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Comparing Carbon Calculators

M. McCaffrey, CIRES at the University of Colorado at Boulder
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This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Exemplary Teaching Collection

Resources in this top level collection a) must have scored Exemplary or Very Good in all five review categories, and must also rate as “Exemplary” in at least three of the five categories. The five categories included in the peer review process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

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This page first made public: Jun 24, 2011


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.

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.

Description and Teaching Materials

This website has a listing of ~80 different calculators: (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