Your Favorite Superhero Is Probably Killing the Planet

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

For most of us mortals, it’s enough to worry about the carbon emissions of our vehicles and devices. But when you’re a superhero trying to save humanity, shouldn’t you also be concerned about the climate-warming emissions of your Batmobile, x-ray vision, or spidey sense?

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A couple of researchers at Stanford University thought so and took a look at nine popular superheroes to see how much they were actually saving the planet. And the truth hurts, man: Your favorite superhero might not be all that gentle toward Mother Earth, according to the research presented at the American Geological Union Fall Meeting Monday.

We all have our favorites. Mine is The Flash. His maximum estimated annual carbon footprint is on the higher end; even Ironman’s is smaller. But the research team included a range of estimates because they really could vary. For example, The Flash can keep his annual CO2 emissions as low as 131 pounds, but those emissions can jump as high as 89.5 million pounds. It depends on how fast he’s running and what he eats, the researchers told Eos, since he eats more than the average person to make up for the calories he burns with his speed.

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Annual carbon emissions of a selected few superheroes. Image Courtesy of Miles Traer
Annual carbon emissions of a selected few superheroes. Image Courtesy of Miles Traer

Others, like Superman, vary less from day to day. Superman has a very low carbon footprint—zero, in fact—because he absorbs the sun’s energy. Swamp Thing, meanwhile, has negative carbon emissions because he freaking sucks carbon out of the atmosphere. As ugly as he might be, he’s a real eco-warrior.

Study co-author Miles Traer, a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at Stanford, used the storylines as a resource to determine which superheroes are the greenest. With hundreds of comics in his personal collection, the scientist had plenty of material to look through. Traer did the analysis to get people more interested in their personal carbon footprints, he told Eos.

“If I calculate my own carbon footprint, that’s depressing. If I calculate Batman’s carbon footprint, that’s hilarious. So let’s go with the hilarious,” the geological data scientist told Eos. “It’s a way of tricking people into learning.”

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Next on the team’s list? Supervillains, naturally.

[Eos]

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Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

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DISCUSSION

Co2 emissions might make Superman look good, but here’s the real question: as an alien lifeform, is he leaving non-biodegradeable Supercrap everywhere?

First off, as Larry Niven pointed out, as a Kryptonian, every part of his body is superstrong - shed hair and nail clippings will never degrade or decompose.

On top of that, even if you assume that they’d eventually lose their Superness after being buried in a landfill long enough, would his alien biology and its castoffs even be able to be metabolized by Earth bacteria and microorganisms? Similar concerns would be true about other alien superheroes, like Martian Manhunter or Captain Marvel, but generally they’re portrayed as much less invincible than peak Superman.