You’ve probably been hearing the phrase “carbon footprint” everywhere lately, especially when it relates to climate change or the eco-friendliness of a product or organization. It’s a famous phrase that many big companies love to use, but often use incorrectly. So what does it mean? In short, when talking about climate change, “footprint” means the total impact something has. Carbon, however, is shorthand for all of the different greenhouse gases (GHG) that have been found to contribute to climate change and global warming, including carbon dioxide (CO2). Therefore, carbon footprint refers to the best estimate we can gather of the full impact of human activity on the environment – something like a product, an action, or even the regular activities of a person’s everyday life. The bigger the footprint, the more it harms the environment.
Before we get to the details, let’s talk about the big picture issue: climate change.
What is Climate Change?
Climate change occurs when long-term weather patterns are altered – for example, through human activity. Global warming is one measure of climate change, and is a rise in the average global temperature. The changes observed in our planet’s climate since the early 20th century have been primarily driven by human activities, particularly fossil fuel burning, which increases heat-trapping greenhouse gas levels in Earth’s atmosphere, raising the average surface temperature of Earth. These human-produced temperature increases are commonly referred to as global warming.
According to NASA, since the pre-industrial period, human activities are estimated to have increased Earth’s global average temperature by about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), a number that is currently increasing by 0.2 degrees Celsius (0.36 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade. Most of the current warming trend is extremely likely (greater than 95% probability) the result of human activity since the 1950s and is proceeding at an unprecedented rate over decades to millennia.
Scientists estimate that by the end of this century, our planet may heat up as much as 6C (42F), which would have catastrophic implications.
The global warming that’s changing our climate is already having dire consequences.
In just the past few decades:
- Rising temperatures have worsened extreme weather events around the world.
- Wildfires are much more catastrophic and wildfire seasons are months longer.
- Chunks of ice in the Antarctic have broken apart.
- Mosquitoes are expanding their territory, able to spread disease.
- Coral reefs around the world have been bleached and are dying.
The “Carbon” in Carbon Footprint
The global warming that is changing our climate is caused and accelerated by the release of certain types of gas into the atmosphere. The main greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide (CO2), which is emitted whenever we burn fossil fuels in homes, factories, power stations, and cars.
In addition to carbon dioxide, there are other greenhouse gases which contribute to the carbon footprint we leave behind. One of these is methane, which is emitted mainly by agriculture and landfill sites and is about 25 times more damaging to the environment than CO2. Nitrous oxide is another, which is released mainly from farming and industrial processes.
All of these greenhouse gasses are turning up the heat on our planet.
The average carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16.5 tons, one of the highest rates in the world. Globally, the average is closer to 4 tons. We must strive to make better choices for the environment. We can start by reducing our individual carbon footprints.
Calculating a Carbon Footprint
Now that we know that a single activity or item can cause multiple different greenhouse gases to be emitted, a carbon footprint becomes pretty complicated to calculate. Instead, the convention is to express a carbon footprint in terms of carbon dioxide equivalent. In other words, we take all of the climate change impact and greenhouse gases caused by an action, and we group them into one and express that in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide that would have the same impact.
Say, for example, you decide to have steak and a salad for dinner. You don’t have any ingredients on hand, so you have to drive to the grocery store. So how could we calculate the carbon footprint behind that particular action? Well, to start, driving your car to the store burns a certain amount of fuel (CO2). The grocery store you’re shopping at is powered by electricity, which in turn burns more fuel. It’s likely that most, if not all, of the grocery store employees drove to work in their cars, burning more fuel. Even beyond that, the products inside the store were probably all shipped there, so that needs to be factored in. And we’re just getting started. All of the ingredients you’re shopping for (as well as everything else in the store!) were grown or raised on farms, which have their own carbon footprints.
All of these elements must be combined to understand the full carbon footprint of a given activity or product. Since this is such a complex subject, emissions are classified by direct and indirect emissions. Direct emissions that are created by an individual; these emissions are controllable and connect a person to their influence on the environment. In the grocery store example above, the direct emission would be the fuel it takes to get to the grocery store, the fuel that it takes to power the store, and the fuel it takes to drive back to your house. The indirect emissions include everything else.
How Can I Calculate My Carbon Footprint?
Although it’s no easy task, you can use a carbon footprint calculator to help estimate your personal carbon footprint. A carbon footprint calculator will give you a rough estimate of your carbon footprint based on the size of your household, the types of appliances you have, the type of vehicle you have, how much you drive, what you eat, how much you recycle, and even the types of products you use in your home.
How Can I Reduce My Carbon Footprint?
Lowering individual carbon footprints doesn’t happen overnight! By making small changes to our actions, we can start making a big difference. We can do things like eating less meat (meat has a much higher carbon footprint than fruits and vegetables), consuming more local foods (or food that requires less transportation to get to your plate), taking less connecting flights when traveling, driving more efficient vehicles or just taking public transportation, insulating our homes so that they require less heating or air-conditioning, using energy-efficient appliances, and being conscious of the products we use in our homes.
The health of the planet is core to The Ecology Works’ mission. We are passionate about creating green household products that mirror our planet’s own solutions and have minimal impact on our planet. All of our products are VOC-free, fragrance-free, dye-free, allergen-free, phthalate-free, bleach-free, and ammonia-free. We take our responsibility to the natural environment and our customers seriously. Our products are better for people and the planet, and unrivaled in performance.
The bottom line: Be conscious. Remember that everything you do impacts the environment. By making better choices, you can make a difference.Learn more about the science behind our products and about how to make environmentally-friendly choices. Have questions? Contact us here or send us a message via Facebook. We’re here to help.