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Reducing the carbon footprint of being a designer

We’re just too much

Most things we do result in a carbon footprint. Drive to work? That’s around 4.7 tons a year. Steak for dinner? 27Kg of CO2 each time. The typical American is responsible for about 18 tons of CO2 a year(unsurprisingly people in other nations tend to have far smaller footprints).

Published figures on individual footprints only refer to our personal footprint: they don’t include the energy used by carrying out our jobs.

I measured the CO2 of the common activities in my job (as a UX designer). My total comes to about 20 tons of CO2. This is just the footprint created by doing my daily design and consultancy activities. The footprint of the sites and apps I make is another story (for another post).

My carbon footprint at work

Which activities produced the most CO2? I’ve listed them in a public spreadsheet.

The spreadsheet has a reduction column so I can compare my current behavior to sustainable alternatives. Some of the largest savings I’ve found so far include:

  • Half my projected footprint for the year comes from flying – 9 tons. And that’s only for 2 trips. If I can avoid those flights, I halve my footprint.
  • Cycling instead of driving (half the time): saves 2750kg for a short commute*
  • Drinking black coffee made at home instead of buying a latte: saves 160kg
  • Buy a new computer slightly less often: saves 180kg a year
  • Using a mobile phone – 4g LTE networks are incredibly power-hungry – those base stations are really pumping it out.

Reduction

Unsurprisingly, reducing air travel is the top priority if I want to reduce my footprint. Other lifestyle and work-style changes cuts that further, to 5 tons.

Generalizing

The energy-using activities of a UX designer probably isn’t very different from the average white-collar worker, except with more user interviews and post-its. It seems plausible that you could use these figures as a starting point when thinking about many other kinds of office work.

Everyone’s circumstances are different, especially their commute and their work-related travel. My job entails a fair amount of travel, and my carbon footprint reflects that.

Scaling up

I don’t know how many UX designers there are in the world. The biggest LinkedIn UX group has 70k members, for what that’s worth. If we all had a 20t footprint, and all reduced it down to 5t, then: 70k people x 14t = a potential 980,000t saving – very worthwhile.

What about offsetting?

If you want to pay off your carbon guilt, you can – the typical cost for a ton of offset is $19. I could write off my emissions without changing any behavior for $380 (20 tons x $19). But.

The problem with offsetting is that buying one doesn’t magically remove the CO2 I’m responsible for from the atmosphere. Instead, the money goes to schemes that might have positive environmental impacts in other ways. Which is great, but when we’re staring down the barrel of a greater than 4c temperature rise, then CO2 reduction has to come first.

Disclaimer

Calculating carbon footprints is imprecise. Most measures of carbon for any given product or activity are approximate, and dependent on local variables. I’ve used the best data I had to hand (some sources listed end of article).

Regional differences also make a big difference – the carbon cost of electricity is about 1.2lb of CO2e / kWH in the United States (yay coal), but much lower in Iceland (where there’s lots of CO2-free Geothermal power).

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