Teaching

Calculating Carbon Footprints Is a Popular Exercise. But Is It Teaching the Right Lesson?

By Arianna Prothero — June 13, 2023 7 min read
Doodles related to green jobs, climate change.
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Is having students calculate their own environmental impact an empowering way to give them some control in the face of climate change? Or a problematic activity that puts too much of an emphasis on individual responsibility?

The carbon footprint exercise—where students calculate how much greenhouse gases their daily activities produce—has been a mainstay in many classrooms. The exercise can help teachers contextualize abstract concepts such as climate change and how human activity, from travel to diet to shopping, can have wide-ranging effects on the environment.

But as the real-world consequences of a changing climate become clearer with worsening wildfires, air pollution, heat waves, and flooding, some educators and experts say it’s time to reevaluate whether having students calculate their carbon footprints and examine how they can personally change their habits is a helpful teaching tool.

Their concern is that such assignments obscure the huge role that industry and manufacturing play in global warming and puts the onus on individuals—such as students and their families. About one third of teens say that climate change makes them feel afraid, anxious, or helpless, and some teachers worry that assignments that focus on the limited actions students can take will make them feel guilty and exacerbate their feelings of helplessness.

Nancy Metzger-Carter is a longtime teacher from California whose opinion of the carbon footprint exercise has evolved over the course of her career. She used to have students estimate the greenhouse emissions produced from their food, transportation, and energy use and would discuss with students the actions they could take to reduce their footprints, like turning off lights when they left the room.

“It didn’t feel effective,” she said. “Something was off about it to me.”

Carbon footprint calculators are ubiquitous—they can be found on websites for the government, universities, and leading environmental organizations. Calculators are also becoming more sophisticated, especially app-based ones, allowing people to even figure out the greenhouse gas emissions produced by individual items on a grocery list.

But the idea, according to news outlets such as Grist and Mashable, was actually popularized by the oil and gas company British Petroleum in the early 2000s in an effort to brand itself as environmentally conscious—and, critics say, subtly push the idea that lowering carbon emissions is the job of individuals, not corporations.

Climate scientists agree that human activity—primarily the burning of fossil fuels, such as oil, coal, and natural gas—is trapping too much heat in the atmosphere through the greenhouse effect. That causes global temperatures to increase, weather patterns to change, and sea levels to rise. These changes manifest in many ways, including more frequent and intense wildfires, heat waves, and droughts.

The role of ‘individual responsibility’

Many teachers focus on individual responsibility when teaching about climate change, the EdWeek Research Center found in a nationally representative survey of K-12 teachers in December 2022. When the teachers were asked what, if any, climate change topics or issues they address with students, 48 percent said they discuss what their students can do personally to lessen the effects of climate change—more than any other topic.

For comparison, 44 percent said they teach about how climate change will affect the future of the Earth and society, and 31 percent said they teach about the science behind climate change. A quarter said they don’t teach anything about climate change topics or issues.

See also

Denver East High School students Mariah Rosensweig and Gabriel Nagel pose for portraits at City Park on Dec. 19. They have successfully advocated for Denver Public Schools to adopt a set of sustainability goals aimed at reducing the district's greenhouse emissions.
Denver East High School students Mariah Rosensweig and Gabriel Nagel pose for portraits at City Park on Dec. 19. They have successfully advocated for Denver Public Schools to adopt a set of sustainability goals aimed at reducing the district's greenhouse emissions.
AAron Ontiveroz for Education Week

Early in her career, Metzger-Carter used to rely on carbon footprint calculators in her lessons about climate change. When she first started teaching about two decades ago, she received materials in the mail about carbon footprint calculators, which she later realized were probably from an oil company. Special interest groups sometimes develop free curricula and instructional materials and mail them to teachers.

“Sometimes, when you’re a new teacher, you just grab shiny things,” said Metzger-Carter, who recently stepped back from teaching and is now the campaign director for Schools for Climate Action, an organization that grew out of her teaching and advocacy work with students.

