How do you measure a carbon footprint? Your carbon footprint is not only measured by the sources for carbon and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) you are directly responsible for, such as car exhaust and whether you recycle. The truth is that it’s a LOT more complicated because you have to account for both the direct and indirect sources in order to better understand how big your carbon footprint really is.
What is a “Carbon Footprint”?
First, it helps to understand exactly what GHGs are being watched. According to EIA 2015 data, the average American’s annual energy-related carbon footprint is 16 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e). These CO2e gasses include CO2, methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) because each on has a greater or lesser ability to trap heat in the atmosphere and thus are GHGs. These gasses are found in all sort of emission sources, from power plant exhausts to cars to cattle feedlots to land fills. Your carbon footprint can be found not only in your choice of refrigerator but also inside your refrigerator represented by the food that you eat. It’s not only part of your choice in a vehicle but also in how well you maintain it. And it’s also found in your thermostat settings and how well your home is insulated. Using electricity or natural gas, driving a vehicle, the source of your food, garbage disposal – these all directly or indirectly cause greenhouse gas emissions. Adding up all these emissions make up your carbon footprint.
When you choose to buy a product or service, you as the end consumer wind up taking responsibility for all the carbon that came with it. How? For a particular product or service, all the emissions resulting from every stage in that product or service’s lifetime are added up to determine its carbon footprint. Consider the following sources of GHG:
- The entire beef production process creates roughly 4 times more GHG than chicken.
- In 2015, the average passenger car emitted 0.79 pounds of CO2 per mile driven. The average domestic commercial flight emitted 0.41 pounds of CO2e per passenger mile.
- Locally grown foods like strawberries have smaller carbon footprints due to transportation costs. Strawberries from 20 miles away will have 0.004 CO2e lbs/acre. Strawberries from 1100 miles away (think Florida) will have 0.215 CO2e lbs/acre —that’s 50 times more.
Reducing GHGs is thought to reduce the impacts of climate change and slow the process of global warming. But while lowering your GHG emissions and reducing your carbon footprint is a laudable action to take help all the Earth’s people, how do you do it without giving up delicious luxuries like sirloins or strawberries in February?
How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint
The three biggest ways to reduce your household’s carbon footprint are through improving your home’s energy efficiency, reducing your transportation and reducing waste emissions.
1. Making your home more energy efficient.
This is not only one of the easiest, it’s the one that saves you the most money. With heating and cooling accounting for roughly one third of an average American home’s carbon emissions, homes with more insulation retain their heated or cooled air more efficiently, for longer periods of time, and are more comfortable.
- Air seal attics against heat migration.
- Add more attic insulation. Most homes are under insulated.
- Air seal your home against drafts. This reduces the intrusion of moisture that can cause mold growth.
- Replace old appliances with Energy Star qualifying models. Energy Star appliances are designed to higher efficiency specifications and most are now competitively priced with non-qualifying models.
- Switch to LED lighting. LED bulbs cost a fraction of what they once did, and are now offered in a variety of traditional color temperatures and they use little electricity.
2. Reducing your transportation emissions.
Transportation is one of the biggest contributors to your carbon footprint. But not only do the frequency and distance that you drive effect the amount of fuel your vehicle burns but so does your vehicle’s mechanical condition. Keep your car up to date with periodic maintenance.
- Get the engine tuned and its oil replaced regularly.
- Check the engine intake air filters. Replace if dirty.
- Rotate tires.
- Periodically check wheel alignment.
- Keep your tires inflated to their correct pressure.
- Combine errands into one trip and reduce unnecessary driving.
- Consider buying an electric vehicle. They’re cheaper to operate than a regular fueled car and perfect for local trips.
- Consider using public transportation. It cuts your carbon output and your need to buy fuel.
- Consider walking or biking. Not only do you save money but the exercise will improve your health.
3. Reducing your waste.
In 2014, Americans produced about 258 million tons of municipal solid waste, or about 4.4 pounds of waste per person per day. The bulk of the U.S. waste stream going to the landfill is paper and paperboard, yard trimmings and food.
- Consider what you’re throwing out: How much of your household waste is recyclable plastic, metal, and paper? Of that 258 million tons of municipal solid waste, 34.6% (roughly 89 million tons) was either recycled or composted — an annual reduction of over 181 million metric tons of CO2e.
- Consider composting. How much of your waste is kitchen scraps (organic stuff) that you could compost? Starting a compost pile and using the soil it produces will let you raise your own food. Or, you could even plant a tree to help shade your home, reducing the need for air conditioning and helping you reduce your carbon footprint even further.
Check out your carbon footprint with this Carbon Footprint Calculator.
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