Emissions. Greenhouse gases. Decarbonization. You may have heard these terms in the news lately, but what do they actually mean? What are emissions, and where do they come from? Is decarbonization a good thing and, if so, how do we achieve it? In this episode, we’re joined by Carbon Calories founder Alexander Frantzen and journalist Sarah Lazarovic to answer these questions and more. We unpack the surprising history behind the phrase “carbon footprint.” We’ll discuss the ways that we can better understand our own carbon footprint, and work to reduce it—and why putting pressure as consumers on large corporations may matter just as much as individual actions.
Alexander Frantzen | Carbon Calories | CEO & Founder
Sarah Lazarovic | Minimum Viable Planet | Journalist, Climate Communicator
Patrick Nease | Meta | Climate
Sylvia Lee | Meta | Climate
Lauren Swezey | Meta | FCS Sustainability
Kati Kallins | Meta | Sustainability Engagement
SOPHIA LI: You’re listening to Climate Talks, a podcast in collaboration with Meta.
The climate crisis is the most pressing issue facing everyone and every industry. And on this show, we make talking about the climate a conversation that everyone is invited to.
Together, we can create a healthier relationship with nature, which, you know, also includes us.
I’m Sophia Li. I’m a journalist, a film director, and a climate optimist. My life’s work is to make talking about the climate more accessible, more digestible, and more human. I’ll be your guide as we reframe the way we talk about the climate, and understand the best courses of action to take together. Let’s do this.
SOPHIA LI: So what are the most effective steps we can take—as individuals that feed into the collective—to slow the rate of climate disruption?
Maybe you’ve heard on the news about the IPCC. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from the United Nations is one of the most trusted sources of information we have on the climate.
The IPCC has published reports on what will happen if the earth’s average temperature warms to more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
At that point, all the climate disruptions we’re already seeing will become a lot more severe. According to the most recent report, we need to scale back fossil fuel usage by 45% by 2030. That’s about 8 years. And since the world’s biggest economies—we call them the G20 nations—are responsible for 75% of global emissions, it will take commitments from all of us in order to keep the earth’s average temperature rise below that 1.5 degree threshold.
But what does that word—“emissions”—even mean? What is a “greenhouse gas?” Do I make emissions? Do you?
How can we think about reducing emissions, if we’re not even really sure of where they come from?
We asked you: what do you picture when you hear the phrase “greenhouse gas emissions?”
Person 1: I mean, the classic factory with a big flume of emissions first comes to mind, and then I just think of a bunch of cows. Yeah.
Person 2: I picture the world from, you know, a big bird’s eye view. And I see everywhere where there’s humans burning fossil fuels just emitting tons and tons of noxious gas.
Person 3: Just a whole bunch of smoke. Smelly air.
Person 4: If I’m thinking about the emissions in my own life, it’s probably first and foremost the things that I buy rather than the behaviors that I do.
Person 5: Transportation, like driving a car. I also know, like, food production is a big source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Person 6: Plastic creates so many emissions. Every time I have to have, like, single use plastic – like, ugh I hate it.
Person 7: Two years ago we went vegan, I don’t know, now that we’re vegan and I have a Prius and we take mass transit and we don’t use the central air and heat. I feel like I don’t really know what would cause emissions.
SOPHIA LI: Have you heard of the phrase “carbon footprint?” Think about a cup of coffee. Emissions are created to manufacture the fertilizer used by the farm to grow the coffee beans. Emissions are also created from the energy used to process the beans, as well as from the heat to roast them. Then, of course, more emissions are released when the coffee is shipped to consumers—whether it goes by boat, train, or plane. All of this goes into the carbon footprint of that cup of coffee.
But let’s be clear—carbon isn’t the bad guy. It’s essential to the life cycle of all living things. I’m alive right now, so that means I automatically have a carbon footprint. I breathe out CO2 as I talk. This isn’t a bad thing. We need to get out of this binary. It’s when we have an excess amount of CO2 in the atmosphere that the climate starts to be disrupted.
