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Building Science

The Truth About Al Gore’s Carbon Footprint

Now that Gore’s new movie is showing in theaters, the attacks on his credibility have begun

Al Gore's 2007 home energy retrofit included a lot of improvements to lower the energy use of his home in Tennessee.
Image Credit: Energy Vanguard

Al Gore is in the news again. His new climate change movie, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, is in theaters now. And that means the folks who don’t believe in climate change — or at least folks who don’t believe that humans have any impact on it — are out in force trying to discredit the message.

As was the case 10 years ago when Gore’s original movie came out, they’re going after his carbon footprint and making the case that he’s a hypocrite. Let’s take a look at the issues.

Al Gore’s carbon footprint

The National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR) released a report this month on Gore’s energy use. Titled Al Gore’s Inconvenient Reality, it gives the findings of their research into the electricity consumption of the Gore home in Tennessee. And the authors are shocked, I tell you. “The findings were shocking,” they write, before detailing the highlights. Here are three of their six bullet points:

I found out about the NCPPR report when friends and readers of this blog began sending me links to the report and articles about it because they mentioned one of my articles. Here’s what they said:

According to Energy Vanguard, a company devoted to making homes more energy efficient, an “efficient” home uses between 5-10 kWh of electricity per square foot each year. A house that consumes 15 kWh per square foot or more of electricity per year is categorized as “bad” due to its inefficiency and excessive electricity consumption. Homes that expend more than 20 kWh of electricity per square foot each year are labeled “energy hogs,” which is Energy Vanguard’s worst rating.

I’m happy to see my article quoted, and they didn’t do too bad a job with it. There are,…

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18 Comments

  1. Anders Lewendal | | #1

    Al Gore
    Allison: Yes, I agree we need to conserve (use less) and reduce CO2 output. However, I disagree that the behavior of people who support CO2 reductions don't matter. If I tell my kids that lying is bad but I continually get caught lying, what does that tell my kids? Same with Gore and DiCaprio. Flying all around the world and having several large homes sends the wrong message to the public about the need to conserve. Even Passive homes have a CO2 footprint.

    What we need is a cultural change. We need models for that. Policy changes will not work without a large cultural change in our communities and around the world.

  2. User avater
    Dana Dorsett | | #2

    It's more complicated in multi-use buildings @Jon R
    When running a well staffed office and multiple 24/365 compute servers out of the house where only 2-4 people area actually live the kwh/person housed numbers can seem insanely high.

    A better breakdown of the Gore house's electricity use allocation would be an important place to start. There are LEED Platinum buildings in NYC with energy-use density many times the average of 50+ year old buildings, but it's a function of the activities taking place within the building. Comparing Gore's house to the average home is just silly. It's not even apples & oranges, more like apples & sugar-beets.

    The National Center for Public Policy Research paper (http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA679.html ) made some attempt to break it down (apparently portions are separately metered?) but it was only three categories, the house, the pool, and the security gate. There may be a financial case to be made for investing in solar-thermal pool heating (or heating the pool with a ground source heat pump), which was more than 1/4 of the total energy used at the place. Without any insight into the size of the pool or it's use patterns it's hard to say if that's a ridiculous number or not (seems high, unless heated with resistance electricity rather than air source heat pump pool heaters.)

    The 900 kwh/year used by the gate (equivalent to about 100 watts, continuous use) is probably the background load of the security system cameras & security lighting.

    But we have no idea about how the "house" category energy use breaks down. It wouldn't surprise me at all if the majority was keeping the phones & computers up & running (and cool enough to stay running). It's not like a significant office can be run with a couple of Energy Star laptops using a hamster-wheel recharging system. But we don't really know- it's just a black box labeled "house", with only limited consumption data. Access to a smart meter &/or a Bidgely type disaggregation algorithm analysis could potentially shed a lot of light on where all that power is going, but that (probably) is never going to be publicly available.

  3. Malcolm Taylor | | #3

    Celebrities
    The debate reminds me of a (perhaps apocryphal) story about Bono.
    During a concert the Irish singer began slowly clapping his hands. After a while he told the audience "Every time I clap my hands a child in Africa dies". A voice in the audience shouted up to him "Well stop ***ing doing it then".

  4. User avater
    Dana Dorsett | | #4

    Did Bono stop? :-)
    More Gore-fodder to chew on:

    http://www.snopes.com/politics/business/gorehome.asp

  5. user-6830061 | | #5

    Gore
    Not a huge fan of churches who preach humility, and the pastor lives in a mc mansion. Doesn't he also own a 9 million dollar beach front house in California? Not what you would expect from someone who keeps insisting the seas are rising.
    This is also interesting:
    http://www.snopes.com/politics/bush/house.asp
    Has GBA ever done a article on bush's ranch? As someone who is here to learn how to build a great house, I would be interested in hearing how bush accomplished this, not so much on the justifications for why the Gores need 18k of combined square footage.

  6. user-6759088 | | #6

    Carbon Exchanges and the Inconvenient Truth
    Wasn't Al Gore the one that bought into a carbon exchange that would have charged and made huge sums of money taxing the public for using carbon resources? Sure we have climate change but carbon taxes, really where this whole discussion is headed, It is about money. And you know what happens to large sums of money, take the Clinton Global Initiative. No one can follow the money. It just disappears. So would carbon taxes. What is Canada doing with its carbon taxes? How much of that money is really going toward reducing carbon? It ends up supporting social welfare programs and a host of other issues but little towards actually building huge solar arrays or other energy offsets. If we could TRUST a politician to do what they promise they will do then we might get somewhere. Last point; The Washington State Lottery. Money was supposed to go to support schools is all the ads said. The lottery has made multi millions for Washington State. But the schools are starved of funds, so much so that the courts stepped in and forced the State to fully fund schools. Once the money flows the criminal elements in our government swoop in to redirect and in some cases reap personal millions from private enterprise.

