Reviewed by Professor William Scott

Just how bad are bananas? I don’t mean as a food; that’s quite a different question. I’m referring to carbon footprints. You might have wondered about this as you unzipped that most convenient and ubiquitous of fruits, given that it will have been carted half-way across the planet to sit in your kitchen. Should I be eating it at all given how far it has come, you might have thought? If you have ever had this thought or similar ones about green beans from Kenya, mangoes from Brazil, or even strawberries from Spain, then you’re likely to find this book at least interesting if not invaluable.

How bad are bananas: the carbon footprint of everything is an updating of the original 2010 edition. Entries have been revised and new ones added, and as the author notes, crucially the context has changed. In 2020, we are (or should be) much more aware of and concerned about climate change and the need for action by governments, agencies, corporations and ourselves. Knowing and thinking more about carbon footprints in general, and your own in particular, therefore, seems something of a no-brainer. Helpfully, the opening pages (a quick guide) of the book provide a good background to what a carbon footprint is, why it’s useful, and to limitations of the idea.

The book is not organized by obvious themes (say, transport, food, energy, lifestyle, etc) but by mass. This sounds odd but it’s not. After the quick guide there are sections exploring the footprints of around 100 things that have footprints of: less than 10 grams (e.g. an email), 10 to 100 grams ( e.g. cycling a mile), 100 to 500 grams ( e.g. a banana), 500 to 1000 grams ( e.g. taking a bath), 1 kilo to 10 kilos ( e.g. a 4oz burger), 10 kilos to 100 kilos ( e.g. a pair of jeans), 100 kilos to 1000 kilos ( e.g. 50 litres of petrol), 1 tonne to 10 tonnes ( e.g. an operation), 10 tonnes to 100 tonnes ( e.g. a new build house), millions of tonnes ( e.g. the football world cup), and Billions of tonnes ( e.g. wildfires). Each section discusses a range of examples with each one taking up between 1 and 3 pages, so this is far from just a list of numbers, although there are, of course lots of numbers some of which are more precise than others. The excellent index allows you to pursue your own thematic exploration should you wish, and there are separate sections on fruit and vegetables. There are also 43 pages of notes and an exploration of where the numbers come from.

It’s very informative, quite surprising in places and written with wit. I’m much better informed about the idea of a carbon footprint than I was before I picked it up. My favourite surprise was to find that cycling by e-bike (on the assumption that the bike does all the work which they don’t in the UK) costs 3g/mile, but cycling the same distance powered by bananas costs 40g/mile.

I’d say that the book will have all sorts of uses from research to compiling zoom quizzes to coffee table reader, and you can see schools getting a lot of use out of it. As to how to use it, the author says it’s been designed to “dip into and flit around” which, given its contents, makes sense. There are sections, however, that ought to be read at the outset so that the rest of it makes sense. Obviously these include the introduction and quick guide, but I’d include the section on where the numbers come from as well. As for bananas themselves, well, they turn out not to as bad as you might think, having a lower footprint than lemons shipped from Spain, and the same as a UK grown cauliflower.

Berners-Lee, M. (2020 revised edition). How Bad are Bananas: the carbon footprint of everything. London: Profile Books. ISBN: 978-1788163811. (Available from, which allows you to support your local bookshop.)

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