What is a Carbon Footprint & How is it Calculated? (Explained)

Terms like carbon footprint and ecological footprint gained popularity in the 90s as we became more conscious of our impact on the environment.

Carbon footprint is the measure of emissions that contribute to climate change, while ecological footprint focuses on measuring the use of space and its impact on the ecosystem.

Carbon footprint calculators are an educational tool that can help individuals and companies develop a better understanding of their impact and how to reduce that impact.

The following article will explore what a carbon footprint is and how a carbon footprint is calculated.

What is a Carbon Footprint?

A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases that are caused by an individual, event, organization, service, place, or product. It is measured by the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) produced through the burning of fossil fuels and is expressed as a weight of CO2 emissions produced in tonnes, often referred to as carbon equivalents.

Human activities are one of the major causes of greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gases can be emitted through…

  • Burning of fossil fuels for electricity, health and transportation
  • Land use and forestry
  • Production and consumption of food
  • Manufacturing of goods
  • Industry
  • And more

The idea of the carbon footprint was popularized in 2005 through a $250 million advertising campaign by the fossil fuel company BP. The campaign was intended to redirect attention and blame from the fossil fuel industry onto individuals. This strategy used similar tactics to the tobacco industry and plastic industry, which sought to shift the blame onto individual choices.

What is Ecological Footprint?

The ecological footprint is the impact of human activities measured in terms of the area of biologically productive land and water required to produce the goods consumed and to assimilate the waste generated. Essentially, it is the number of earth’s needed for humans to survive. It illustrates the human demand and impact on ecosystems.

The carbon footprint emerged from William E. Rees and Mathis Wackernagel’s concept, known as the ecological footprint in the 1990s. The major difference between the two ideas is that ecological footprint is reported in terms of what the planet can renew, whereas carbon footprints are reported in terms of tons of emissions (CO2 -equivalent) per year.

How is Carbon Footprint Calculated?

A carbon footprint can be measured by undertaking a GHG emissions assessment, a life cycle assessment, or other calculative activities that can be denoted as carbon accounting. It is the total of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused directly and indirectly.

Factors included in the calculation

  • Food and diet
  • Personal transportation
  • Air travel
  • House size and amenities
  • Shopping and recreation activities

Typically, a carbon footprint is calculated by estimating the CO2 emissions and any other greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. methane and nitrous oxide) associated with a given activity.

For simplicity, the carbon footprint is calculated by summing the emissions and expressing them in a single number, referred to as carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). That number represents the amount of CO2 that would create the same amount of warming (climate change impact).

There are many websites available to calculate your carbon footprint. There is no golden standard and for that reason, the calculation of carbon footprints is often filled with uncertainties. While there is no footprint calculator that is precise, it still provides a sign of an individual or company’s impact on the environment.

Top websites to Calculate Your Carbon Footprint

  1. Nature.org Carbon Footprint Calculator
  2. Berkeley Cool Climate
  3. Environmental Protection Agency
  4. Carbon Footprint Calculator
  5. WWF Carbon Footprint Calculator
  6. UN Carbon Footprint Calculator
  7. Terrapass Carbon Footprint Calculator

Once the size of a carbon footprint is known, a strategy can be developed to reduce it.

Average Carbon Footprints

The average carbon footprint ranges depending on where you live. Generally, developed nations have a much higher carbon footprint than developing nations.

The average person’s annual carbon footprint (emissions per capita)

  • Global – 4 tons
  • United States – 16 tons
  • Australia – 16 tons
  • Canada – 14.2 tons
  • China – 10.1 tons
  • United Kingdom – 5.81
  • Mexico – 3.58 tons
  • India – 2.65 tons
  • Nigeria – 0.64 tons
  • Uganda 0.12 tons

To have the best chance of mitigating climate changes and avoiding a 2℃ rise in global temperatures, the average global carbon footprint per year needs to drop by 2 tons by 2050. Human activity is no longer sustainable and our impacts are exceeding the earth’s ability to recover.

Why is Calculating Your Carbon Footprint Important?

Carbon footprint calculators are an educational tool. Calculating individual carbon footprints is a necessary step toward understanding one’s contribution to climate change. The first step is to identify your impact, at which point you can then identify ways to reduce it.

By lowering your carbon footprint, you can help contribute to the overall reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. A lot of times, small actions that are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can also save you money and help you live a healthier lifestyle.

Top 5 Sources of Carbon Emissions

1. Food

Food and diet can drastically impact one’s carbon footprint. Food can account for 10% to 30% of a household’s carbon footprint. Production (e.g. agricultural practices) accounts for 68% of food emissions, while transportation accounts for 5%.

Carbon Footprint Ranking of Food

FoodCO2 Kilos Equivalent
Lamb39.2
Beef27
Cheese13.5
Pork12.1
Turkey10.9
Chicken6.9
Tuna3.1
Eggs4.8
Potatoes2.9
Rice2.7

Meat products have larger carbon footprints per calorie than grain or vegetable products. This is because of the release of CH4 from manure and ruminants.

