The carbon benefits of living in Nairobi

A graph labeled "your carbon dashboard," comparing the US average carbon consumption to a personalized estimate

I recently bought my TerraPass carbon offsets for the year.  As I completed my individual carbon footprint estimate, I was struck at both how much lower my total footprint was compared to the US average, and how differently it was distributed.  I’ve been flying to the US and Europe quite often since moving to Kenya to visit family and attend academic conferences, so I assumed that my total footprint would be higher than average.  Here’s what I’m noticing about each category of emissions.

  • Because the commercial districts of Nairobi are very compact, I rarely take trips more than 4 or 5 miles from my house.  I drive a relatively fuel-efficient motorcycle if I’m on my own, or take a taxi if I’m with someone else.  My neighborhood is also unusually walkable, so lots of activities like trips to the grocery store or the dentist can be done on foot or by bike.
  • Taxi travel accounts for most of the “public transit” category, since Nairobi hasn’t got a public bus system or commuter rail.  However, I suspect emissions for this category are underestimated, since taxi travel here does frequently entail long periods idling in traffic.
  • My air travel emissions are still far too high in both relative and absolute terms.  This is a tough one, since I’m flying a lot for academic conferences, Mawazo fundraising, and visits to my family and my partner’s.  Video calls can partially but not completely substitute for these in-person connections.  Not quite sure what to do about this.
  • Because of Nairobi’s beautiful climate, I don’t have any costs to heat or cool my apartment.  The emissions in the “home energy” category come from my fairly low spending on electricity and cooking gas.  However, I also think that these are overstated, because the electricity estimate was done with US power generation in mind, and the Kenyan power sector uses 70% renewable resources, compared to only 18% in the US.

2 thoughts on “The carbon benefits of living in Nairobi

  1. Hi Rachel, this is really thought-provoking, thanks for sharing! I’m curious to know your responses to some of my thoughts and questions below:

    1) When you say “taxi” do you mean matatus, or app rides like uber, or more traditional taxis? I imagine matatu travel is more fuel efficient than uber since you share the vehicle with a bazillion other people.

    2) Would you ride a motorcycle in the US? If not, why not? Wouldn’t the fuel efficiency gains be the same in both places? The main problem with motorcycles is safety concerns, and I’d think these would be the same in both places.

    3) Are your travel emissions really too high? As you say there are lots of benefits (private and social) that come from your traveling, and these probably outweigh the price you pay plus the carbon cost.

    4) TerraPass lets you buy a carbon offset for $12 per ton of carbon. I’m struggling to reconcile this with usually much-higher social cost of carbon—the US government is using $39/ton, as mentioned here: I we get offset a ton of carbon for $12, then there’s no reason to assume carbon costs three times that…


    1. Hello! So I usually take private taxis rather than matatus because it’s faster. When I lived in California I also drove a motorcycle for trips under ~30 miles. Ideally I’d like to fly less, but I’m not quite sure what to reasonably cut out. And that’s a very interesting point about the government’s higher estimate of the carbon cost — I don’t know anything about how that’s calculated!


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