Calculating the carbon footprint converts other greenhouse gases to the amount of carbon dioxide that would produce a similar effect.
Individuals, households, corporations, and nations all have a carbon footprint. Greenhouse gases are a global problem. Global problems require global solutions. But we’re each part of the globe, aren’t we? It’s not something we can leave to our dysfunctional government. It’s not something we can blame on industry.
We contribute to our carbon footprint directly when we do something that emits greenhouse gas. For example, we drive our cars or run our gas lawnmowers. Gasoline emits about five pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon burned.
We contribute indirectly when something we do causes someone else to emit greenhouse gas. For example, every time we buy something, think of all the chances to emit greenhouse gases in
- mining raw materials
- making component parts (such as thread and fabric for clothing)
- assembling them into a finished product
- operating machinery to do all that
- all the transportation involved in all those steps plus getting the product from the factory to wherever you buy it
- operating machinery to heat and cool all the buildings people work in
- the food workers eat on the job
- the workers’ commute to work and other required travel
Finally, we contribute to our carbon footprint when we discard something. Consider the energy used to collect it and haul it to the landfill. And the gas that the landfill emits. Do you recycle? There’s another truck and some very large machinery. If you donate something to a thrift shop, unless you walk or ride a bike there, taking it there uses gasoline.
How do I calculate my carbon footprint?
When the idea of a carbon footprint first hit mass media, it really seemed overwhelming. Now, it’s easy to find online calculators. Maybe dozens of them. The Environmental Protection Agency offers one.
Start by entering the number of people in your household and your zip code. From there, you’ll enter such data as
- your electric bill plus the bill for natural gas or whatever else you use for heat
- how many vehicles you have and your average annual mileage
- which wastes you recycle
On each page, you’ll find some suggestions on how to reduce it. For example, line dry your clothes instead of using the dryer or buy Energy Star appliances.
I notice that, under waste, the EPA calculator doesn’t ask you to estimate how much you throw out. Just what you recycle. If you haul a full trash container out to the curb every week, it gives you a bigger carbon footprint than the neighbor who only fills a trash container once a month.
If you’re curious, you can try several of the calculators. They’ll probably ask for different things, make different suggestions, and give you different answers.
Frankly, the numbers the calculators return don’t matter much. Nearly everyone personally generates way too much greenhouse gas. And so green living requires finding ways to cut down.
How can I reduce my carbon footprint?
It’s hard to cut down on carbon footprint if you don’t know how you use your energy. The calculators may help, but the first step ought to be an energy audit. A professional audit will provide the most thorough assessment of how much energy you use. If you look for what questions to ask and diligently seek answers, you can learn a lot from doing your own audit.
All these suggestions can be divided into two broad groups. Expensive things, like buying a new EnergyStar refrigerator, make a huge impact. You just can’t do many of them in a short time. Cheap and easy things require very little of you, but you can do a lot of them and keep adding more. They do, however, require giving up some little conveniences. The effects add up.
Greening your home
Install solar panels. It’s expensive, and your local utility may or may not be willing to work with you. Even if the utility buys all the electricity from them and sells you whatever is on the grid, you are making clean power.
If you have old appliances, buying new EnergyStar rated ones can save a lot of energy. And tons of greenhouse gases. Even if that old refrigerator or water heater is EnergyStar rated, a new one will probably use less electricity.
Here are some less expensive ideas:
- Are you still using incandescent lightbulbs? I see the suggestion to use LEDs instead in nearly every article on energy conservation I come across. It has been impossible to buy new incandescent bulbs for a long time now. Many people switched to CFLs. They will eventually burn out (and become a hazardous waste). LEDs use even less energy.
- Turn off lights and appliances you’re not using.
- Use a programmable thermostat.
- Open or close curtains depending on where the sun is and whether you want solar heat radiating from your windows. Yes in winter, no in summer. But when the sun isn’t shining on a window in the winter, heat radiates out.
- Heat water to no more than 120ºF.
- Use low-flow shower heads. Not only do they save water, they save the energy necessary to heat it.
- Practice the 5 Rs of sustainability: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot
Greening what you eat
There’s nothing here as expensive as new solar panels. In fact, these recommendations will probably save money.
- Cut food waste. Food waste makes up the largest component of what we dump in landfills. Consumers account for about half of it. And it’s rotting organic matter that make landfills emit so much greenhouse gas.
