing our world emissions (down arrows & percentages per country show the already-industrialised countries are decreasing their emissions, while the industrialising countries are increasing, which makes sense…):

Download PDF here:

What China and the Middle East do is pretty hard to change (— and anyway you hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:5)).

I will try to starting locally… what part of these emissions relates to me? Where are these emissions coming from? In the UK the sources are broken down into:


Again I ask: what of this relates to me?

Whether or not I am happy with the situation, I must recognise the fact that Australia rides on the back of America’s defense and security expenses, and shares the same queen as Britain. Countries in the industrialised world are pretty similar and completely interconnected, and have a similar(ish) breakdown of emissions sources. In a round-about way the government, corporate, agriculture emissions of most of the “western world” relate to me – providing products, services and safety to me and others like me.

But, which of these emissions can I actually control?

How much CO2 is created by…? This really awesome visual image interactive page tells you the CO2 created by lots of little things from flying London to Tokyo (1056kg) to your average car (5.1 tonnes) to an apple (80g)

Using this simplified calculator: we can estimate our footprint for: home, driving, food, and flying. We can see that the worldwide average person uses 4.4 tonnes of carbon, while the typical American (or Australian, including myself) uses approx 17 tonnes.

But, what does 17 tonnes actually mean???? This might be useful for more info on CO2- Frequently Asked Global Change Questions (from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center): I’m still left woefully confused.

What is the relative impact of my actions, compared to with the actions that I have no power over? This pie chart is based on Manchester, but let’s imagine my breakdown is probably similar.


So let’s assume that when the defense & governmental services are spread out, we are each responsible for around 7%. How much is that when totaled for the population of the US & countries with tight military relations to them?

Ben from Ben & Jerry icecream uses Oreos to show the possibilities not directly related to carbon/climate change, but related to the budget and all round movement toward a better world (given the need to reduce poverty in order to stabilize population):


I do think some of this military budget can help. Surely the USA doesn’t need weapons to blow up the world 7-times over. Surely the power to do it once is enough…

I have searched and searched for the “military ecological footprint” without much success, other than noting that the US Military accounts for 80% of the US government’s energy consumption, most which is fossil fuel (reported the Pew Research think tank’s Project on National Security, Energy and Climate). And that (apparently) the Department of Defense is “going green” … trying to reduce their “eco bootprint”: hm.

I found someone else frustrated by the lack of information:

Karbuz notes that “The Kyoto Protocol (December 1997) exempts the emissions associated with U.S. military activities outside USA.” He also notes that “These emissions are not counted in the national inventory either. In fact, they are not counted in anyone’s inventory.” It is argued that “of the petroleum purchased by the military in 2008, the Pentagon’s Defense Energy Support Center says more than a third—47.4 million barrels—was burned overseas. According to EPA, that translates into 20.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent, more than the total emissions of 129 individual countries. And that figure does not take into account the greenhouse gas emissions associated with other aspects of international military activity—like the dropping of bombs and destruction of buildings—on which there is little scientific literature and even less desire on the part of political leaders to address.” Humph. I don’t really know where to start on checking Karbuz’ sources, though what he says makes a lot of sense. His estimate is for a total “bootprint” of 75 million tonnes.

There’s quite a difference from an estimated 20 tonne footprint per person, and 75 million tonne bootprint for the military.

Stepping back to see even this 75 million in perspective, I may have found the answer to my question:

20 tonnes x 20 million people = 400,000,000 (400-million) tonnes for the collective footprint of Australians. Or in the case of total number of Americans, 20×300 million people = 6,000,000,000 (ie 6 billion tonnes).

So the collective impact of our individual consumption far outweighs the military. (ie 6 billion tonnes for Americans is far greater than 75 million tonnes for the US Military).

Unless the military expenditure is already included in this 20 tonnes each.. but then that would be probably only around 7% (per the Manchester pie chart) and hence only a small part of our individual costs.

I’m not sure exactly where this analysis is going. My mind needs time to process the above analysis, and figure out where it’s at in solving my original question. If anyone has any links that might help such a comparison, please share it with me!