If you’re interested in sustainability, serious about leading a conscious life, and worried for the state of our environment, you’ve probably heard the phrase ‘carbon footprint’ thrown around. But what does it actually mean? From the history of the phrase to how to calculate your own carbon footprint, C&TH explains this green term.
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What Is A Carbon Footprint?
A ‘carbon footprint’ is the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by an individual entity – whether that is a person, a company, an event, a product, or even an entire country.
Contrary to the name, greenhouse gases are not just carbon; carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other harmful greenhouse gases all count towards a carbon footprint. However, the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the individual entity is expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent (or CO2e) – hence ‘carbon footprint’.
Who Created It?
The idea of a carbon footprint stems from the 1990s ‘ecological footprint’ method – first developed by William E. Rees and Mathis Wackernagel in the 1990s at the University of British Columbia, and then the Global Footprint Network – which measures humanity’s demand on nature.
In short, an ecological footprint calculates how much nature it takes to support people or an economy, in comparison to what the planet can renew. The result, therefore, essentially calculates how many planet Earths would be needed if everyone on the planet consumed resources at the same rate as the individual’s ecological footprint.
Carbon footprint – along with ‘water footprint’ and ‘land footprint’ – is one facet of the wider ecological footprint concept. Ironically, ‘carbon footprint’ as an independent measuring system was popularised by an advertising campaign by fossil fuel company BP, who encouraged the general public to go on a ‘low carbon diet‘. BP – one of the world’s seven major oil and gas producers – of course made no effort to reduce their own carbon footprint, producing a whopping 1.85 million barrels of oil per day in 2021.
How To Calculate Your Carbon Footprint
There are plenty of online tools to figure out your individual carbon footprint, like mycarbonplan.org, footprintcalculator.org, and animal charity WWF’s online calculator.
These calculators ask you questions about your lifestyle, often including: diet, transportation choices, recreational activities, electricity usage, heating usage, home size, shopping habits, and often more specific questions about how frequently you use a tumble dryer. The online calculator will then estimate your carbon footprint based on your answers. Alternatively, sites like carbonfootprint.com can calculate the carbon footprint of more specific things, like your household or a flight.
Getting an accurate carbon footprint via an online calculator is very difficult, due to the large range of variables – so take your result with a pinch of salt. Calculating your own carbon footprint – without the help of an online tool – is also extremely difficult because of these variables. However, if you’d like to try and calculate the carbon footprint of a journey, follow these steps:
- Work out how many miles you travelled or are going to travel
- Find out the emissions factor of your mode of transport – as Bulb explains, an emissions factor is how much Co2e is created per unit of activity. Gov.uk publishes a new list of the UK’s average emissions factors for vehicles every year, which can be used in this equation
- Multiply your emissions factor by the number of miles being travelled – the result is the carbon footprint of your journey.
How To Reduce Your Carbon Footprint: The Dos And Don’ts
It’s worth remembering that just 100 companies across the globe produce 71 per cent of the planet’s carbon emissions. However, if you’re looking to make a personal impact, here are some quick tips to get you started.
- Shop local where possible – the airmiles of local produce is much lower than food sourced from abroad
- Go on a staycation instead of travelling further afield – or, travel to an ecotourism destination
- Eat more plant-based food – meat, especially beef, produces many more emissions than plants
- Consider more sustainable methods of transport, whether that’s going to work (bike, bus) or on holiday (train)
- Print things out if you can scan them on your phone
- Overpack when you go on a flight – the heavier the plane, the more fuel it uses. Every little helps!
- Eat meat every day – or even at all. Individuals with a vegan diet can reduce their carbon footprint by up to 60 per cent
- Shop fast fashion
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