Part of why we don’t always think about our carbon footprint is, it’s really hard to see or calculate. How do you know what went into a book, a sneaker, or a cup of coffee before it gets to your hands? And once you find out, what can we do to reduce our carbon footprint?
Each week on Climate Talks, we’re taking on sustainability from a different angle. In this episode, we’re talking about greenhouse gas emissions: what are they? What role do they play in the climate crisis? And how can we reduce the amount of emissions that we are creating?
But first. Our partners at Meta are committed to reducing their emissions. Let’s hear how they’re approaching this work.
PATRICK NEASE: Hi, I’m Patrick Nease, I’m the sustainability coordinator for Facebook’s net zero team. I think a lot of people think that sustainability is just a nature thing and it’s probably at odds with the economy or with people’s livelihoods. But to me, sustainability is really the triple win between the economy, people and the environment.
So our emissions come from all sorts of sources, some of them more obvious, such as burning fuel in a car and some of them less obvious, like forest and land use change, such as trees getting chopped down or even forest fires that burn up those trees.
So when we release these molecules like carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, they capture the sun’s radiation. It’s kind of like you get into a car on a summer day and it’s about 10 to 20 degrees hotter than – than it is outside. It’s the same idea with the sun’s radiation getting trapped inside the Earth’s atmosphere.
SYLVIA LEE: Hi, I’m Sylvia Lee. I’m the Sustainability Strategy Manager at Facebook. Everything we buy, everything we eat, transport, all emit emissions into the atmosphere. By far, the most important thing we can do is to reduce our emissions, and so removals are absolutely the last, sort of last resort.
SOPHIA LI: Removals refers to carbon removal projects that create an additional carbon sink, be it reforestation or technology like direct air capture.
PATRICK NEASE: If you want to keep a bathtub from overflowing, it’s way more important to turn down the tap before you figure out how to drain it. And we take that same approach to our sustainability goal. We definitely want to prioritize cutting our greenhouse gas emissions before anything else.
SOPHIA LI: Still, some emissions are hard to reduce, like emissions related to employee commutes or every last piece of hardware that goes into our data centers. To address these emissions, Meta is supporting a range of carbon removal projects.
SYLVIA LEE: To date, we have focused on reforestation projects and we’ve – we’ve supported projects in East Africa, in Uganda and in Kenya, in the southeastern part of the United States.
What is most exciting to me right now is the amount of attention, and the number of people, the amount of energy that is exploring all of these amazing technologies.
We know that there’s not going to be one technology that’s going to solve it all. There’s no one silver bullet. We need all of them. And the fact that we have all these start ups, all these investors focusing on it. All of this is making me much more hopeful than even two or three years ago.
PATRICK NEASE: What excites me the most is that for the first time, I feel like we don’t have to explain what climate change is. Since I’ve been working in this space over the last several years, this is the first year that we’re really learning how to turn climate ambition into actual action. So we saw last year that companies and cities more than doubled their net zero commitments, which is kind of an uncharted territory. Another thing that really gives me hope is that I’m working with so many smart people, whether it’s within Facebook or with the partners that we talk to, that all recognize this, all recognize there’s room to improve and all recognize that the urgency to act is now.
SOPHIA LI: In addition to Sylvia and Patrick’s work, Meta team members are constantly finding ways to make their workplaces more green and energy-efficient.
LAUREN SWEZEY: Hi, my name is Lauren Swezey and I’m on the FCS team at Facebook: facilities, culinary and security team.
The green roofs on our buildings are like a park on a roof. You can walk and you see native plants, you see birds flying everywhere. You see butterflies and bees. And there’s so much diversity up there.
The buildings in Menlo Park are all on 100 percent renewable energy through our local provider. Not only that, we actually have solar systems on our campus, too. So we have over four megawatts of solar that’s supporting our renewable energy locally.
SOPHIA LI: The roof also insulates the building, further reducing the energy needed to cool and heat it.
As our guest Jon Leland said on our last episode, one of the most overlooked ways to have a sustainable impact is to take initiative as employees, within our workplace.
Kati Kallins, who works on the Sustainability team, is constantly looking to engage all of Meta’s employees in the company’s sustainability initiatives.
