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The carbon footprint explained
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CO₂ emissions by world region (Our World in Data)
A carbon footprint is the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by an individual, event, organization, service, place or product, expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). Greenhouse gases, including the carbon-containing gases carbon dioxide and methane, can be emitted through the burning of fossil fuels, land clearance, and the production and consumption of food, manufactured goods, materials, wood, roads, buildings, transportation and other services.
In most cases, the total carbon footprint cannot be calculated exactly because of inadequate knowledge of data about the complex interactions between contributing processes, including the influence of natural processes that store or release carbon dioxide. For this reason, Wright, Kemp, and Williams proposed the following definition of a carbon footprint:
A measure of the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) emissions of a defined population, system or activity, considering all relevant sources, sinks and storage within the spatial and temporal boundary of the population, system or activity of interest. Calculated as carbon dioxide equivalent using the relevant 100-year global warming potential (GWP100).
The Greenhouse Gas Protocol has extended the range of gases.
The standard covers the accounting and reporting of seven greenhouse gases covered by the Kyoto Protocol – carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PCFs), sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3).
The global average annual carbon footprint per person in 2014 was about 5 tonnes CO2e. Although there are many ways to calculate a carbon footprint, the Nature Conservancy suggests that the average carbon footprint for a U.S. citizen is 16 tons. This is one of the highest rates in the world, leading to new policies implemented to reduce carbon footprint. Scholars estimated that New York City can eliminate the carbon footprint of its buildings by 2050. Based on city documents and national statistics, a significant measure directly controlled by New York is the elimination of carbon emissions from municipal district heating, which may account for up to 30% of New York city’s reported carbon emissions and 58% of the energy-related carbon emissions.
The use of household carbon footprint calculators originated when oil producer BP hired Ogilvy to create an "effective propaganda" campaign to shift responsibility of climate change-causing pollution away from the corporations and institutions that created a society where carbon emissions are unavoidable and onto personal lifestyle choices. The term "carbon footprint" was also popularized by BP.
Human activities are one of the main causes of greenhouse gas emissions. These increase the earth's temperature and are emitted from the use of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas), particularly in energy and transportation. The major effects of such practices mainly consist of climate changes, such as extreme precipitation and acidification and warming of oceans. Climate change has been occurring since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 1820s. Due to humans' heavy reliance on fossil fuels, energy usage, and constant deforestation, the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is increasing, which makes reducing a greenhouse gas footprint harder to achieve. However, there are several ways to reduce one's greenhouse gas footprint, such as changing eating habits (reducing meat and dairy, as well as food waste), using more energy efficient appliances at home, buying less in general (particularly throwaway items, such as fast fashion) and travelling less (particularly reducing air travel).
Greenhouse gases (GHGs) are gases that increase the temperature of the Earth due to their absorption of infrared radiation. Although some emissions are natural, the rate of which they are being produced has increased because of humans. These gases are emitted from fossil fuel usage in electricity, in heat and transportation, as well as being emitted as byproducts of manufacturing. The most common GHGs are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and many fluorinated gases. A greenhouse gas footprint is the numerical quantity of these gases that a single entity emits. The calculations can be computed ranging from a single person to the entire world.
The latest climate science is published in the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report. The report presents key scientific findings linking the increase in anthropogenic GHGs emissions in current climate change. According to the report, it is only possible to avoid warming of 1.5 °C or 2 °C if massive and immediate cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are made.
Origin of the concept
What is your carbon footprint?
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Calculate Your Carbon Footprint
Use our interactive calculator to learn your carbon footprint and actions to take to reduce it.
What is a carbon footprint?
A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by our actions.
The average carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16 tons, one of the highest rates in the world. Globally, the average carbon footprint is closer to 4 tons. To have the best chance of avoiding a 2℃ rise in global temperatures, the average global carbon footprint per year needs to drop to under 2 tons by 2050.
Lowering individual carbon footprints from 16 tons to 2 tons doesn’t happen overnight! By making small changes to our actions, like eating less meat, taking fewer connecting flights and line drying our clothes, we can start making a big difference.
Calculate Your Carbon Footprint
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Carbon Footprint Factsheet
“A carbon footprint is the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused directly and indirectly by an individual, organization, event or product.”1 It is calculated by summing the emissions resulting from every stage of a product or service’s lifetime (material production, manufacturing, use, and end-of-life). Throughout a product’s lifetime, or lifecycle, different GHGs may be emitted, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O), each with a greater or lesser ability to trap heat in the atmosphere.
