Carbon Footprint: What is it, and how do I calculate mine?

What is your carbon footprint? This is a question that many people are asking themselves these days. The answer might be different for everyone, but the general consensus amongst environmentalists and scientists is that we should all be striving to reduce our emissions as much as possible.

In this blog post, we will talk about what a carbon footprint is, how you can calculate your own carbon footprint, and what you can do to help reduce it!

What is a Carbon Footprint?

A carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases your activities directly emit. This includes your transportation, heating and cooling of your home, electricity use in your home or business including appliances you own.

The biggest factors that affect your carbon footprint is electricity usage and transportation, but your real impact goes deeper than that. Let’s say you buy a new smartphone this year. Most people (and carbon calculators) would assume that the electricity you charge your smartphone with impacts your carbon footprint, but not actually buying the phone.

A modern smartphone actually consume surprisingly small amounts of electricity, equal to about 100 hours of powering a small indoor light, when used daily for a whole year. That might sound like a lot, but consider the timescale. To drain your battery from 100% to 0%, you probably get 4-5 hours or more out of it. That’s around 1500 hours per year of active use, meaning the phone uses up to 15 times less electricity per hour when compared to a standard light.

However, that smartphone didn’t just appear out of nothing. The phone will in most cases have been constructed in another country, by parts commonly mined or produced in a third country, and then shipped to your country. It’s probably then transported from an airport or a dock to a warehouse before it is transported to a store, where it eventually ends up in your hands.

So, should that smartphone purchase be included in your carbon footprint, in addition to the electricity you use to charge it? Normally, the answer would be no, in part because those emissions are caused indirectly rather than directly, but also because it would be near-impossible to calculate.

This goes to show that defining and determining an accurate carbon footprint is difficult, especially on an individual level. That said, even though there’s no right way to determine your own footprint down to the milligram, it’s still important to at least approximate it.

There is a direct relationship between the size of your footprint and how much you, individually, contribute to climate change. As climate change is accelerating, everyone’s carbon footprint matters and everyone needs to do their part.

There are many reasons for reducing our individual emissions, with climate change obviously being the primary one, but an added side benefit is that we will all be able to live healthier lives. By reducing our carbon footprints, we will all be able to enjoy cleaner air and drinkable water much longer into the future (and we’ll actually get to have a future)!

Calculate your own Carbon Footprint

Rather than being measured by the actual emissions from an individual’s activities directly related to their life or businesses, which would be prohibitively difficult for most people, carbon footprints are typically expressed as estimates using various methodologies.

These methodologies vary by region, state, or even country. That is because the emissions from transportation and heating/cooling in particular differ significantly depending on where you live and work. This can be due to geographical location (e.g., living at a higher altitude), climate conditions (hotter summers vs colder winters) that affect energy demand, or a more efficient energy infrastructure.

To calculate your own carbon footprint you need to first decide what to include. If you want to include one or more indirect factors (such as buying electronics, clothes or imported goods) you’re encouraged to do so, but it’s not strictly necessary.

You’re going to need to include as much as possible of your direct contributing factors, however. Your electricity and fossil fuel usage will represent the majority of your carbon footprint for most people.

A good starting point is what you can most easily measure, such as how much electricity and gas that is used in your home every year as well as the total distance you drive annually. Then go ahead and add all (if any) air travel you’ve made as well, and the most important metric is the distance you traveled.

You can calculate the impact of your electricity usage by multiplying the amount of kWh with 0.92 pounds (or 0.41 kg), which is the current average Co2 emission per kWh in the United States.

For your car, you need to look at the manufacturer specifications to determine the fuel consumption, and then multiply that by distance traveled. Proceed to multiply the gallons of fuel you consumed with 18.74 pounds, which is the average Co2 released per gallon by personal cars, according to the US EIA.

If you’re using the metric system instead, calculate as outlined above but with liters instead of gallons, and multiply the liters of gasoline with 2.3 kg.

Air travel is a bit more tricky, but nonetheless equally important. On average, one mile (or 1,6 kilometers) traveled in the air emits approximately 53.3 pounds of Co2. Calculate the distance you traveled for all your flights combined and multiply accordingly.

Now, the number you’ve reached is going to be quite large, and that’s because you need to divide it with the amount of passengers on each plane, unless of course you are flying on a private jet. This is probably impossible to do accurately from memory, so you’re going to need to take your best guess. The average airplane has 138 seats, to give you a rough idea, and commercial airplanes with less than 90 seats are very uncommon.

Once you’ve reached an estimate you’re satisfied with, you should have a decent approximation of how your carbon footprint looks, based on electricity, travel, and fossil fuel use.

Reduce your Carbon Emissions

While it should go without saying, cutting down on energy and fuel consumption, as well as all superfluous consumption, is the best way to minimize your carbon footprint. Whatever you can’t remove yourself, however, should be offset.

Offsetting means that your emissions are neutralized by an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere by someone else. In short, offsetting your directly caused emissions removes your carbon footprint, and is the second best thing you can do to avoid accelerating climate change.

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