Yes, We Can Have Bananas!

On the whole, I’m a fan of Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, in which she documents her family’s experiment with a year-long local, seasonal diet. However, I disagree with her about bananas, which she portrays as a Fruit with a Massive Carbon Footprint, never again to be purchased or consumed by anyone who truly cares about climate change. Bananas aren’t perfect – commercial bananas available in North America are not diverse, as they are propagated asexually from just two related cultivars – but nor are they guilty, ripe or unripe, of completely failing the green, low-carbon lifestyle test. Not even close, as it turns out.

As a person who refuses to stop buying (and eating) bananas, I was intrigued by the title of a new book by Mike Berners-Lee: How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything. Of course there are melting glacierloads of books, websites, and blogs that purport to calculate your carbon footprint, advise you on attaining a greener lifestyle, and/or smack you on the nose with a rolled-up recycled hemp newspaper, for your decadent and wasteful Global North lifestyle. But this book seemed different, so I purchased the KIndle version, and was pleasantly surprised by the fact that it is indeed different from the usual greener-than-thou reading fare.

Berners-Lee uses carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) to include a variety of greenhouse gases in calculating the carbon footprints of a diverse array of material goods, activities, comestibles, and events. Most of the book provides detailed accounts and comparisons of these calculations, divided into groups starting with “Under 10 g”, and ending with 100 tons to 1 million tons (+).” For example, you can send a text message, or drink a cup of tap water, for under 10 grams of carbon dioxide equivalents. Bananas and apples are worth 80 g each, while an orange is worth 90 g; these fruits are typically transported by ship, which is a fairly low-carbon alternative. Within the 10 kg to 100 kg range are things like a congested commute by car, 5 miles each way (22 kg), and a night in a typical hotel, including dinner and breakfast (24 kg). Shoes also fall within this range, with Crocs weighing in at 1.5 kg, and leather shoes at 15 kg, carbon dioxide equivalents.

The high-carbon items, above 100 kg carbon dioxide equivalents, are especially interesting, and somewhat depressing. A return flight between New York City and Niagara Falls incurs 500 kg, while taking the train for the same trip weighs in at 120 kg. Flying economy (return) between Los Angeles and Barcelona is worth 3.4 tons, while a return flight between New York City and London costs about half as much, in carbon dioxide equivalents. Basically, flying is an extremely carbon-intensive mode of transportation: the fossil fuel requirements are huge, and the altitude at which most emissions occur must be factored into the environmental damage rating. A heart bypass operation costs 1.1 ton, and a two-car accident that blocks a busy highway for several hours costs 50 tons. A community swimming pool, such as the one near my house where I exercise weekly, is worth 400 tons per year, and one space shuttle flight costs 4600 tons. The 2010 World Cup in South Africa weighed in at a massive 2.8 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents.

One idea that Berners-Lee suggests is attempting to attain a 10-ton per year lifestyle. One return flight, even within the US, would make this goal very challenging. I have just one flight such planned this year, for a grant review session in Washington DC; for the same trip, I’ll also incur 3 nights in a hotel, with meals. I’ve consoled myself somewhat for the lack of time to travel for fun this year by joining knitting clubs, in which participants receive kits with hand-dyed yarn, patterns, beads, and accessories by mail. However, most of the yarn is wool-based, made from sheep which, like their ruminant relatives cows and goats, emit significant amounts of methane. Still, not as bad as flying around the country to attend workshops and meetings.

There are a lot of simple and relatively painless changes that can be made to reduce one’s carbon footprint, however, and those suggestions are one of the things I liked about Berners-Lee’s book. I also liked his descriptions of his calculations, and the inclusion of a section on “where the numbers come from.” I found the additional section on the carbon footprint of food especially instructive, with “low-carbon food tips”, and appreciated the analysis of the cost efficiencies of things such as attic insulation and offshore wind farms. I skipped over the section “for climate change skeptics” because, well, I accept the assumptions that climate change is a big deal, and that humans are causing it. I suspect that if you’re a climate change skeptic, you won’t like the book much – ditto if you’re locked into denial about the size of your own carbon footprint.

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19 Responses to Yes, We Can Have Bananas!

