Curious About Your Carbon Footprint? Here's What It Means and What You Can Do to Reduce It
Carbon footprint knowledge is power.
The science behind climate change and the greenhouse gas effect is incredibly complicated—and a lot still remains unknown. And the truth is that much of the burden of reducing humanity's overall carbon footprint falls on the shoulders of major, fossil-fuel burning industries and sectors, such as transportation, energy production, and agriculture. But individuals do have a role to play, since the commercial/residential sector accounts for around 12 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. These occur namely from our everyday needs and habits like heating and cooling our homes, cooking meals, waste management, and using electricity.
What is a carbon footprint?
Let's go back to basics. A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere as a result of the production and use of a particular product or service. Every company, industry, event, and individual has its own carbon footprint. So your carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by your day-to-day actions, from driving a car to making a ham sandwich.
The term refers to carbon dioxide, which accounts for about 81 percent of human-made greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The word footprint refers to the amount of carbon dioxide a person (or company, industry, activity, service, or event) contributes to climate change; it's their environmental impact. Greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, water vapor, nitrous oxide, and methane—allow sunlight to penetrate the Earth's lower atmosphere, but don't let heat escape. Like a greenhouse for plants (though with less desirable results), heat gets trapped within the Earth's atmosphere contributing to global warming.
So when you eat that ham sandwich, your carbon footprint includes the pollutants produced by the tractor to harvest the corn that fed the pig and the wheat that made the bread, as well as the vehicles that transported the ingredients to the grocery store or your door.
How to Calculate Your Carbon Footprint
Did you know you can actually calculate your carbon footprint? Here are a few places to do so: EPA.gov, FootPrintCalculator.org, CarbonFootPrint.com, Nature.org, and Conservation.org. They take into account various lifestyle factors, from your household size to commuting methods, travel habits to your typical energy bill.
These calculators aren't 100 percent accurate, nor are the results an indictment of your character. The point is to use them to get a rough sense of which of your lifestyle habits and household activities consume the most resources and contribute the most to the atmosphere. Once your eyes have been opened, you can make small (or medium or large) lifestyle changes accordingly.
Everyday Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint
Some of the most obvious areas to consider when trying to reduce your carbon footprint are transportation (from Ubers to flights), trash and waste, and use of electricity. Choose to walk or bike if you can, carpool with colleagues, or take public transportation (which has its own eco-footprint, but at least you won't be adding your car into the mix!). Pay attention to how much you waste: Switch from plastic water bottles to a refillable vessel; reuse grocery and shopping bags; ditch paper plates and napkins, and plastic utensils and containers (here are four more incredibly attainable ways to be less wasteful). Become a savvier consumer: Buy and eat less meat; support brands openly working to reduce their environmental impact through sustainable sourcing, production, and packaging. Buy the least packaged and processed items you can find—or shoot for products with recycled and/or recyclable packaging. And finally, try to use less electricity. Turn off and unplug appliances and other electronics when not in use. Cut down on shower time. Turn the heat/AC off unless you're desperate. Small tweaks—and even just a newfound awareness—can make a difference.
How to Neutralize Your Carbon Footprint
Not only can you work to decrease your carbon footprint, you can take action to offset, or compensate for, the inevitable environmental impact of your day-to-day choices. But what does it mean to offset your emissions? As many large corporations and groups do, you as an individual can choose to compensate for your carbon contributions by purchasing carbon offsets. For example, travelers choose to purchase carbon offsets equivalent to the price of their airfare for a trip. These are essentially money donations to verified organizations that fund initiatives like renewable energy solutions, sustainability education programs, forest protection, and emission reduction projects.
But take caution: There are some not-so-trustworthy players in the game (even some carbon offset critics warn that the seemingly legitimate players aren't worth it, either). If you're going to hand over your money to benefit the environment, do your research. The organization you're supporting should be verified by third-party certification programs or entities, and meet global standards of transparency and efficacy. Some of these include The Gold Standard, Verified Carbon Standard (VCS), American Carbon Registry (ACR), and Green-e Climates. Carbon offset organizations like TerraPass and CarbonFund.org are safe places to start.
Another good place to start? Right in your kitchen. Here are 10 smart ways to reduce your carbon footprint in the kitchen (and save some money on your energy bill, too).