Zero carbon humans

I like our planet. A lot. But as a 20202024 human, is it even possible to live on earth with a positive impact instead of a negative one? Do I need to live as a hermit in a treehouse to do so?

Companies everywhere are pledging to become carbon neutral. Can individuals do the same? Surely, that must be expensive, right? Infeasible even. What does it cost? Where can I even pay such a fee?

I decided to find out, and this page is a summary of my research.

Update December 2020: GoClimate is a website dedicated to helping people live net zero carbon. They offer a simple footprint calculator and recurring offsets. This page might save you a lot of research, I know I would have saved me.

1. What’s the goal?#

Net zero carbon or carbon neutrality means that any carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from your activities is balanced by an equivalent amount being removed or offset in a given time frame. So that means that every year, the carbon you produce is offset by the same or higher amount.

When you’re net zero, you are still emitting a lot of carbon into the atmosphere. You are reducing it somewhere else by avoiding other people’s emissions, which is a step in the good direction but is actually not enough.

Furthermore, being net zero is only a statement on your current emissions - typically measured over a year - but does not take into account historical emissions.

That’s why we define the following new term:

Lifetime zero carbon: The next step - becoming lifetime zero carbon - requires a company or individual to remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it has emitted during its entire lifetime.

Lifetime zero carbon means compensating for your whole lifetime, and not only by offsetting - where the carbon still gets emitted but compensated - but by actually capturing it and storing it. At 30 years old, this is a significant backlog to work through.

2. Calculating a personal carbon footprint#

First, you need to calculate an estimate of your carbon footprint.

I use the Carbon Footprint website which has an open methodology and third party verification through ISO norms and audits.

You can either make an educated guess, use your country’s averages, or make the calculation more exact by collecting:

  • utility bills (electricity and gas)
  • average distance driven per year (odometer divided by car age will do fine)
  • list of flights taken per year incl. destinations

The rest of this section contains the calculations for me as an individual.


According to my utility bills, I consume

  • Electricity: 1364 kWh per year
  • Gas: 6024 kWh (602,4 m³) per year

That makes my total housing energy footprint 1.34 metric tons of CO2e per year. This does not account for the fact that I use “100% renewable energy” and we have solar panels (we only have two so the impact would be small in any case).


  • Flights (2018-2020):
    I will take the average of Jan 2018-March 2020 as the baseline since after that there was artificially little travel due to COVID19. All flights are Economy class, direct, and return unless specified otherwise.

    • February 2020 - from Brussels to Barcelona = 0.30 metric tons of CO2e.
    • October 2019 - from Brussels to Edinburgh = 0.23 metric tons of CO2e.
    • June 2019 - from Brussels to Barcelona = 0.30 metric tons of CO2e.
    • March 2019 (work) - from Brussels to Singapore via Hong Kong = 3.32 metric tons of CO2e.
    • November 2018 - from Brussels to Alicante = 0.41 metric tons of CO2e.
    • June 2018 (work) - from Brussels to Helsinki = 0.46 metric tons of CO2e.
    • May 2018 - from Brussels to Rome to Amman, and from Tel Aviv to Brussels = 0.95+0.45 metric tons of CO2e.
    • May 2018 (work) - from Antwerp to Munchen = 0.09 metric tons of CO2e.
    • January 2018 (work) - from Brussels to Rome = 0.16 metric tons of CO2e.

    So from Jan 2018 to March 2020 (25 months), I emitted 6,67 metric tons of CO2e. On average, flights cost me about 3.20 metric tons of CO2e per year

  • Car (2017-2020): between July 2017 to November 2020, I drove 65.000 km in an EU 2018 BMW 1 Series 5-door F20, 118d 16’’ tires, M6. Total Car Footprint = 8,32 metric tons of CO2e in 39 months = average of 2.56 metric tons of CO2e per year. This will likely be less now because I live way closer to work than in 2017-2019. However, that is hard to estimate because corona changed commuting patterns and having to go to clients since March 2020 so I am keeping it as is.