  1. Interesting read, Kristi. Does the book mention carbon offsets? When I can afford to, I buy my offsets at the same time as any long flights. From what I’ve read the system is susceptible to scams and greenwashing, so I pay a wee bit more for the “support green energy projects in developing countries” option rather than the cheaper “pay for tree planting that was already going to happen anyway” option. This probably does more to counter my own guilt than climate change, though…

    • KristiV says:

      This particular book doesn’t discuss carbon offsets. It does, however, offer lots of alternatives for reducing one’s carbon footprint, for any given activity or item – things like buying a new hybrid vs. maintaining an older vehicle that has decent gas mileage, or flying first class vs. economy. And whatever you do, don’t buy asparagus air-freighted from Peru in January! ;-D

  2. Steve Caplan says:

    I appreciate the attempts to generate more awareness for our impact on the environment–and thus can see how quantifying carbon-footprints might be a useful. But I am a bit leery about taking these exact numbers too seriously.

    After all, as you note, coronary bypasses cost 1.1 ton, and I’m certain that many other medical procedures–such as dialysis, transplants, etc. are similarly carbon-expensive. I shudder to imagine how “expensive” my own research program would be considered.

    In fact, come to think of it, it would be easiest on the environment if many of us were just to “up and die”. So, I’m with you–no ban on bananas…

    • KristiV says:

      I forgot to mention that Berners-Lee does discuss, at length, the probable “error bars” for almost all of his calculations. At no point does he pretend that he’s presenting exact calculations – this in spite of the fact that he has a consulting business that provides estimates of carbon footprints for various companies, cities, etc. There’s one calculation for the carbon footprint of a university in the UK, which averages 5.5 tons per staff member and student annually.

      • Steve Caplan says:

        Does he make any calculations for the carbon-footprint calculation for the publication and selling of his book?

        *as he slides away cynically into the rain forest to poach another banana*

        • KristiV says:

          He does, in fact, give an estimate for his book, but admits that it does not include the electricity consumed by his computer or the footprint of his publisher’s offices. He compares the footprints of books printed on various types of paper, as well as those of e-readers (such as the Kindle which I used to read his book).

  3. cromercrox says:

    Is Mike Berners-Lee by any chance related to Tim Berners-Lee, reputed to have invented Teh Interwebz? I think we should be told.

    • KristiV says:

      Don’t know, but he is also British. I thought you would be pleased that your Crocs have a relatively low carbon footprint … I usually favor leather shoes, but they’re made from methane-belching cows. Perhaps I should switch to Crocs, or vegan leather Birkenstocks.

  4. chall says:

    Interesting… I’ve cried when I think about what I’ve done to my carbon footprint since I relocated to the US (trips back home to Europe etc…) but I try and think that before I moved here I had a bike and used it and never owned a car before…. and ate seasonal fruits since it was simply too expensive to do otherwise 😉 And here, I love the farmer’s market so I’ll support local farmers – but maybe that is more political than carbon footprint?

    As for bananas though…. I would recommend an interesting documentary named “Bananas”, winner of Sundance award two years ago I think. [Big banana company] wanted it stopped completely but settled for not having it showed in the movie theaters. I know you can find it on Nexflix though.

    • KristiV says:

      Haven’t seen the “Bananas” documentary, but sounds interesting. For people who are concerned about carbon footprints, I think that balance, and picking one’s battles, are important. You might fly to Europe to visit family and friends, but you don’t have a car, and you’re careful about food purchases. I wouldn’t discount eating local and seasonal foods at all – that’s a significant reduction.

      I don’t fly much at all, but I drive a mid-sized car (Honda Accord coupe) 12 miles round trip to work each day – I time my commute to avoid most traffic, but still, it’s a car commute. What makes me want to cry here is the amount of energy required to keep the house reasonably cool much of the year. Even with the contributions to the grid from wind farms, it’s unsustainable. Don’t have to heat much, if at all, in the winter, but the air conditioning footprint is horrific, makes me ill just thinking about it. I also have a used truck and trailer, because I think that when livestock need to be transported, it should be done safely. I won’t pretend that keeping horses is carbon-friendly either. They’re not ruminants, but growing, cutting, and transporting their fodder has a significant carbon cost. Also have to factor in the farrier visits and farm calls from the vet, for Coggins and floats (we always worm, and often give the vaccinations ourselves).