KATI KALLINS: Hi, my name is Kati Kallins. When we talk about sustainability at Facebook, there are the operational goals that we have, but our biggest asset is our employees themselves. And if they aren’t bought into this work and if they aren’t part of achieving these goals, then we’re really not going to get anywhere.
One of the most important messages, which I think we should all take with us, is that there’s room for everyone in the climate movement.
Climate action and working in sustainability is an all hands on deck field. And we need everyone. This is also something that I try to tell our employees a lot when we’re bringing them into the fold of engagement is people will say to me, well, I don’t know, like I don’t have a degree in this. I’m not an expert. Like, are you sure that you want my help? Is there a way that I can participate? And what I tell them is, you know, you eat food, you spend time outdoors, you are as dependent on our natural resources as everyone. And the learning sphere is not as steep as it may seem. Yes, there are people who are experts, but there’s also a lot more people that learned on the job. And so come on in, we’ll get you learning what you need to, and just having you be part of this movement is a huge success.
SOPHIA LI: Thank you to Sylvia Lee, Patrick Nease, Lauren Swezey, and Kati Kallins from Meta.
As individuals, we have the power to reduce our personal carbon footprint through our choices—how we commute, how we heat and power our homes, where and how we shop.
But hold on—let’s think a little more critically about that phrase, “carbon footprint.” You’ve probably heard it used before in news articles and even by policy makers, but most people don’t know the term was actually coined by British Petroleum—yes, that oil company, BP—in the early 2000s, as part of an advertising campaign. “Carbon footprint,” when you hear it, it brings to mind an individual person’s footprint, an individual journey, and it was coined to make it seem like the responsibility for reducing emissions falls on… well, us as individuals.
In reality, most of the emissions released into the atmosphere every year come from the operation of businesses just like BP—not from everyday people living their lives like you and me.
Let’s be clear: individual actions do matter. They add up. They have an impact. But if we are going to reduce our emissions at the scale that the IPCC says is necessary, it will take action from private corporations, too. It’s not one or the other, it’s all of us.
So what can we do to pressure companies to reduce their GHG, or greenhouse gasses, generated by their businesses? What pressure do we need to exert on governments in order to push them into action?
How can we work to make climate-friendly low-emissions alternatives available to all, through access to clean energy and climate positive products and services?
Joining me this week to tackle these questions are Alexander Frantzen, and Sarah Lazarovic.
Alexander Frantzen is the founder & CEO of Carbon Calories, which calculates the carbon footprint of consumer products and shares them with the public. He has been building tools to do this work for over a decade.
Sarah Lazarovic is a journalist and climate communicator. She works to make the science of emissions and the climate crisis accessible to everyone—usually with comics. She is also the author of the un-depressing climate newsletter, Minimum Viable Planet.
SOPHIA LI: Hi Sarah, hi Alexander. Welcome to Climate Talks.
SARAH LAZAROVIC: Hi.
ALEXANDER FRANTZEN: Hi.
SOPHIA LI: Sarah, we’ll start with you. Can you please introduce yourself and tell me about your climate story?
SARAH LAZAROVIC: Hi there, my name is Sarah Lazarovic. I guess you could say my way in was through a reckoning with the growing horrors of fast fashion starting in the early aughts, but really culminating in around 2010, when I sort of realized how bad it had gotten. And I was one of those people who tried to stop shopping and write about it.
You know once you sort of start understanding the degradation happening all over the world because of it, it’s like a gateway, a gateway climate issue for a lot of people, women, especially.
And I now work in climate full time. My lens is a little broader now because we need systems change. And it’s not so much about, you know, my personal jumpsuits that I own, but broader issues.
SOPHIA LI: Yeah, but hey, if jumpsuits brought you into this movement, great! Alexander, please introduce yourself and tell us your climate story.
ALEXANDER FRANTZEN: Hey, hi, I’m Alexander. I’m the founder of Carbon Calories. What brought me in really was growing up every summer spending a month in a straw thatched cottage in the forest, since the age of two. And so that really made nature really meaningful for me in my life and then in – jump forward to around the year 2000. The environmental degradation that our economies were causing became something I became aware of. And then in 2012, that’s where I started teaching myself carbon accounting, and I built Energy We Need and Wiki Carbon and now Carbon Calories. So that’s where I started actually educating myself about okay, how do we measure this, this climate change that we’re all hearing about, but how do we measure it?