  • Public transport: At most 24 trips Brussels-Antwerp (50km) would mean total Bus & Rail Footprint = 0.01 metric tons of CO2e

This brings my estimated total emission from mobility to 5.77 metric tons of CO2e per year

Secondary impact#

The most significant contributors are

  • I’m 90% vegan, so food amounts to 250 euro per month plant-based meals (0.92 tonnes CO2e per year) + 25 euro per month low meat meals (0.12 tonnes CO2e per year).
  • 500 euro per year on clothes: 0.17 tonnes
  • 1000 euro per year on IT equipment: 0.99 tonnes
  • 400 euro per year on phone/tv: 0.40 tonnes
  • 1000 euro per year on manufactured goods: 0.27 tonnes

My estimated total emission from consumption is 2.92 metric tons of CO2e per year.

Historical personal carbon footprint#

It is a bit cumbersome to try to estmate your total carbon footprint since birth. Growing up we still ate some meat at home, mostly homegrown chicken. I have done some intercontinental plane travel in the past, including for work and living in a different continent. On the other side, I can only imagine that I ate less as a baby than I do now, and I lived in a house with 5 family members instead of 2.

I think just using my calculated footprint above for all 30 years is sensible. (If you have a different perspective, feel free to send me an e-mail at


Adding up Energy, Mobility, and Consumption, I get a total of 10.03 metric tonnes of CO2e per year.

Multiplying by 30 (years), that would make my estimated total lifetime carbon footprint equal to 300.9 CO2e metric tons

3. Cost of offsetting and removing#

Do it yourself? Expensive and time-consuming!#

According to a meta-analysis by Project Drawdown, a growing forest can sequester about 3.3 tonnes per year. Given my annual footprint of about 10 tonnes per year, I would need to purchase about 3 hectares of land to cultivate it.

Note that higher yields might be possible using alternative reforestation techniques like the Miyawaki method or the Sharma algorithm, measuring capture rates of up to 5.5-11 tonnes of CO2e. per year per hectare.

At a cost estimate of EUR 15.000 (USD 17.900) per hectare in Belgium, this would be a one-time investment of EUR 45.000 (USD 53.600) to literally own your personal carbon dioxide footprint. Note that this does not take into account the cost of planting and maintaining a forest, taxes, rising property values over time, …

Support specialists#

The first thing to note is that multiple competing certification standards for carbon offsetting exist:

I chose to go with the Gold Standard since it seems legit and well accepted. As with everything in life, I recommend diversifying, in this case, to decrease the risk of wrong assumptions or bad execution per program.

Cost of offsetting

According to Gold Standard, the cost for offsetting per technology type is

  • Clean Water: 12 USD / tonne
  • Biogas: 19 USD / tonne
  • Wind: 10 USD / tonne
  • Solar: 12 USD / tonne
  • Cookstoves: 15 USD / tonne
  • Forestry: 18 USD / tonne

Some examples of certified initiatives:

  • Trees for all plants trees for 12,5 euro (15 USD) per tonne. They are recognized by two official Dutch government agencies CBF and ANBI. They plant in Uganda’s Kibale National Park and in Bolivia in the Andes region. They don’t offer official credits.
  • plants trees. Currently planting in Peru which also combats desertification. Linked to They have no certifications that I can find, and the link to their annual reports are broken.
  • Atmosfair offers various offsets at 23 euros per tonne. They have projects in Rwanda, Nepal and India. Only select CDM and Gold Standard projects.
  • Greentripper is a Belgian initiative by CO2logic. They offer 4 different initiatives between 12-18 euro per tonne.

Incomprehensibly, none of the above count as official non-profit organizations, so you cannot get tax credits for this and have to pay VAT on them.

4. Summary: what it costs to be a zero carbon human#

Summarizing all of the above we can see that living in a net zero carbon way costs about 125 EUR per year or about 10 EUR per month. In US dollars living in a net zero carbon way costs about 150 USD per year or 12,5 USD per month.

To become a lifetime zero carbon human would depend mainly on your age. For a 30-year old, becoming a zero carbon human costs a total of about 3.750 EUR or 4.500 USD one time. That’s 31,25 EUR or 37,5 USD per month for ten years. While that is a lot, I believe it is manageable and am personally willing to make that commitment.

What are some good excuses to not live as a zero carbon human?#

At this point, I can’t find any good excuses to continue exhausting the planet in an unsustainable way.

That’s why starting in 2020, I am committing to be net zero carbon with at least 50% of my carbon footprint directly captured and allowing up to 50% to be offset by reducing emissions elsewhere.

By 2030, I want to have removed 100% of my total lifetime carbon footprint to become a lifetime zero carbon human.

