What is a carbon footprint?
A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by an individual, event, organisation or product. These emissions can be from your everyday routine to your business practices. This blog post will explore what a carbon footprint is and how it relates to our daily lives directly and indirectly and offer some insight into some common carbon terminology. We will also discuss how carbon footprints are measured and suggest some easy ways to reduce them!
First, seek to understand
It’s easy to assume that the only thing we need to focus on is reducing our ‘carbon’. It’s in the name, after all! But that’s not the whole picture, so understanding the differences matters, and the impact of semantics can play a big part in helping to reduce your impact.
So, as the (first part of the) saying goes, “seek first to understand…” (Dr Stephen R Covey – Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood®), that’s what the next few sections of this post aim to do.
Have you ever noticed that sometimes the carbon conversation uses the CO₂ and other times CO₂e? Let’s start with breaking that down for some clarity with this introduction to some of the most common carbon terminology.
Carbon dioxide (CO₂) gets a bad rap. At its essence, it plays a crucial role in life on Earth because it makes up part of our planet’s natural carbon cycle. It includes the very air we humans breathe out on every breath, which of course, contributes to plants being able to photosynthesise. So why then is CO₂ causing so much alarm?
CO₂ also happens to be a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere. It’s our other everyday activities that are the problem. We, humans, have tipped the natural system out of balance. To give you some perspective, over 80% of all human-generated CO₂ emissions come from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. While some of our basic human rights are indeed met through these actions (such as food, electricity, warmth and shelter), one of our human flaws, i.e. our desire for ‘stuff’, is causing much of the destruction.
But it’s not only carbon dioxide that’s causing this greenhouse effect.
Carbon dioxide equivalent (CO₂e) is a measure that considers the different greenhouse gases and their warming potential. This way, we can compare the climate impact of various activities or products across the board. It’s important to note that CO₂e is only used when talking about greenhouse gas emissions – it doesn’t replace or alter the term ‘carbon’.
So, why then do we use this terminology?
It’s pretty simple, really; in order for us humans to take steps towards reducing our carbon footprint (and hence, the amount of CO₂e we produce), we need to understand and measure it. Carbon dioxide equivalent is a way of doing just that.
Several greenhouse gases contribute to global heating.
The most abundant (in decreasing order) include water vapour (H₂O), carbon dioxide (CO₂), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N₂O), and ozone (O3), as well as some human-made devils Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs and HCFCs), and Perfluorocarbons (CF4, C2F6, etc.), SF6, and NF3.
While they all have different levels of warming potential, when combined, they create a significant impact on the Earth’s climate. The resulting consequences of this mixing of GHGs are known as the greenhouse effect.
It must be said that all-natural GHG’s are part of a delicate system. When in rhythm with other natural systems, it has allowed Earth to be the perfect habitat for humans, animals, and plants to thrive. But again, it’s our human desires that have encroached and turned this perfect system into a monster that could ultimately destroy us.
So how do we fix the problem before it’s too late? For all our flaws, we humans also have some incredible talents. The ability to reason, awareness, adapt and innovate are a few that comes to mind.
How much of a carbon footprint do we each have?
Now that we understand what a carbon footprint is and some of the greenhouse gases involved, let’s look at how to calculate it. The first step is to figure out your direct emissions. These include emissions from the fuel you use to heat your home, cook your food and power your appliances. You kind find this information on your utility bills.
The next step is to calculate your indirect emissions. This takes into account all of the goods and services you consume that have been produced as a result of someone else’s fossil fuel burning activities. It might be not easy to wrap your head around, but it’s quite simple. Suppose you purchase an item produced with the help of fossil fuels (like your morning cup of coffee or laptop). In that case, you are responsible for indirect emissions related to its production and distribution – even if you did not directly use any fuel yourself.
For example: when you buy a new car, the emissions that come from its production, shipping and use are all taken into account. But, if you buy a used car, only the emissions related to its use are counted. The same can be said for the company that manufactures cars, so how a customer runs, maintains and operates the car will mean that they own a share of those emissions. Therefore, both the customer and the manufacture share responsibility.
We share responsibility for the things we use.
The final step (for businesses) is to calculate your embodied emissions. This includes the greenhouse gases emitted during the product’s entire life cycle – from extraction and production of raw materials to manufacturing, distribution, and disposal.
In truth, calculating an individual’s – or organisation’s – carbon footprint is not a precise science, and there are many variables to consider. The important thing to remember here is that the bigger your carbon footprint, the greater your responsibility to take action. And that the overall objective must be to decrease the total amount of emissions annually until you reach net-zero – and ultimately become climate positive (aka carbon negative)!
The good news is that you don’t have to be a scientist or maths wizard to work out these technical calculations; there are a host of greenhouse gas/carbon footprint calculators available to do the heavy lifting for you.
In my next post, I will share my 5 top carbon footprint calculators and tools for 2022.
But what can I do right now?
In the meantime, here are some simple things each of us can do to reduce our carbon footprint without having to count emissions:
First and foremost: reduce fossil fuel use by switching to a renewable energy provider (if you can install solar panels or generate your own renewable energy, then do that too!) and by using less electricity in the first place (e.g., LED bulbs, washing on colder temperatures and switching off appliances and equipment); turn down your thermostat by a degree or two; share cars with others when possible, and use public transport or better yet, walk or cycle.
Second: reduce emissions from the food and the stuff you buy. You can do this by:
- Eating less meat and dairy (keep in mind that it takes about eight times as much carbon to produce one calorie of beef as it does to produce a calorie of potatoes, for example); eating certified organic, seasonal food as much as possible;
- Avoid food waste; decomposing food waste (i.e., organic material) in the wrong waste stream dramatically impacts methane emissions (it’s not just burning cows) – so make sure any food waste is being composted;
- Avoid buying fast fashion, new technology and unnecessary stuff to fill the “swiss-cheesy holes” in your heart. Instead, opt for second hand, refurbished and previously loved – or share less frequently used equipment with your community.
And thirdly: take direct action against climate change by pressuring policymakers to take serious and effective action on the root causes of this global problem.
This is obviously not an exhaustive list, and I encourage you to continue to seek out ways to reduce your emissions.
We all have a role to play in reducing our carbon footprints. No matter who you are or what you do, you can take steps to become more environmentally conscious and make a real difference. I hope this post has helped outline some key ways to get started!
So there you have it: an introduction to carbon footprints and some ways you can reduce yours. Remember that everyone’s situation is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution – the most important thing is to start somewhere.
If you’re a business looking to reduce yours and need help with your sustainability strategy and reporting, please get in touch.