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What is a carbon footprint?

Photo: Leio Mclaren / Unsplash

A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gasses emitted into the atmosphere by our actions and lifestyles.

A carbon footprint has a big impact – positive or negative – on climate change. Here are some easy ways to calculate and reduce yours

Understanding your carbon footprint

A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gasses, primarily carbon dioxide and methane, emitted into the atmosphere by our actions and lifestyles. From the food we eat and the electricity used in our homes to the journeys we take, every choice contributes directly or indirectly to our carbon footprint.

Calculating your carbon footprint

The easiest way to calculate your carbon footprint is to use an online tool like a carbon footprint calculator. It can calculate your carbon emissions, which usually is calculated for a whole year. These calculators consider various consumption habits and lifestyle choices to estimate your impact on the environment. Calculating your footprint means taking into account the following aspects of your carbon emissions:

  1. Transportation: How much do you emit by your means of transportation?
  2. Home energy use: For example your electricity, gas usage, heating etc.
  3. Diet: The food you consume has an enormous impact on the climate.
  4. Goods and services: Everything you buy, from clothes to electronics, has a carbon footprint that you need to take into account when calculating your carbon footprint.

There are several carbon footprint calculators out there for individuals, households and businesses. Some of them also give you the option to fund carbon offset projects directly through the tool. Carbon offsets essentially compensate for the carbon you emit, for example by planting trees or installing renewable energy sources. 

Created by the University of California, the CoolClimate Calculator is a good choice if you live in the United States, and it has an ‘Advanced’ section if you want to dig into the details. Carbon Footprint’s carbon calculator is a good all-rounder wherever you live. You’ll not only learn what your carbon footprint is but also identify areas where you can make positive changes.

Ways to reduce your carbon footprint

There are numerous ways to reduce your carbon footprint. Even small changes can make a big difference:

  • Choose plant-based meals more often, as the production of meat and dairy products contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. You can also support local and organic food sources to reduce the carbon footprint associated with food miles.
  • Opt for greener modes of transport such as walking, cycling or using public transport whenever possible. If you need a car, consider carpooling or investing in an electric vehicle.
  • Reduce your energy consumption by turning off lights and appliances when not in use and installing energy-efficient light bulbs.
  • Practice recycling, composting organic waste and cutting down on single-use plastic consumption. Choose reusable items like water bottles, shopping bags and coffee cups.

A carbon footprint is a handy way of understanding the impact of your individual choices on the climate. But you’re just one little human, so let’s keep things in perspective. By all means look at how you can reduce your own carbon footprint, but don’t let that distract you from the need for bigger scale change to the whole system that all lives are a part of. Governments and big businesses wield huge power to reduce carbon emissions and stop climate change, so when you hear them asking you to reduce your carbon footprint, don’t forget to ask what they’re doing too.