Since 2020, I annually offset 20 tonnes (187,50 euros) via, and 20 tonnes avoiding deforestation using efficient cookstoves in Ghana via (266,2 euros). You should do the same.

5. Appendix#

Want to discuss?#

I am an amateur who is just trying to do good based on internet searches. If you are more than an amateur, I would really like your input. You can reach me at

If this post inspires you to become a zero carbon human as well, make sure you let me know. Once 100 people do so, I will make this more professional with a dedicated website, free stickers, and better calculators.

If you know git, you can edit this page and send me a pull request too on GitHub

Offsetting vs capturing carbon#

Offsetting carbon means preventing carbon emissions somewhere else that is easier than doing it yourself.

So, for example, while I cannot stop eating (I would die), I can sponsor and help to make cooking stoves in Uganda more efficient so they use less carbon. This reduces emissions by preventing new ones but doesn’t do anything to the original emissions (from e.g. driving) that have already been made.

Removing carbon, sequestering carbon, carbon removal, or capturing carbon means actually removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it somewhere else (sometimes called the “sink”) like in the soil or in buildings. This is for example achieved by planting trees or by direct carbon capture. Professionals sometimes use the term CCUS: carbon capture, usage and storage.

Offsetting carbon is a way to reduce the total additional carbon emissions on the planet but should be seen as a temporary measure and not a solution. The mechanisms are well understood and are fairly “easy” to accomplish. but to achieve the 2050 climate goals, also some form of large scale capturing of carbon is needed. To read more on why offsetting is not enough, I recommend this article by atmosfair.

On the other side, there is no proven consensus on what the best way to remove carbon is. Afforestation is sometimes criticized because it requires long term commitments with no way to verify or enforce them. Direct carbon capture is fairly experimental. Some scientists even go so far as to call it a “distraction” of easier to reach ways to reduce carbon emissions that have the same impact. For an overview of promising initiatives around carbon removal, I’d refer you to carbonplan and Internet payment provider Stripe’s climate page which is a well written synthesis.

Undoubtedly, the most climate-friendly way is still to reduce your emissions, not offset them or capture the carbon after the facts.

Reducing your footprint#

I believe in eco-realism where - as much as possible - you make changes to your lifestyle that have a big impact on your ecological footprint, but not on your wellbeing. What you find easy depends on your personal preference.

Mostly plant-based diet

The meat industry is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and of the biggest impacts individuals can have.

Together with my girlfriend, we follow a 90% plant-based diet. That means that 90% of the meals we eat are completely plant-based (“vegan” has such a bad connotation). We eat an average of 2,5 meals per day, so about once every four days we will eat something that is non-vegan: add cheese to a dish, eating out with friends or family that don’t cook vegan or eating in a restaurant that has no (decent) fully plant-based options.

Plant-based food is delicious and leaves me with tonnes of energy and concentration. The science seems to (mostly) agree that it is significantly healthier than diet with meat and dairy. For an overview, read How not to die by Michael Greger. It is a very activist and one-sided view on the matter, but it is mostly based in science and offers yummy recipe advice.

What I could still improve

  • flying from time to time
  • buying new things, especially technology

Uncertainty of estimates#

For general statistics, I tried to use scientific consensus or the average where possible. Even then, the range of possible estimates can vary significantly. For example, in an article by The Guardian, estimates for one flight range between 2.24 and 5 tonnes of CO2e.

For my personal numbers, I relied on actual consumption numbers where possible and made a reasonable estimate otherwise.

This is my earth.#

I like our planet. A lot. It is where I spend the vast majority of my time. It’s the place where I see my friends and family. I enjoy its seasons with the wisdom of autumn, the immaculateness of winter, the possibilities of spring, and the completeness of summer. I long for the dopamine-free calmness of being in nature to decouple from the stresses of daily life.

I love our planet. And with love comes caretaking. So, I want to leave our planet in a better state when I go compared to when I arrived.

This is my earth

And I live in it

It’s one third dirt and two thirds water

And it rotates and revolves through space

At rather an impressive pace

And never even messes up my hair.

And here’s the really weird thing

The force created by its spin

Is the force that stops the chaos flooding in.

This is my earth and it’s fine.

It’s where I spend the vast majority of my time.

It’s not perfect, but it’s mine.