What Is Our Carbon Footprint in Costa Rica? Wish I Knew

Our Electric Bill - Should I be sad or glad?

As usually happens when I receive our monthly electricity bill, I feel a combination of consternation and satisfaction. Consternation because the bill is high, but satisfaction that our total kilowatt-hours for the month are a fraction of what we consumed in the States. The reason the bill is so high is simply because electricity is expensive in Costa Rica despite most of it coming from hydro or other renewable sources. On average, we pay about 26 US cents per KwH, compared to about 9 cents when we were in Oregon.

Calculating our Household Carbon Footprint

Anyway, the cost of electricity is beside the point. What I really wanted to know was if our apparent lower energy usage meant our carbon footprint was low enough that we might even be approaching carbon neutrality. In my dreams, right?

I chose three carbon footprint calculators off the first page of a Google search and ran each one. Not surprisingly I guess, there is almost no correlation by results between the three. Here's the final tally from the first one, hosted by The Nature Conservancy:

Final carbon footprint tally from Nature Conservancy
Nature Conservancy Calculator - Result for our 4-person household

Keep in mind that I'm trying to find the total for the entire household of 4 people. Some of the calculators seemed geared only to finding your personal footprint, but it would be nigh impossible for me to estimate that on an individual basis. 

So, the first tally, from the Nature Conservancy, is 51 metric tons (57 U.S. tons) of carbon yearly, which is about half what an average 4-person household in the U.S. puts out, but more than twice the global average. 

The pie charts on the left can be misleading, because the pies are actually different sizes, so they should correct that somehow. Also, this one only works for the U.S., but it didn't seem to me from the questions that they ask that it couldn't work in our case.


World Wide Fund for Nature, UK

Next up are the results from World Wide for Nature in the UK. This one makes it difficult to put in accurate data. It doesn't ask for specifics such as how many KwH we use monthly, just what fuel you use to heat your house (we don't use any). It seems to be trying to slot you by lifestyle.

Carbon footprint results from WWF UK
World Wide Fund for Nature UK - This is for 4 people, so only 1.0125 planets needed.

Again, the result is for 4 people, so we're really only using our theoretical share, we don't need those extra planets. Note, however, that their estimate of carbon tons used is less than half of what the Nature Conservancy estimated.


Carbon Footprint, Ltd.

The third calculator comes from Carbon Footprint Ltd., which name makes them sound pretty focused on what I want to know.

Carbon footprint result from Carbon Footprint, Ltd.
Carbon Footprint, Ltd. estimate of our global impact on climate change
This calculator is very detailed. It asks for your country of residence, lets you specify details about your vehicles and even takes into account your buying and financial habits, which get put under Secondary. It also yielded the lowest number of metric tons, about 16 and a half for the entire household. The footprint graph on the right seems way out of proportion, however.


The Big Question: What's My Carbon Offset?

Despite having a lower CO2 footprint than we did in Oregon, I'm not entirely satisfied with our CO2 impact compared to our Tico neighbors. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of Ticos live in urban environments where mass transportation is readily available and where houses and lots are tiny. We have 3 hectares of land, most of which is covered with secondary forest. But, how do I calculate, what, if any, offset we could claim from that?

While carbon footprint calculators are ubiquitous (and all with a pitch for donations to offset your nasty-ass carbon footprint), carbon offset calculators seem nowhere to be found. OK, I didn't search very long, maybe there are one or two in the dark corners of the Internets somewhere. I did find some rough figures for carbon storage in northern climate forests though: about 1 to 5 U.S. tons per acre of woodland.

I have zero clue as to how the annual carbon storage of a tropical highland forest compares with a pine forest in, say, Minnesota, but it seems to me, with the unending growing season, that it might be comparable or higher.

So, let's say it's close to the same and pick the middle of the range at 2.5 U.S. tons per acre. I estimate we have 2 hectares of forest, so ... all tallied ... carry the 1, divide by 2, ... it looks like we could claim 9.6 metric tons of carbon offset. Which is, perhaps, ... maybe about half of our greenhouse gas emissions if I roughly average the calculator results. 

It would be, of course, nice to get the net down to zero, and I'll ponder that, but I'd also like to be able to start off with better estimates. Accuracy of these calculators seems to not be the first priority compared to trying to generate guilt (not undeserved) in the populace in order to rake in a few more donations for a good cause.


  1. Those carbon footprint calculators never seem too accurate to me, especially since they don't do much to consider offsets. Tropical forest does loads to absorb carbon and, most importantly, you're not chopping it down or burning it. A huge percentage of GHGs result from slash and burn logging in developing countries like CR where the people need to farm and ranch to live. It's a huge problem in Brazil. So don't listen to those calculators- with 2 hectares, I bet your footprint is 0!

    1. I agree, though the CFLtd calculator would probably work for most people. Our footprint might be higher though due to the nature of the roads where we live, which makes our fuel consumption higher.

      One thing that really stood out to me, however, was just how much CO2 you are responsible for when you take an airline trip! I think the CFLtd calculator showed 7 tons our of our 16 was produced by two RT trips to Europe that my wife took. Yikes.


Thanks so much for your comment! - Casey