- Eat low on the food chain. Meat and dairy are responsible for nearly 15% of manmade greenhouse gases worldwide. All those animals have to eat. I have seen estimates of 12-16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of edible beef. And the cows burp and fart. I’m not one to claim that you have to be vegan to be eco-friendly. On the other hand, a mostly plant-based diet is healthier and less expensive than one with excessive meat.
- Eat in more than you eat out. And cook your own food. When you eat in a restaurant, you participate in its food waste. When you eat prepared foods from the grocery store, you participate in all the energy it took to manufacture, store, and transport it. So buy ingredients instead. If you don’t know how to cook, learn. Some dishes don’t take any more time or effort than the packaged foods.
- Buy what you can in bulk. And take your own container.
- Compost organic waste if possible. Even if you live in an apartment, you may be able to find opportunity for community composting.
Greening how you get around
If you’re in the market for another car, choose a hybrid or electric vehicle. If your local utility gets electricity from coal plants, these cars still contribute greenhouse gases, but much less than regular gasoline cars.
American neighborhoods used to be organized around local shopping districts. They had schools, churches, parks––all kinds of places people could walk to. Nowadays in many neighborhoods, no one can walk to anyplace except other houses.
All the sites that describe how to reduce your carbon footprint say to drive less, walk and bicycle more. If it’s not practical for you, at least you can be mindful of your driving habits and take steps to curb emissions. Here are some suggestions:
- Carpool or take public transportation if possible.
- Minimize idling. It is no longer necessary to warm up your car before you start driving unless you have a very old one. If practical, turn off the engine rather than idle more than ten seconds. Turn it off in bad traffic jams, waiting for a train, etc.
- Avoid drive-thru lanes. Park the car. Go in the store. You’ll use less gas and breathe less of the exhaust fumes of people wasting their gas. Unfortunately, it’s not always practical. There’s a drive-up ATM at my bank that I use after hours. I can’t go in. Sometimes I find one or two cars ahead of me. In that case, cut the engine off until you can move.
- Take care of all the routine maintenance your car needs. Regular oil and filter changes, tune ups, and properly inflated tires improve gas mileage.
- Combine errands in one trip. And plan your route to make it as short as possible. All else being equal, prefer route with a lot of right turns to those with left turns.
- Brake and accelerate gently.
- Use air conditioning judiciously. Under 55 mph, it’s cheaper to roll down the windows. Faster than that, it’s actually cheaper to use the air conditioner.
- On long trips, use cruise control.
- Your trunk is not a storage area. Lose the excess weight by carrying only what you need.
What about air travel?
- During the Depression, people were always urged to ask, “Is this trip really necessary?” It’s still a good question.
- Don’t fly if the trip is short enough that driving is practical.
- If a non-stop flight is available, take it. Takeoffs and landings use more fuel than cruising.
Greening your shopping
Our entire economy is based on consumerism. It relies on planned obsolescence and encourages impulse buying. Reducing our carbon footprint, therefore, requires that we live a countercultural life. Buy less stuff. Keep it longer.
- Avoid impulse buying. No matter how wonderful something seems at first in advertisements or displays in stores, it might not seem so wonderful once you get it home. Lots of impulse purchases wind up in landfills. And if they don’t, the packaging does.
- Don’t replace what’s working well just because the manufacturer came out with a new version with new bells and whistles.
- Buy quality. Well-made products outlast the cheap ones.
- Take your own shopping bags into stores and refuse the ones they provide. Nowadays you can even buy a set of reusable, washable produce bags.
- Prefer products with the least packaging. Or at least, the most recyclable packaging.
- Buy at thrift stores and garage sales.
- Donate to thrift stores. At some of them, you can even donate clothes too shabby to wear. They recycle the fabric.
- If you need something you’ll only use once or twice, rent it or borrow it.
- Buy electronics, etc. with an eye on how much energy they will use. EnergyStar certifies more than major appliances.
Carbon footprint graphic. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Carbon footprint house. Some rights reserved by eutrophication&hypoxiaAnthony Crider.
Energy efficient home basics. U.S. Department of Energy
EnergyStar. Source unknown
Food waste. Some rights reserved by Nick Saltmarsh.
Gassing up in the rain. Some rights reserved by Eric Schmuttenmaer (link to Flickr no longer works)
I am not a plastic bag. Source unknown