It wasn’t until after Metzger-Carter moved from teaching at a private school to a public one, that she reevaluated whether having students calculate their carbon footprints was a useful instructional tool, especially for students from lower-income families. The steps a student can take to reduce their footprints tracks closely with how wealthy their family is, Metzger-Carter said, and whether they can afford to buy an electric vehicle, eat a nutritional vegan diet, or buy sustainable clothing brands.

It was a student who called her out on this inequity, Metzger-Carter said: “And the student said, ‘I don’t have any control over the car my family has. I can’t control where my family gets their electricity from. I am on free and reduced lunch, so I don’t get to choose what I eat,’ because there is a diet portion of the footprint exercise.

“That stopped me in my tracks,” she said. “I was like, ‘I have got to find a different way to teach this.’”

Metzger-Carter also felt like the exercise didn’t match the scale of the problem: swapping out incandescent lightbulbs for energy-efficient ones in your home will only take you so far without more systemic action from government and industry.

That’s when Metzger-Carter shifted her focus to supporting her students’ advocacy—whether it was petitioning the school board to adopt more climate-friendly policies or writing draft legislation to address the effects of climate change on youth, such as supporting comprehensive climate change curriculum in schools, and finding lawmakers to introduce those bills in the California statehouse and U.S. Congress.

Some teachers say the carbon footprint exercise can empower students

But many students say the carbon footprint exercise is valuable, said Elizabeth Kirman, a high school science teacher in the lower Dauphin school district in Hummelstown, Pa., who also teaches a climate science course to preservice teachers at Pennsylvania State University.

She said having her students calculate their carbon footprints is both an engaging activity and helps her students feel like they have some control over what can feel like a daunting problem—which is important when teaching about climate change and how it will likely affect her students’ futures.

See also

Librarians Tori Gredvig holds the banned book the Lorax on Oct. 4, 2012, in the media center of Lakewood Montessori Middle School, during banned book week. Because it portrays the logging industry in an arguably negative way, some people felt that this book was persuading children to be against logging.
Librarian Tori Gredvig holds <i>The Lorax</i> on Oct. 4, 2012, at Lakewood Montessori Middle School in Durham, N.C. Over the years, the popular Dr. Seuss book was banned because of its societal critiques but now, some teachers are questioning whether how useful it is for teaching children about climate change.
Bernard Thomas/The Herald-Sun via AP

“I absolutely think that it is worth it … primarily because in my experience, students want to do something,” she said during a recent Twitter Spaces conversation with EdWeek reporters. “I think there’s a corporate piece that goes to this as well. I’m not negating that point. But my job is with students, they need to be able to feel empowered to start making that connection from their choices to the global community.”

Kirman said her students have been particularly enthusiastic about buying goods from environmentally friendly companies and researching the carbon footprint of their food choices. They will discuss the environmental impact of eating, say, a kiwi in the winter in the Northeast versus food grown locally or in season.

More than half of teens want to learn what they can personally do to lessen the effects of climate change, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey of 14- to 18-year-olds across the country that was conducted last fall.

And many teens reported in that survey that they are taking steps in their daily lives to reduce their carbon footprints through recycling, turning off lights, unplugging devices when they’re not in use, washing their clothes in cold water, and thrifting.

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing: Yen-Yen Chiu, the director of content creation for the nonprofit SubjectToClimate and a former teacher, advocates for a balanced approach—having students calculate their carbon footprints when it makes sense, but not relying too heavily on the exercise.

SubjectToClimate is an online resource that provides lesson and activity ideas and guides to teachers of every subject and grade level to teach about climate change—including a carbon footprint calculator as well as alternatives.

“I feel like I use it as a tool to talk about, ‘Look, there’s an individual responsibility. There’s also an organizational and corporate responsibility, and a larger social responsibility,’” said Chiu in the Twitter Spaces discussion with EdWeek. “Ultimately, both of those need to happen in order for us to really fully address climate change issues.”

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