  7. DAN VANDERMOLEN | | #7

    Unplug phone chargers
    So on the one hand we are told to be "green" we should unplug our phone chargers and take steps to reduce these nearly invisible uses of electricity but for the 1% elites to fly around the world in private jets is meaningless. Which is it?

  8. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #8

    "I am prepared to stipulate the following:..."
    Can I clear the air with a few stipulations?

    1. Many web sites and magazine articles provide stupid energy saving tips, including advice about the importance of unplugging your phone charger. These stupid energy tips are so common that I even devoted an article to the problem: Stupid Energy-Saving Tips.

    2. Some politicians are corrupt, and many government programs are poorly implemented.

    3. If I were king of the world, I could spend tax money more wisely and more efficiently than the current crop of politicians in Washington, D.C.

    4. Many humans are hypocritical, and fail to live up to the ideals they espouse. I'm one of them.

    O.K. -- the stipulations are out of the way.

    Now, to my point: all of these facts are irrelevant to the climate change crisis, and none of these facts allows us to ignore the need for urgent action to reduce our production of greenhouse gases.

  9. Jon R | | #9

    An effective solution to a
    An effective solution to a "tragedy of the commons" problem is to charge for (ie, internalize) negative externalities. Education and voluntary compliance - not so much.

  10. Jon R | | #10

    One should look at the issue
    One should look at the issue holistically, not just home design. For example, teaching kids not to have kids is the most significant green thing non-famous parents can do :-).

    I suggest that kwh/sq ft is a poor metric as compared to "kwh/person housed" (no, not perfect either). Allison should do his part by discouraging use of the former.

  11. user-6846716 | | #11

    Always amazed...
    At the capacity for progressives to rationalize "their own" and demonize the other side. At the end of the day those are the behaviors of fascists. Each side is idiotic these days.....

  12. User avater
    Dana Dorsett | | #12

    Fascists? Seriously? @ user-6846716
    Making rationalizations for "one's own" and demonizing the "other side" is practiced by all sorts of political persuasions, and is not a defining trait of fascism. Using the "fascist' label to demonize any random blow-hard or hypocrite guilty of that behavior is a bit over the top.

    Fascism is about the primacy of the nation or race over the concerns of the individual, and demonizing those of other nations/race, or who challenge the authority of the national/racial leaders.

    That is a much narrower subset of those who make excuses for those who they agree with and demonize those who disagree. While indeed a practice some fascists may use its one of the LEAST important aspects/practices, not a defining characteristic of fascism, and widely practiced by non-fascists (including anti-fascists.) So, if you're going to sling the "fascist" label, please use it with a bit more precision (or find another label.)

  13. David McNeely | | #13

    Jon R. Please explain
    I am interested to know more about a solution to the "tragedy of the commons." How would negative externalities be defined, and by whom? How would the costs be determined, and by whom? How would the fees be excised? Where would the money go?

    I've always liked the 'tragedy of the commons' as a frame for looking at climate change. However, considering Anders Lewendal's point in the first comment above—that solutions must occur on the macro level and individual level solutions won't take us far—I'm wondering whether the tragedy of the commons is a useful frame after all.

  14. Jon R | | #14

    Dave - I'm no expert
    Dave - I'm no expert on solving large scale environmental issues. But I expect that we need taxes on environmental damage This will result in a rapid and wide spread concern about environmental damage (or at least minimizing taxes).

  15. user-6846716 | | #15

    Very serious
    Fascism is no more complicated than two wrongs make a right. Anyone who is naïve to believe that it is any more sophisticated than that, is practicing it.

  16. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #16

    The forum moderator is stepping in
    I'm going to strongly suggest that the comment section of Green Building Advisor is not an appropriate place to debate the definition of fascism. If any more comments on the topic are posted, they will be deleted by the editor.

  17. Dan Kolbert | | #17

    Great piece, AB3
    Hey Allison - I appreciate the piece. I do all the usual things - bring my own bags, recycle, turn off lights. I've even got PV panels! But I don't pretend I'm doing the planet any favors. Focusing on individual behavior, paradoxically, is ultimately disempowering (that's a clever play on words).

  18. Daniel Beideck | | #18

    Hypocrisy doesn’t change physics
    Critics of Gore making hypocrisy claims are making the well-worn Ad hominem logic fallacy. Attacking the speaker does not address the arguments made by that speaker. Even if Al Gore is a hypocrite, physics will not be affected. Force will still equal mass times acceleration and the physics of climate change will not be altered. In my opinion, this is the better approach to counter the claims made by Gore’s critics.

    Arguing that Gore’s carbon footprint doesn’t matter because it’s only a small portion of the global footprint is debatable, but more importantly, it’s a dangerous argument to make. If that’s the case, then the same can be said about everyone else as well. Why should anyone do anything about their own carbon footprint if it doesn’t matter what Al Gore’s footprint is, someone who may have a bigger footprint than most of us? In addition to passing regulations that help lower the global footprint, each of us needs to take responsibility for our portion. Each of us doing our own part WILL affect the total global footprint.

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