How to reduce emissions related to food

  • Eliminating the transportation of food for one year could save the GHG equivalent of driving 1,000 miles
  • Shifting to a vegetarian meal one day a week could save the equivalent of driving 1,160 miles
  • Switching to a vegetarian diet
  • Switching to less carbon intensive meats (beef GHG emission per kilogram is 7.2 times higher than chicken)
  • Reducing meat in your diet
  • Avoid wasting food

2. Household Emissions

Household emissions include factors such as the home size, electricity and heat usage, and heavy appliances. Unsurprisingly, smaller houses use less energy and fewer resources. The electricity source can also influence the carbon footprint (e.g. coal vs. solar). It is estimated that, for each kWh generated in the US, an average of 0.889 pounds of CO2e is released at the power plant.

Comparison of Carbon Released by Energy Source

  • Coal releases 2.2 pounds
  • Petroleum releases 1.9 pounds
  • Natural gas releases 0.9 pounds
  • Nuclear, solar, wind and hydroelectric release no Co2 when they produce electricity, but emissions are released during production activities (e.g. solar cells, nuclear fuels)

Appliances can also influence one’s carbon footprint, especially older appliances. Refrigerators are one of the largest users of household appliances energy. In 2019, an average of 672lbs of CO2e per household was released because of refrigeration. Laundry is also a major source of household emissions because of the need for heat for both washing and drying.

Many people don’t realize that even though you are not using an electronic device, so long as it is plugged in, it is drawing electricity. Energy consumed by devices in standby mode accounts for 5-10% of residential energy use, adding up to $100 per year for the average American household.

How to reduce emissions related to household

  • Switch to renewable energy (e.g. solar, wind)
  • Upgrade older appliances to energy-efficient appliances
  • Switching to cold water wash once per week can reduce household GHG emissions by over 70 lbs annually
  • Unplug electronic devices when not in use
  • Use energy-efficient lighting
  • Practice the 3 R’s – reduce, reuse and recycle
  • Use less water
  • Turn off lights

3. Personal Transportation

Transportation is now one of the largest sources of carbon emissions in the United States. In most cities, personal automobiles are the single greatest polluter because emissions quickly add up. This is because ofo their heavy reliance on petroleum. For example, the average passenger car emits 0.78 pounds of CO2 per mile driven.

How to reduce emissions related to personal transportation

  • Walk or bike
  • Take public transportation or mass transit
  • Carpool
  • Following the speed limit can improve fuel economy by 7-14%
  • Switch to an electric car
  • Ensure car tires are properly inflated
  • Buy an efficient vehicle (e.g. switching from a vehicle that gets 20-mpg to a vehicle that gets 25-mpg reduces your greenhouse gas emissions by 1.7 tons annually)

4. Air Travel

Jet fuel is a high-carbon energy source and take-off and landing are the most fuel-intensive parts of a flight. Therefore, the more connecting flights you have, the higher your carbon footprint will be.

Commercial aircraft GHG emissions vary according to the aircraft, type, trip length, occupancy rates, and passenger and cargo weight. The heavier an aircraft is, the more fuel it will consume. In 2019, the average domestic commercial flight emitted 0.39 pounds of CO2e per passenger mile.

How to reduce emissions related to air travel

  • Take the train or other forms of transportation when possible
  • Choose a direct flight
  • Pack light

5. Shopping Activities

Believe it or not, the choices you make while shopping can have an enormous influence on your carbon footprint. The main things that influence your carbon footprint when shopping are storage, packaging and transportation of basic consumer products.

Fast fashion is really popular right now because of its price point but this has huge environmental implications. For example, a pair of jeans is approximately 15-20 kg CO2e. Buying long-lasting pieces from sustainable brands or second hand is much better for your carbon footprint than continuously buying cheap clothing that does not last.

Electronics also have a high carbon footprint because of point, need for mining minerals. The carbon footprint of a new smartphone is around 70 kg of CO2e and a new laptop ranges from 200 to 400 kg CO2e.

How to reduce emissions related to shopping and recreational activities

  • Buy local
  • Buy products that have less packaging
  • Buy secondhand
  • Use reusable bags
  • Upgrade your electronic devices when necessary (i.e. they stop working)
  • Repair items instead of replacing them

Offsetting your Carbon Footprint

Carbon offsets are credits produced by projects that reduce, remove or capture CO2 emissions from the atmosphere. Essentially, it is a way for individuals and companies to cancel out the impact of some of their CO2 emissions.

Carbon offsets are typically measured in tonnes of CO2e and are bought and sold through international brokers, online retailers and trading platforms. For example, when taking an airplane, some companies allow you to offset your trip for an extra cost.

Carbon emissions have a significant impact on your planet. They are the greenhouse gas with the highest levels of emissions in the atmosphere, which leads to climate change. This leads to extreme weather events, wildlife fires, severe droughts, sea level rise, and much more.

The carbon footprint is one way to evaluate your impact on the environment as it measures the greenhouse gases that you are responsible for creating.

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