In the pursuit of justice, Superman leaps tall buildings in a single bound. Ironman invents and deploys inconceivable technology to defeat evil forces. And Batman outfits himself with everything a flying-vigilante-mammal needs to battle the corrupt underbelly of Gotham City. In their own way, superheroes try to make the planet a better place for us mere mortals. But given the global environmental crisis underway, shouldn’t we examine superheroes more thoroughly? As fellow inhabitants of Earth, don’t we owe it to ourselves to question how many pounds of carbon dioxide the Batmobile releases into the atmosphere? Or how much Ironman and his rocket boots contributes to global warming? In other words, shouldn’t we know what superpowers are really saving the planet, and which might actually be hurting it? Of course we’re still grateful that our superheroes are protecting us from terrifying threats. But when it comes to climate change, we’re all in this together, and you don’t have to be a superhero to help save humanity.
My name is Miles Traer, and I created The Carbon Footprint of Superheroes. In these pages, I present my journey exploring the material construction, technology innovation, and the energy consumption habits of some of the world’s most popular superheroes. To do this, I drew heavily from my research as a PhD physicist, geoscientist, and data scientist to analyze many superhero qualities, including shooting lasers out of your eyes, eating all of the eggs, advanced tactical body armor, lighting things on fire, and creating protective costumes often adorned with animal-insignia. Note: I only consider the abilities/technologies that each character uses as a superhero, so I won’t be crediting Bruce Wayne with the carbon emissions of Wayne Enterprises, nor will I be crediting Tony Stark with the total carbon emissions of Stark Industries. As you follow along, be prepared to fall down some of my favorite rabbit holes. We’re going to make these calculations together. Let’s start with some definitions for terms that I use frequently in this project:
Carbon Footprint: A carbon footprint tells us how many pounds of greenhouse gas we release into the air each year. This number helps us understand how much we are contributing to global climate change. The average American has a carbon footprint of 44,093 lbs CO2e. You can look up the average for your country here.
CO2e: Carbon footprints are measured in pounds/kilograms of CO2e, which stands for “carbon dioxide equivalent.” We use CO2e instead of just CO2 because humans release many different kinds of greenhouse gases besides carbon dioxide, like methane and nitrous oxide. To make things easier, we can calculate the impact of the other greenhouse gases in terms of carbon dioxide, or CO2e.
kWh: A kilowatt hour (kWh) is an amount of electricity used. Most of the electrical devices around your home will advertise how much power they require, which is given in Watts (W). To find out how much energy these same devices use, you simply multiply the power (W) by the number of hours you use the device to get watt hours. The numbers end up getting pretty big, so we divide by 1,000 to get kilowatt hours – kWh.
Superhero: A fictional hero having extraordinary or superhuman powers; also: an exceptionally skillful or successful person. In certain circumstances, a particular antagonist (or “supervillain” telepathic gorilla, bespectacled birdman, walking refrigerator, sociopathic clown, professorial cephalopod, or president) may use the superhero’s powers against them in an effort to take over the world.
Attributions: The Carbon Footprint of Superheroes was created by Miles Traer, PhD. He used his expertise as a physicist, geoscientist, and data scientist to collect and analyze the information needed to calculate the carbon footprints. He also drew the cartoons. Batman, Flash, Oracle/Barbara Gordon, Superman, and Swamp Thing are all copyrighted by DC Comics. Firebird, Ironman, Jessica Jones, and Spiderman are all copyrighted by Marvel. Acknowledgements: This project would not have been possible without the help of my friends Ryan Haupt and Emily Grubert. While I'm a bit of a comic book nerd (I can hold my own in the DC universe), Ryan's knowledge of all things superhero helped me find real-life analogs for the superpowers. Emily's work was invaluable for determining the carbon footprint of all of the superhero gadgets... most of which don't exist. Finally, while I drew all of the cartoons on these pages myself, I owe a huge debt to all of the incredible fan art and artists who inspired the drawings.