SOPHIA LI: And can you tell me a little bit about carbon accounting?
ALEXANDER FRANTZEN: It’s actually very much like financial accounting. Financial accounting is about recording transactions, purchases by customers, income, expenses, all the transactions that companies record. Carbon accounting is the same thing – we itemize, how many gallons of gasoline did I burn? How much fertilizer did I use? How much energy was used to manufacture this product? Each time those activities happen, we record them. It’s about itemizing the carbon emissions as they occur.
SOPHIA LI: So, Sarah, what does this crazy buzz word of sustainability mean to you?
SARAH LAZAROVIC: You know, I actually don’t use that word a lot anymore. I think it’s fraught. I think what it really just comes down to is sustainability tends to be relegated to the silos of personal consumption, which is super important. But I try to just think about it as living the most low emissions lifestyle I can.
SOPHIA LI: Sustainability is not regulated. There’s no science or facts to prove that something is quote unquote sustainable, even though other words are regulated, USDA organic in food is regulated. But when you back it up with carbon accounting, that actually quantifies it in a way that makes it credible.
ALEXANDER FRANTZEN: Yeah, so I would say, in math class, when you took your exam, if you showed your work, even if you got the answer wrong, you still got 50 percent of the credit. If you gave the answer and you didn’t show your work, you didn’t get credit. And so show, don’t tell. Just show us, you know, and we’ll make a decision about what kind of impact we want to have in the world. I’ll make a decision. You know, if I want to fly, maybe I will eat less meat all year. Maybe I will not drive all year. I’ll make those decisions, but tell me.
SOPHIA LI: And to flip that, I always say, you know, it’s like we’re giving people a quiz ten times over every time they go to the grocery store. But they’ve never been taught the material for the quiz. They may have heard someone say something about, oh, oat milk is better than soy milk. X is better than Y, but they actually have no way of knowing.
If there is no carbon accounting information and no labeling, you know, you go in with the best intentions. But that is like a recipe for cognitive overload and also just bad decision making.
ALEXANDER FRANTZEN: If you go into the supermarket and every single company decided on a different recommended calorie count on the back of their nutrition label. You wouldn’t be able to compare them.
SOPHIA LI: How important is it to actually calculate our individual footprint compared to corporations’ and product footprints?
ALEXANDER FRANTZEN: So you take two companies, Tesla and Ferrari. As a company, Tesla has a much larger carbon footprint. Its enterprise carbon footprint is much larger than Ferrari’s. Why? Because they produce way more cars.
However, on a per product basis, a Tesla has a lower carbon footprint over its lifecycle, almost surely, than a Ferrari does. But that’s an example of how OK, we need to see product carbon footprint disclosures to choose low carbon products when we do buy, and then to reward those companies that are decarbonizing.
So decarbonization just means how do we produce and consume our products with low carbon energy sources primarily? And so it would be how do we do those activities without relying on fossil fuels? And how do we do those activities without causing emissions from non-fossil fuel sources?
SOPHIA LI: Thanks, Alex. So Sarah, I’m curious to hear your answer. How important is it to calculate our own footprint compared to corporations’ and product footprints?
SARAH LAZAROVIC: It is really important to understand your carbon footprint because that is such valuable knowledge for understanding the problem writ large. So many of us do not understand this at all, which is understandable because it’s super complicated stuff. Climate change only became an issue to most people fairly recently, didn’t grow up with great climate education in school. They might not have a handle on anything. They might not know what a greenhouse gas is, what carbon emissions are. So the carbon footprint is actually like one of the most perfect ways for understanding where emissions come from.