      • chall says:

        Thanks for saying that my local buying might make somewhat of a smaller difference 🙂

        ahh… the car commute. I have that nowadays (Southern US…. buses? ehh…not so much) Although I do try and walk/bike some days when it isn’t HOT and sunny since I burn. It’s hard though, since I can only go back and forth from work pretty much that day then.

        I do think the AC cooling is what’s killing my footprint now. I’ve tried to refrain from cooling until it’s reallly hot outside (85<) and keeping the temp not too cool either but still…. I can see the bill and know I'm wasting so much. If I ever bought a house here I'd start with a timer thermostat in order to keep it nongoing during the day at least. In my dreams solar panels would be less expensive and possible to put on every roof to help with the AC and electricity…. we sure do have the sun to keep it working during at least five months imho.

        I wonder where the research is on that, haven't looked in a long while…

  5. Rob Townley says:

    great post. Have you ever tried to calculate your occupational C-footprint? Those health-scientist/molecular biologists among us must have the largest occupational C-footprints of anyone in the modern world. Everything I need for my work is made in a laboratory, frozen in plastic and shipped overnight in a refrigerated airplane.

    • KristiV says:

      Thanks, Rob – I agree that those of us in cell and molecular biology must have huge occupational carbon footprints. I don’t think any of us wants to return to the days of glass pipettes, roller bottles, and microcapillary tubes, but I shudder to think of all the plastic pipettes, tips, multiwell plates, TC dishes, etc. that I’ve been responsible for over the years. Not to mention the cage cleaning and autoclaving done on behalf of my mice, and the production and transport of various reagents and consumables. The analysis would be pretty sobering. Even the teaching component of my job has a large carbon footprint, with all the paper for exams (really need to move to electronic exams, but there are still a lot of bugs to surmount), gloves for gross anatomy lab, laundering scrubs, embalming and cremation of cadavers, etc.

  6. Bob O'H says:

    That sounds fascinating. What’s the carbon footprint of the average Beast?

    • Bob O'H says:

      And after further thought, what’s the offset for eating said beast afterwards?

      • KristiV says:

        If it’s recycled Beast, I don’t think you have to worry about the carbon footprint. And presumably there’s no methane production, though the inevitable feline and canine gaseous emissions might contain other toxic compounds.

        The parrots are probably more carbon-friendly.

  7. vrk says:

    Did you know that you exhale a few grams of CO2 per minute when you cycle to work? Or in banana equivalents, about one banana per minute. Do you need to consider the tradeoff between eating and breathing?

    I know, CO2 you breath out is recycled in the carbon cycle, but the point remains that putting a CO2 value on every consumable is a red herring. Economists like doing the same with money (witness the recent valuation of nature by the National Ecosystem Assessment).

    It’s a red herring, because focusing on individual items hides both the massive infrastructure and manufacturing costs needed to produce those items in the first place. Consider text messages. You need a mobile phone to send a text message: most (something close to 80%, but I don’t have a link now) of CO2 emissions and energy use over the lifetime of a mobile phone come from manufacturing and shipping, not from actually charging and using the phone. I have no idea how much it costs to operate the millions of mobile phone antennas and message exchange units (in the UK alone), either in terms of money or destruction to the environment, but you can bet your bananas that it’s a large number.

    There are a plethora of other infrastructure components to mobile phone networks — I’m not an expert. You can put a CO2 figure on an individual text message by dividing the total CO2 emissions of the infrastructure by the number of text messages sent, as I imagine is the most common way to calculate it. But does this mean that by not sending a text message, you’re “saving” 10 g of CO2? No, because the infrastructure has been built and will remain in operation regardless of how many text messages an individual user sends. Obviously the infrastructure can shrink or grow if large numbers of people decide to increase or decrease their phone use, but you yourself can’t control that from your mobile phone — while putting a figure on the text message suggests the opposite.

    Coming back to edibles… bananas, exotic fruit, soy, coffee and other things imported from far away also carry huge social justice and ecological costs that a single CO2 figure ignores. While I agree that ships are by far the best option to transfer stuff between continents, it does matter a great deal where and how the bananas were grown. Monoculture? Pesticides? Industrial fertilisation? Child labour? Profits only a multinational corporation? Habitat loss? Soil erosion? These are all things that need collective action to fix, which is not what micromanaging assumed individual CO2 emissions encourages.