If you’ve paid any attention to discussions about the environment over the past decade, you’ve probably heard the term “carbon footprint” tossed around with some importance. It’s an idea rooted in creating a single metric by which we can calculate the impact of a person, group, or organization on the environment. As the planet’s temperatures rise thanks to global warming, scientists, activists, and governments champion this concept because it helps people understand the ecological impact of their life choices.
There’s just one problem:
There isn’t a single definition for what a “carbon footprint” really is.
In this article, we explore the various principles, parts, and particulars of what makes a real carbon footprint. Our goal is to wade through the morass of confusing information and interpretations to help you reduce how you affect the environment with your actions.
What Should I Know About a Carbon Footprint?
Let’s start with the basics, as defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency1:
The total amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted into the atmosphere each year by a person, family, building, organization, or company. A person’s carbon footprint includes greenhouse gas emissions from fuel that an individual burns directly, such as by heating a home or riding in a car. It also includes greenhouse gases that come from producing the goods or services that the individual uses, including emissions from power plants that make electricity, factories that make products, and landfills where trash gets sent.
Doesn’t that just roll off the tongue in a casual conversation about how you can help the planet? Of course not! It’s a three-sentence definition that only seems to further complicate your understanding. So, let’s break down the core concepts in that paragraph.
What are Greenhouse Gases?
These substances are emitted into the atmosphere by activity on the planet, whether human, plant, or animal2. While commonly understood as carbon dioxide or CO2 (hence, the “carbon” in carbon footprint), such emissions also include methane, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
We tend to focus on the amount of carbon dioxide humans release into the atmosphere because we can understand it a bit better. Literally everything we do in the 21st century creates carbon dioxide — specifically the gasoline we use in our vehicles and the coal and natural gas we use to power our homes.
But we often forget how much methane, nitrous oxide, and CFCs humanity produces on a regular basis. These greenhouse gases are created through manufacturing, landfills, refrigerants, and other industrial processes. They can also be found right in your home in the form of aerosol sprays. While we do create more carbon dioxide, these gases have a larger impact on the environment per kilogram than carbon dioxide.
These are the greenhouse gas emissions you can control3. The obvious ones are your home’s energy usage and the transportation choices you make. And we’re right to focus on these things because they represent tangible, measurable objectives in our attempt to combat global warming. Everyone can reduce how much energy they use, use it more efficiently, and find ways to use public transportation instead of private cars. In fact, leading climate scientists state we must lower greenhouse gas emissions dramatically by 20504.
This is the big sticking point, the stuff most of us don’t think about on any given day. All of the creature comforts of modern life come with an environmental cost, from the groceries we buy and the clothes we wear to how everything is made. Here are some key examples:
- Generating electricity
- Extracting natural gas
- Transporting our groceries
- Farming the food we eat
- Industrial refrigeration
- Heating and cooling public spaces and private businesses
And that’s just the obvious stuff. We could discuss the specific environmental costs of how clothes and electronics are created, and it might set your head spinning. The important lesson is this: our carbon footprint is extensive, and we need to pay more attention to it.
In fact, we’d be better off using the concept of an “ecological footprint.” This slight tweak in our thinking would encourage us to consider more holistically how our choices affect the greater world around us. Worrying about the carbon dioxide we create is important, but focusing on how we can make things better for the entire ecology of Earth is more positive and oriented toward change.
What is the Relationship of a Carbon Footprint to Climate Change?
Before we begin our discussion of how our collective actions impact the environment and global warming, it’s important we state plainly that we’re not advocating for a return to some sort of pre-industrial world. Simply put, technology has become too ingrained in our lives for that to happen. Thus, the challenge is learning how to make better choices about how we use resources in relation to the planet.
There are nearly 8 billion people on this planet. The temperature of the earth is rising, right along with sea levels and incidences of severe weather. The average American is responsible for 20 tons of CO2 emissions every year — every year — while the global average is five times less at 4 tons5. Per the 2015 Paris Accords from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Americans alone need to reduce their carbon footprint to at least 10 tons by 2050 if we have any hope of keeping the temperature increase under 1.5 degrees Celsius6.
In short, your carbon footprint has a big impact on climate change.
How Can I Calculate My Carbon Footprint?
This one is easy, as there are several carbon footprint calculators available online7. We recommend looking for one that includes both direct and indirect emissions into its calculations. If a calculator doesn’t account for how much you drive and spend — key factors in tracking your complete emissions profile — it’s not giving you an accurate calculation. You need an integrated and comprehensive analysis of the size of your footprint if you’re going to make some real changes.
How Can You Reduce Your Carbon Footprint?
Here’s the thing: anyone who’s remotely familiar with an eco-friendly lifestyle knows exactly what to do if they want to shrink their carbon footprint8. We’ve all skimmed the posts, read the books, and browsed the listicles. We’ve all seen An Inconvenient Truth, Fast Food Nation, and other documentaries outlining the negative impact of our choices. We’ve even bought products and services designed to help us use less.
So, this list of tips, tricks, and activities shouldn’t come as news to anyone who wants to reduce their carbon footprint, but it might remind you of everything you could be doing at a minimum to change our world for the better.
- Reduce how much you drive in a private vehicle
- Increase how much you travel on public transportation
- Travel less in general
- Eat less meat
- Eat more vegetables grown locally
- Use less electricity at home
- Turn off lights
- Unplug electronics you aren’t using
- Use more energy-efficient thermostat settings
- Run your heavy appliances after the sun goes down
- Use energy-efficient appliances
- Switch to a green electricity plan powered by 100% renewable energy
- Install LED lighting throughout your home
- Install solar panels on your roof
- Eat out less
- Eat from delivery services less
- Refuse single-use plates and cutlery
- Replace with metal or reusable utensils
- Refuse non-recyclable containers and packaging
- Recycle everything you can
- Reuse everything you can
- Compost what you can’t
- Buy less stuff
- Use stuff until you absolutely HAVE to replace it
- Resist buying the newest iteration of every piece of technology
- Only purchase from companies actively invested in reducing its carbon footprint
Long story short — your carbon footprint is real, and it has a real environmental impact9. You might not think that your individual activities contribute to global warming, but they do because you’re not alone on this planet. None of us are alone.
This is the underlying truth of the carbon footprint: it represents your personal contribution to the collective. You personally matter because everyone and everything matters. Since we all live on Earth together, we all need to work together to care for the Earth. And it starts by looking for every opportunity to use less, waste less, and conserve more.