Going the distance: Crunching the numbers on campaign carbon footprints

Dear readers, listeners and viewers: forgive me. I am an imperfect creature, especially when it comes to statistics. But in this task, I've devoted as many of my limited skills as I can. Calculating the carbon footprint of each leader's campaign is a complicated combination of geography, cartography, algebra and vigilance of signs that read, "this way lies madness." Fortunately, I had some professional help along the way.

In this post, I will do my best to explain my imperfect methodology for calculating the gaseous mess each leader leaves in his campaigning wake.

First of all, let me tell you exactly what I am measuring -- A carbon footprint can take in all kinds of things, like: heating an office, turning on a light, making a cup of coffee, turning on your computer, firing up a microphone, running a smoke machine at a stump speech.

I looked down that line of variables, spotted a strait jacket behind the computer and decided to make things simple. I am just measuring the Carbon Dioxide Equivalent (that is, the greenhouse gases) emitted from the leaders' planes, buses, ferries, etc., as they traipse about the country. Calculating the plane-print is actually pretty simple. Rich Wong, a technical and policy analyst with the Pembina Institute pointed me to a carbon calculation website maintained by Aviation Industry analysis firm, Conklin and Dedekker. You plug in the type of plane, the distance travelled and it spits out a bunch of numbers in Metric Tonnes. The categories are per hour, per year, per seat-trip and per trip. I opted for "per trip." That is the number of tons the whole plane spews over a specific distance flown.

To calculate the distance flown, I went to the world-airport-codes.com website. Enter the three letter code for the departure and arrival airport, press 'search distance' and the number in kilometres magically appears.

Planes were the easy ones. Buses... well, not so much. There is no handy-dandy on-line carbon calculator for passenger buses. Cars, yes. Buses, no. The folks at Carbon Zero -- a carbon offset supplier out of Toronto -- have a calculator for cars. So I thought they might be able to help me out with my bus conundrum. Sure enough, an account manager by the name of Dan Lusina was able to supply me with a relatively simple algebraic equation to calculate the greenhouse gases that buses make.

Now there are four variables that go into this equation.

1. The distance travelled: That I calculated using Google Maps Directions.
2. The fuel economy of the bus being used: By that I mean the kilometres per litre. Now that was tricky. Some campaigns use Prevost buses others use MCI buses. The Tories never got back to me on the make their buses. And I wasn't able to find fuel economy figures for Prevost buses. The only number I found was for the MCI J4500. It was 2.98 litres per kilometre. Since all the buses are pretty much the same, I figured I would just use 2.98 for all the campaigns.
3. The number of buses in the entourage: The Conservatives have four. The Liberals and the Bloc have three. The NDP has one and two mini-vans (I assumed they were 2010 Dodge Grand Caravans, travelling on highway and city roads about equally. I used Carbon Zero's calculator for these.) Elizabeth May is rolling around her riding in a 2007 Toyota Prius (Carbon Zero's calculator sorted that out for me, too.)
Finally, Dan Lusina introduced me to the greatest number since Pi: 0.00269094. That is the emission factor for diesel, every passenger bus's favourite fuel. It is the number of metric tonnes of Carbon Dioxide equivalent (Greenhouse Gases) emitted per liter of diesel burned.

So the equation looks like this: 0.00269094 / 2.98 x (number of kilometres travelled) x (number of buses in entourage) = Metric Tonnes of GHGs emitted

Again, many thanks to Dan. I never would have been able to do this by myself. The irony here is that buses are way less polluting than planes and the leaders travel far smaller distances in them. So I did all this math for some tiny little numbers. Such is life.

Now, there are two other items about my method that I need to clarify. The first is the distance numbers I use. When I first set out on this mission, a number of things occurred to me about the distances leaders' campaigns travel. There are advance teams. Buses move to other locations while leaders are on planes, and vice-versa. Some leaders drive home at the end of the night. Some leaders don't stay at the same hotel as the press. Door-to-door canvassing involves walking and driving. And as I made more of these observations, I found myself reaching for a bottle of headache pills.

So, I simplified.

I took their daily itineraries. Calculated the distance from one event to the next. The address of the last event of the day served as the starting point for the next day. Simple.

Lastly, there are carbon offsets. What are carbon offsets? Well, here is a definition. Essentially though, they are a way to compensate for all the pollution you create while travelling. A company like Carbon Zero, calculates your footprint (way more accurately than I do) and based on that final number they charge you a certain amount that they then invest in a project like a wind farm or a solar array. The Greens and the Liberals are buying their carbon offsets from Carbon Zero. The Bloc and the NDP are getting theirs from Planetair. And like I said in my story, the Conservatives are not buying any.

At the end of the campaign, the offset companies calculate the footprint of the parties and send them a bill.

Well, there you go. That is my methodology, such as it is. I hope you can find it in your hearts to be forgiving. I mean really though, doing that equation is a pretty nasty form of penance.