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Comparing Carbon Calculators

M. McCaffrey, CIRES at the University of Colorado at Boulder
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Carbon calculators, no matter how well intended as tools to help measure energy footprints, tend to be black boxes and can produce wildly different results, depending on the calculations used to weigh various energy factors. By comparing different calculators, learners can analyze which ones are the most accurate and relevant, and which are the most transparent.

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Learning Goals

Comparing, contrasting and synthesizing the results of different calculators promotes high order thinking skills.

Context for Use

Rather than have students do traditional carbon calculator exercises, this activity invites learners to examine different calculators, compare and contrast them, and gain insight into how different factors are weighed and calculated.

Teaching Materials

This website has a listing of ~80 different calculators: www.squidoo.com/carboncalcs (no longer available).

Teaching Notes and Tips

This activity can be done as extra credit or part of a group project. It will require identifying a variety of carbon or ecological footprint calculators, developing a set of input data that is used consistently with the different calculators, and then analyzing and presenting the results.
Comparing Calculators: Teaching Notes (Acrobat (PDF) 67kB Jun24 11)


Did the learners complete the task of comparing and contrasting calculators, and if so, what were their results?

References and Resources

J. Paul Padgett, Anne C. Steinemann, James H. Clarke, Michael P. Vandenbergh (2008). A comparison of carbon calculators, Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 28, 106–115


Environmental Science:Energy:Efficiency and Energy Conservation, Geoscience:Atmospheric Science:Climate Change:Mitigation of climate change, Environmental Science:Global Change and Climate:Climate Change:Greenhouse gas emissions, Mitigation of climate change, Environmental Science:Ecosystems:Biogeochemical cycling, Geoscience:Atmospheric Science:Climate Change:Greenhouse gas emissions, Environmental Science:Policy:Environmental Decision-Making, Geoscience:Atmospheric Science:Climatology :Atmospheric gases

Resource Type

Activities, Datasets and Tools:Datasets with Teaching Activities

Special Interest

Data, models, or simulations:Data, Quantitative

Grade Level

College Lower (13-14):Introductory Level

Quantitative Skills

Models and Modeling

Earth System Topics

Climate, Human Dimensions:Energy, Biosphere:Ecology, Human Dimensions:Policy, Atmosphere


Climate, Human Dimensions/Resources, Energy/Material cycles


Teach the Earth:Teaching Environments:Intro Geoscience, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Environmental Science, Teach the Earth:Incorporating Societal Issues:Climate Change, Public Policy, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Atmospheric Science, Biogeoscience