Keeping track of the Olympic torch's carbon footprint—one leg at a time.

News and commentary about environmental issues.
April 29 2008 7:40 AM

The Carbon Olympics

Keeping track of the Olympic torch's carbon footprint—one leg at a time.


The 2008 Olympic torch relay has not exactly inspired warm feelings of international cooperation, as in years past. Pro-Tibetan activists mounted protests in Paris and London, and even managed to force the extinguishing of the flame on a few occasions. But in the long run, the torch could generate more pollution than political dissent. Its journey across the world (and back again) is leaving a historic trail of CO 2 emissions.

Assuming the International Olympic Committee doesn't snuff out the relay in the face of mass protests—it says that won't happen—our calculations estimate that the entire trip will unfold over 50,000 miles in 20 countries. (Including a 31-city tour in mainland China, the entire thing will cover 85,000 miles.) As Wired reports, the flame gets its own private plane, so those 50,000 miles of travel demand 270,000 gallons of jet fuel. (The torch's plane needs 5.4 gallons of fuel for every mile flown.) With every gallon of fuel burned, 23.88 pounds of CO2 get pumped into the air, which means air travel alone will generously offer the environment 6,447,600 pounds of CO2. That's the equivalent weight of more than 1,000 Hummer H-2s.

To track the flame's slow assault on the atmosphere, we created a map that charts its total carbon emissions as it flies. (Find it below.) Through Thursday's stop in Canberra, the relay has traveled an estimated 40,875 miles, burned 220,725 gallons of jet fuel, and released 5,270,913 pounds of CO2. We'll be updating the map regularly over the next few weeks as the torch makes its way back to China. Click on the red lines between stops to see the impact of each leg of the trip on the environment.

To put this in perspective, the average American leaves an annual carbon footprint of 42,000 to 44,000 pounds of CO2 emissions, according to the United Nations. That means the Olympic torch will spew as much greenhouse gas during its international travels as 153 Americans do a year. Put another way, the four-month torch relay puts twice as much carbon in the atmosphere as you will over the course of your entire life.

The numbers get even more lopsided when you compare the torch with the average Chinese national. The flame's 50,000-mile journey has an annual carbon footprint equivalent to 624 Chinese citizens'. (Keep in mind that China claims it's offering a green Olympics.)

The above calculations don't include the carbon emissions of the torch itself—nor the lantern that keeps the official Olympic flame lit 24/7. The torch—or rather, all 10 thousand to 15 thousand torches—are fueled by propane, which puts out another 12.669 pounds of CO2 per gallon burned. We can't calculate the carbon footprint of the torch while it's being paraded around by Olympic heroes because neither the company that designed the torches nor the Beijing Olympic Committee answered our questions about how much propane was burned every hour.