Every human activity has an impact on the environment -let's call it a footprint. From the cup of coffee we sip every morning to the bus or train we take to work, all our actions -even breathing or eating!- take resources from the environment and produce some waste. But what is the Carbon Footprint?
Carbon footprint and Greenhouse Gases
Many of our activities produce gas emissions, which are responsible for global warming and climate change. These gas compounds absorb infrared radiation and hold the heat in the atmosphere. Since they end up causing a greenhouse effect, they are referred to as Greenhouse Gases (GHG).
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), among the most harmful Greenhouse Gases we find:
Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Carbon dioxide derives mainly from the burning of fossil fuels. It can also be released into the atmosphere as a result of deforestation and land clearing for agriculture. Trees are carbon sinks: when they are knocked down or burnt, all the carbon they store is released into the atmosphere.
Methane (CH4). Waste management (organic materials decomposition), agriculture activities (cattle above all), energy use, and biomass burning are activities that release methane, one of the most harmful greenhouse gases.
Other GHG affecting the Earth are Nitrous oxide (N2O), used in Fertilizers for agriculture and Fossil fuel combustion, and Fluorinated Gases (F-gases), used in industrial processes, also in refrigeration, and numerous consumer products. Black carbon -in the form of solid particles or aerosol- also contributes to warming the atmosphere.
What is the carbon footprint?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a carbon footprint measures the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere due to a particular activity. All the emissions resulting from our daily lives or family group make a household carbon footprint.
Considering the United States is the second carbon dioxide polluter globally after China, Americans -individually and as a community- have a big responsibility in mitigating global warming.
How do we measure a carbon footprint?
To express a carbon footprint, we use the weight of CO2 emissions produced in tonnes.
As an example, the United States emitted 5,416 million tons of CO2 in 2019. The average carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16 tons, one of the world's highest rates! Globally, the average is closer to 4 tons. If we are to prevent temperatures from rising, the average carbon footprint must be lowered to half, 2 tons. Therefore, Americans need to assume a leading role in becoming earth-friendly!
Our carbon footprint estimation provides insights into our energy consumption, transportation, and waste management habits and their environmental consequences. It can also help us analyze how sustainable the food and goods we consume are. Ultimately, knowing our carbon footprint will help us find healthier practices and habits for us all.
How do I calculate my carbon footprint?
We have dozens of online tools that can help us calculate our carbon footprint. Here we feature five that are super simple and free to use.
Top 5 Carbon Footprint Calculators
Get Ready! Calculate your carbon footprint now!
Please, note that most calculators address three main areas to estimate a household carbon footprint: energy, transportation, and waste. Therefore, you will need to have your utility bills at hand (electricity, natural gas, fuel oil, propane). As for your car, the website fueleconomy.gov (US Department of Energy) can provide an estimate of your car's rated fuel efficiency, or you can calculate your car's actual efficiency.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency's calculator allows you to get an estimate of your household carbon footprint in three areas: energy, transportation, and waste management.
Not only will it give you a reasonable estimate, but it will also provide excellent insights into your future savings (in dollars and carbon emissions) if you make a few changes at home. For example, it encourages you to replace your lightbulb with ENERGY STAR ® lights by showing how much money you would save and the impact on your carbon emissions.
After typing your Zip Code and the number of people in your house, the Interface will ask you to give your monthly bills averages.
Founded in the US in 1951, The Nature Conservancy is an environmental organization that impacts conservation in more than 70 countries and territories in the world. It operates more than a hundred marine projects and has helped protect more than 125 million acres of land. Its mission is supported by one million members and relies on a staff that exceeds 400 scientists.
From my point of view, this is one of the more accurate and complete interactive calculators. It addresses food and shopping (goods and services), expenditures and transportation, and household energy.
You can understand how your household carbon footprint compares with the average for your area. And you have a final step - a list of calls to action- with recommendations to reduce your impact and lower your carbon emissions in Transportation, Housing, and Shopping.
Would you like to offset your emissions? With your donation, you will help plant more than 400,000 native trees that help capture carbon, and you will contribute to conserving wildlife in North America. Another worth supporting is the Reef restoration project, carried out through a partnership with shellfish growers. Five million oysters will help rebuild reefs at 20 restoration sites in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and Washington.
Even though it gives a rough estimate of your household carbon footprint, the UN's calculator can retrieve your carbon footprint in just a few minutes. It will provide you with a first shot of where you are standing right now to start your journey towards sustainability.
After getting your result and comparing it with your country's and the world's average, you will be invited to offset your footprint. The United Nations carry out many green projects that you can support to remove your emissions.
Since 2003, the Global Footprint Network has raised awareness on humanity's depletion of natural resources, more than nature can regenerate. The Network works with NGOs, governments, and businesses to provide insights and data for their risk and sustainability assessment. The Global Footprint Network also designs and executes campaigns that advance sustainability.
Their core concept is the Ecological Footprint: a comprehensive sustainability metric that considers the individuals or business footprint and the ecological/deficit reserve of the country they belong to.
After completing the Quiz, you will know how many Earths we would need if everyone lived like you! Will you dare to take the Quiz? Here are my results:
Conservation International protects nature by addressing the root causes of climate change in more than 30 countries. Did you know that 11% percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are directly related to deforestation? Conservation International works to save critical forests and conserve the habitat for threatened species and the communities that depend on forests.
Apart from being effortless and free to use, the Conservation International calculator will allow you to estimate your carbon footprint for yourself, your entire household, a single trip, or a particular event.
As usual, to start, you will have to enter your Zip Code. If you want to understand the assumptions used -for example, the CO2 emissions created by passenger-mile on the different means of transportation, check the section "See the Math" at the bottom of the page. After calculating your carbon footprint, you can start offsetting your emissions with just one click.
How can I reduce my carbon footprint?
Once you have the results, you may wonder: How can I lower this figure?
As the saying goes: where there's a will, there's a way!
Maybe buying an electric car is not something you can afford right now. Yet, there are many good practices you can put in place to reduce your carbon footprint. Here are just some:
Use ENERGY STAR ® lights instead of regular lightbulbs.
Use appliances labeled as A+++
Swap to renewable energies (like solar panels), if possible.
Line drying your clothes is far more sustainable than using a drying machine.
Wash dishes by hand with warm (not hot) water or use an energy-efficient dishwasher.
Ride your bike or walk instead of taking a bus.
Compost your food scraps.
Avoid one-single-use cups, cutlery, and straws.
Refuse the use of plastic and choose more sustainable options like upcycled glass
Only buy what is strictly necessary and reuse, repurpose or donate stuff as much as possible.
Many home plants clean the air. They will help you remove toxins and improve air quality, plus they are beautiful and promote wellbeing.