carbon footprint definition

Carbon Footprint Definition

Last modified on 20thFebruary 2020

What is a carbon footprint? What should be my carbon footprint? How to reduce my carbon footprint? Let’s find out.

Carbon Footprint Simple Definition By Youmatter

A carbon footprint corresponds to the whole amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) produced to, directly and indirectly, support a person’s lifestyle and activities. Carbon footprints are usually measured in equivalent tons of CO2, during the period of a year, and they can be associated with an individual, an organization, a product or an event, among others.

The GHGs whose sum results in a carbon footprint can come from the production and consumption of fossil fuels, food, manufactured goods, materials, roads or transportation. And despite its importance, carbon footprints are difficult to calculate exactly due to poor knowledge and short data regarding the complex interactions between contributing processes – including the influence of natural processes that store or release carbon dioxide.

Carbon Footprint Official Definition By The World Health Organization

According to WHO, a carbon footprint is a measure of the impact your activities have on 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.

“How To Measure My Personal Carbon Footprint?”

The carbon footprint is a very important means to understand the impact of a person’s behavior on global warming. This is why someone who effectively wants to contribute to stopping global warming, at least on an individual scale, needs to measure and keep track of their personal carbon footprint.

And here is where online calculators come in. For instance, by using the carbon footprint calculators from WWF, TerraPass (includes calculator for companies and events) or the UN you’ll be asked to provide pieces of information such as: how you commute to work, what your usual diet is, how much you drive or fly, the size of your household, or what type of electricity the grid provides you.

The result you’ll get won’t be perfect or very much accurate – and there are several reasons why. First, because carbon footprint calculators use standard values that aren’t always right for a multiple of possible situations. For instance, when you type how many miles you drive on average, a certain reference value for the CO2/emissions/mile will be multiplied by your miles and then by 12 months. However, both numbers are estimations: sometimes you drive more than you actually told the calculator, and perhaps you drive a 4×4 truck and not an SUV as the calculator is expecting.

The same can happen for how much impact your diet has: eating meat is on average very carbon polluting, but it also depends on where you buy it (if it’s local it has fewer emissions from transportation) or how caws are fed. Another reason is also that these estimations usually forget (because it’s very hard to find numbers) to account for goods and services purchased.

In the end, the truth is that an exact number is hard to find. Still, these calculators are the best there is and there’s no excuse for not getting your carbon footprint and working on how to improve it.

How To Reduce My Personal Carbon Footprint?

As we can tell from above, it’s hard to get someone’s exact carbon footprint. Besides this, in order to accurately reduce CO2 emissions, it’s also important to use numbers that approximately mirror someone’s local reality.

If you think about it, the calculator is likely to assume that whether you have an American SUV from brand A being driven in New Zealand or a light Japanese car from brand B driven in Japan – they both have the same emissions.

However, at least for now, estimations like these need to be made so we can get to something specific to work on. And the fact is that even though there is the chance that your car pollutes less than the average value used, or that the beef you buy is less polluting than the average: they’re still great sources of CO2 emissions, which means general guidelines still apply. In this way, and in compliance with the World Health Organization suggestions, there are 5 main areas you can work on to improve your carbon footprint:

1. TRANSPORTATION – EXAMPLES OF GOOD & SUSTAINABLE BEHAVIORS

  • Avoid polluting car journeys (each liter of fuel burnt in a car engine emits over 2.5 kg of CO2) and favor walking, cycling or using public transport, especially trains;
  • If you are driving, share the ride with others and don’t speed as it uses more petrol and therefore, emits more CO2;
  • Avoid flying, the world’s fastest-growing source of CO2 emissions. If you do it, consider offsetting your emissions.

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2. FOOD – EXAMPLES OF GOOD & SUSTAINABLE BEHAVIORS

  • Reduce the number of animal products consumed;
  • Eat local and seasonal produced food: short trips mean less pollution from transportation;
  • Recycle/ compost organic waste. Otherwise, methane will be released by the decomposing biodegradable waste in landfills. In the EU, these emissions account for ~3% of GHG emissions.

Vegetarian, Omnivore, Organic, Locavore: The Environmental Impact Of Your Food Decrypted

3. WATER USE – EXAMPLES OF GOOD & SUSTAINABLE BEHAVIORS

  • Use the washing machine and dishwasher only when they are full;
  • Boil only the water you will need and cover your pots while you cook: you’ll save plenty of energy and the process will be faster;
  • Collect the cold water from the first seconds of your shower to water your garden or plants;
  • Harvest rainwater if you have access to a rooftop as an alternative to groundwater;
  • Raise hand pumps to protect drinking-water from flood contamination.

4. ENERGY USE – EXAMPLES OF GOOD & SUSTAINABLE BEHAVIORS

  • Be mindful of the temperature of your house: just 1ºC less reduce emissions (and your energy bill) by 5-10%;
  • Turn down air-con for the cold – they are super energy expensive. Use a fan instead;
  • Program your energy devices so that they’re on only while you are (about to get) home;
  • Improve your house’s insulation so that less heat gets out when its cold and less heat comes in when it’s warm, reducing the need to use other devices;
  • Mind the settings you choose: maybe your fridge doesn’t have to be in the coolest setting and your water cylinder thermostat doesn’t have to be set higher than 50ºC;
  • Unplug your cellphone’s charger as it still drains electricity even when it is not connected to the cellphone;
  • Switch off the lights when you don’t need them and use energy-saving lights such as LED;
  • Change your electricity supplier for a greener one that provides more green (renewable) energy so help low carbon energy sources are strengthened.

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5. WASTE MANAGEMENT – EXAMPLES OF GOOD & SUSTAINABLE BEHAVIORS

  • Refuse what you don’t need, reduce what you need; reuse it as many times as you can, re-purpose if you’re not using it anymore and recycle or compost it and something reaches the end of its lifecycle;
  • Avoid buying new bags to transport your shopping back home by reusing your shopping bag;
  • Choose products with little/no packaging: this ultimately cuts down production costs.

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Example Of A Product’s Carbon Footprint

Carbon footprint measurements are a very effective method for businesses to differentiate their products in the marketplace and part of their corporate responsibility (CSR) strategy.

That’s why it’s increasingly important to assess emissions and mitigate them using methodologies like the lifecycle analysis or guidelines from the ISO 14067:2018.

Is Carbon Footprint And Ecological Footprint The Same?

No. While the carbon footprint measures the emission of gases that contribute to global warming, the ecological footprint focuses on measuring the use of bio-productive space.

Your Carbon Footprint And A More Sustainable Lifestyle

The truth is that the current consumption model of our society is exhausting the world’s resources and ecosystems. Especially the “most privilledged” percentage of people that have more wealth to spend in consumption – without necessarily doing it in a responsible way.

This responsible consumption is often about buying foods that follow ecological production methods, were transported for short distances, ensuring those producing it get a fair earning from it… It’s also about moving in ways that release less CO2 emissions such as walking, cycling, using public transports or sharing car rides with another 3 people.

It has to do with how people spend their holidays (travels far away by plane?), the clothes they choose to buy (low quality, plastic ones are more harmful), the good use we make of our electronic devices, the sports we choose to practice, the number of online videos people watch: all of it contributes to a sustainable lifestyle and to a lower carbon footprint.

[Photo by Nathan McBride on Unsplash]
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