Carbon Footprint Factsheet
Click here to download a printable version
“A carbon footprint is the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused directly and indirectly by an individual, organization, event or product.”1 It is calculated by summing the emissions resulting from every stage of a product or service’s lifetime (material production, manufacturing, use, and end-of-life). Throughout a product’s lifetime, or lifecycle, different GHGs may be emitted, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O), each with a greater or lesser ability to trap heat in the atmosphere. These differences are accounted for by the global warming potential (GWP) of each gas, resulting in a carbon footprint in units of mass of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e). See the Center for Sustainable Systems "Greenhouse Gases Factsheet" for more information on GWP. A typical U.S. household has a carbon footprint of 48 metric tons CO2e/yr.2
Sources of Emissions
Food (See U.S. Food System Factsheet)
Food accounts for 10-30% of a household’s carbon footprint, typically a higher portion in lower-income households.2 Production accounts for 68% of food emissions, while transportation accounts for 5%.4
Food production emissions consist mainly of CO2, N2O, and CH4, which result primarily from agricultural practices.5
Meat products have larger carbon footprints per calorie than grain or vegetable products because of the inefficient conversion of plant to animal energy and due to CH4 released from manure management and enteric fermentation in ruminants.5
Ruminants such as cattle, sheep, and goats produced 175 million metric tons (mmt) CO2e of enteric methane in the U.S. in 2020.6
In an average U.S. household, eliminating the transport of food for one year could save the GHG equivalent of driving 1,000 miles, while shifting to a vegetarian meal one day a week could save the equivalent of driving 1,160 miles.5
A vegetarian diet greatly reduces an individual’s carbon footprint, but switching to less carbon intensive meats can have a major impact as well. For example, beef's GHG emissions per kilogram are 7.2 times greater than those of chicken.7
GREENHOUSE GASES CONTRIBUTION BY FOOD TYPE IN AVERAGE DIET3
POUNDS OF CO2E PER SERVING13 (4 OZ. MEAT, 1/2 C. ASPARAGUS & CARROTS, 8 OZ. LIQUIDS)
Household Emissions (See Residential Buildings Factsheet)
For each kWh generated in the U.S., an average of 0.822 pounds of CO2e is released at the power plant.8Coal releases 2.3 pounds, petroleum releases 2.1 pounds, and natural gas releases 0.9 pounds. Nuclear, solar, wind, and hydroelectric release no CO2 when they produce electricity, but emissions are released during upstream production activities (e.g., solar cells, nuclear fuels, cement production).6,9
Residential electricity use in 2020 emitted 561.1 mmt CO2e, 9.4% of the U.S. total.6
Space heating and cooling are estimated to account for 43% of energy in U.S. homes in 2022.10
Refrigerators are one of the largest users of household appliance energy; in 2020, an average of 621 lbs CO2e per household was due to refrigeration.8,11
26 mmt CO2e are released in the U.S. each year from washing clothes. Switching to a cold water wash once per week can reduce household GHG emissions by over 70 lbs annually.12
Personal Transportation (See Personal Transportation Factsheet)
U.S. fuel economy (mpg) declined by 12% from 1988-2004, then improved by 32% from 2004-2020, reaching an average of 25.4 mpg in 2020.14 Annual per capita miles driven increased 9% since 1995 to 9,937 miles in 2019.15
Cars and light trucks emitted 0.9 billion metric tons of CO2e or 16% of the total U.S. GHG emissions in 2020.6
Of the roughly 66,000 lbs CO2e emitted over the lifetime of an internal combustion engine car (assuming 93,000 miles driven), 84% come from the use phase.16
Gasoline releases 19.4 pounds of CO2 per gallon when burned, compared to 22.5 pounds per gallon for diesel.17 However, diesel has 11% more BTU per gallon, which improves its fuel economy.18
The average passenger car emits 0.77 pounds of CO2 per mile driven.14
Automobile fuel economy can improve 7-14% by simply observing the speed limit. Every 5 mph increase in vehicle speed over 50 mph is equivalent to paying an extra $0.28-$0.57 per gallon.19
Commercial aircraft GHG emissions vary according to aircraft type, trip length, occupancy rates, and passenger and cargo weight, and totaled 92.1 mmt CO2e in 2020.6 In 2020, the average domestic commercial flight emitted 0.87 pounds of CO2e per passenger mile.6,20
Domestic air travel fuel efficiency (passenger miles/gallon) rose by 115% from 1990 to 2019, largely due to increased occupancy.20 Emissions per domestic passenger-mile decreased 45% from 1990-2019, but increased 55% from 2019-2020 due to COVID.6,20
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