And when you see the light bulbs flash for people when they say, oh, you know, I’m vegan, but no amount of work that I’m going to do is going to change the emissions intensity for my carbon footprint if I still fly five times a year or if, you know, I rent my home and it’s heated by a not efficient at all natural gas furnace. Right. So then they see that, and it doesn’t mean that all the burden is on them. Like, it doesn’t mean that their carbon footprint is this thing they should carry around in shame, feel guilt about or even necessarily work to bring down to zero because it’s not possible given the way we live, the systems we live in in the world today.
But what it really comes down to is the emissions that each of us live and breathe and burn every day.
SOPHIA LI: Thanks, Sarah. I just want to understand what is the balance between our awareness and calculation of our individual footprint versus the 100 companies that contribute to more than 70 percent of our global GHG, or Greenhouse Gasses. What is that balance?
SARAH LAZAROVIC: The thing it always comes back to, is it an individual action or is it systems change? It’s both. Is it, you know, personal emissions reduction or getting companies to drastically bring down their emissions? Obviously, the latter has much more effect, but they don’t change without the will of the people. They don’t change without us telling them, hey, we’re not going to buy X, Y or Z anymore. They don’t change without us actually reforming how we consume. So you sort of need all the pieces.
ALEXANDER FRANTZEN: Just to sort of contextualize. If every single government tomorrow agreed that building fossil fuel infrastructure was going to stop and that the only thing we were going to manufacture every year were renewables, it would still take three decades for us to decarbonize the energy system.
I think I did a back of the envelope calculation. I think that at least five percent of existing fossil fuel energy every year needs to be diverted to just manufacture renewable energy facilities in order to be on track.
And so that’s another reason why lifestyle changes are necessary. It’s because we actually need to divert existing fossil fuel energy to manufacturing the renewables that we can only do so using fossil fuel energy.
SOPHIA LI: Emissions, it could be tricky. How can we engage more people, family and friends, community to talk about it and how can we make that an accessible conversation?
SARAH LAZAROVIC: We have had the luxury of developing and, you know, burning a lot of carbon to create the comfortable lifestyles that we all now enjoy. When you share this information with people who have never experienced it before, it can be a shock to the system. What do you mean I am responsible for the cumulative emissions of a nation I just happened to be born in? People will not like that.
They don’t want you to take away their – their beautiful giant car that they just purchased, and they don’t want you to tell them that their steaks are destroying the planet and actually killing people in other parts of the world as we speak.
So, you know, with that lens, as a climate communicator, there are some basic practices that you can deploy.
You know, just listening to people to understand where they are before you try to share where we need to go. Just even demonstrating our carbon intensive lifestyles with simple heuristics, little tools like do you know that the average American, Australian or Canadian basically has a carbon footprint 20 times someone in Pakistan?
I think the best thing you can do is make it easy. We need the simplest ways to engage people. And I think the reason people feel frustrated because they’re like, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. You just want to take away my meat, and take away my car? No, you want to prioritize the most efficient things people can do, the most useful things they can do that don’t require multiple decision points.
What are the actual big things? Well, it’s, you know, switching from an internal combustion engine vehicle to an EV. It’s, you know, electrifying your heating. So switching from a gas burning furnace to a heat pump, they’re like four to five really huge things and they’re quite expensive things. But they’re a decision you make once. And that decision brings your emissions down for, you know, 10 to 20 years, depending on the big ticket item that you’re considering.
People are busy, so you can see why they push back when you’re like, can you switch to a paper straw? Like, what are the emissions reductions like, sure, globally, we want to do that. We want the system to just change to appreciate those things. But at the individual level, when it comes to the decisions that they’re able to make, you want to just offer simple swaps.
That’s the best way to get at it for people that are just starting the conversation, especially if you can highlight the what’s in it for me, which is you’re going to save money in the long run. As we decarbonize, the cost of carbon-based things are going to go up and the cost of renewables are going to go down. So in the long term, although you’ll have to pay some upfront, slightly higher costs, you know it’s going to go down.
SOPHIA LI: We need to end on a hopeful note because I know you guys believe in this world that we’re living in. So what gives you two hope?
ALEXANDER FRANTZEN: What gives me hope is every day meeting more people who are asking questions, educating themselves, shifting their buying patterns and adjusting their lifestyles based on what they’re learning and deciding where to work based on whether or not a company is decarbonizing. There are lots of us who are taking action right now. We are responding, I think appropriately, with courage and love, and we’re applying the lessons that we’re learning to our own lives.
SARAH LAZAROVIC: We have the privilege of being alive right now in the decisive years. In the next ninety eight months where, you know, the relative habitability of this planet for all future humanity is going to be decided. You can see that as a daunting and overwhelming and despairing and doom-inducing lens. Or you can say that is a huge privilege. What can I do with these next years of my life to catalyze the best and most effective change that needs to happen?
Because every little bit of emissions that we keep from going up into the atmosphere is lives saved in other parts of the world, is species that will not go extinct, is crops that will – will grow and feed people. So everything we do now really matters, and every bit of warming we stave off is a great, a great thing for somebody somewhere.
SOPHIA LI: Thank you both for the work that you do. Very grateful.
ALEXANDER FRANTZEN: Thank you.
SARAH LAZAROVIC: Thank you.
SOPHIA LI: That was Alexander Frantzen and Sarah Lazarovic.
To view the Carbon Statements prepared by Carbon Calories, visit them online at carbon calories (dot) com.
To see more of Sarah’s work, and to sign up for her newsletter Minimum Viable Planet, visit her website at Sarah L (dot) com. That’s sarah with an ‘h,’ s-a-r-a-h, then ‘L’ for ‘Lazarovic,’ (dot) com.
SOPHIA LI: So every week on the show I close each episode with a prompt, a kind of call to action, inviting you, our listeners into the conversation.
As much as the IPCC report I mentioned earlier gave much cause for alarm, the report was not all doom and gloom. According to the same report, the climate could begin stabilizing in as little as 20 to 30 years once we curb our global emissions and reduce the concentration of GHG in the atmosphere.
So go out and do something that helps make you feel empowered and hopeful in this space. Whether that’s deciding to walk or bike to work, or even growing butterfly milkweeds in your backyard—go do something that makes you feel like you made a positive difference, for yourself and for our collective planet.
Individual actions do make a difference, and the more that we make these practices a part of our own life, the more we’ll encourage our friends and neighbors to do the same. This movement needs all of us.
SOPHIA LI: Next week on Climate Talks…
KRISTY DRUTMAN: What is this transition going to look like? So when I think about a just world, I think about building the infrastructure and the technology we need to live healthier and more sustainable lives, but not at the expense of exploiting communities who are going to be at the backbone of making that possible.
SOPHIA LI: We’re pressing our ears to the pulse of the future! What challenges await on the horizon as we try to navigate this climate crisis and build a more sustainable earth?
What actions are required from all of us to fight for a healthier, less erratic climate? Join us next time on Climate Talks to find out.
See you next week!
SOPHIA LI: You’ve been listening to Climate Talks, a podcast in collaboration with Meta. Many thanks to our guests this week, Alexander Frantzen and Sarah Lazarovic.
You can find our podcast on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, or whenever you listen. If you like what you hear, please rate the show and share it with friends and family. We want everyone to get in on the conversation, and we hope that each episode inspires you to continue that conversation IRL with the people in your life.
This show is produced by work by work: Scott Newman, Jemma Brown, Emily Shaw, Kathleen Ottinger and by me, Sophia Li. The show is mixed by Sam Bair.
Extra gratitude to Marlo Tablante and Amanda Gardiner at Meta. To find out more about Meta’s Sustainability initiatives, visit sustainability.fb.com.
I’m always talking about the climate on Instagram and Twitter. You can find me at sophfei, that’s my handle. Thank you so much for listening, and thank you for being a part of this crucial conversation.
You can view the Carbon Statements prepared by Carbon Calories on their website. For more of Alexander Frantzen’s work on other carbon accounting projects (such as Energy We Need and WikiCarbon), check out his personal website.
In 2018 the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) published a special report, which detailed the impacts of 1.5℃ global warming above pre-industrial levels, and outlined paths to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century. More recently, in 2021, the first part of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment was released. The report provided new estimates of the chances of crossing the global warming level of 1.5°C in the next decades, and found that immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are required to limit warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C.
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