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  • Polly Lauryn Thomas

Guide: What is a Carbon Footprint?

Updated: Dec 22, 2021

For decades we have been told to watch our carbon footprint and reduce it in order to save the planet from climate change. But what is a carbon footprint? How do we measure it? And how do we go about reducing it?

What is a carbon footprint and why should you care?

By dictionary definition, a carbon footprint is the measure of the amount of carbon dioxide that is produced by the activities of a person or company. (Which, yes, does include breathing, however, we do not recommend that you stop breathing in order to reduce your carbon footprint - it’s not a very efficient method…)

Of course, this definition alone doesn’t tell us why it is such an important thing for us to pay attention to.

While fighting climate change isn’t something we can do alone, we can all contribute to it individually by reducing our carbon footprint. With each aspect of our lives we change, we are decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide released into the air. Each small amount will amass into something that will make a real change, like the butterfly effect.

carbon footprint graphic

I’m not a scientist, and luckily I don’t need to explain the details to you of how gases react to each other in the atmosphere. However, the key to understanding the importance of the concept of a carbon footprint is to first understand the effect that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has on the planet. The carbon dioxide that we release into the atmosphere simply by surviving has no negative effects. It is a part of the planet’s balanced diet, like fat is in ours. But when excessive quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are released as a result of human activity, this contributes to the greenhouse effect, wherein a layer of these gases traps thermal energy in the atmosphere. This leads to what we commonly call global warming.

To put it simply, too much carbon will turn the planet into a sauna over time, and I don’t know about you, but I can only just about stand being in a sauna for 5 minutes, and so, reducing our carbon footprint is an important step in fighting the climate crisis.

How is it measured?

If you went to a search engine now and typed in ‘carbon footprint’ you would find a lot of results linking you to a carbon footprint calculator. You don’t even have to measure it yourself, just put in the data and it will tell you how bad of a tree hugger you are.

But how is it actually measured? And what factors contribute to it?

A carbon footprint itself is measured as ‘how many tons of carbon dioxide are emitted per year’, though it also takes into account other harmful greenhouse gases such as methane. The higher the carbon footprint, the more greenhouse gases a person’s lifestyle is emitting. The ultimate goal is to get it as low as realistically possible.

The amount of carbon dioxide emitted by a person varies, depending on many lifestyle factors. These include the amount of road and air travel, energy consumption and amount of waste and recycling produced, as well as a person’s diet, exercise and shopping habits.

This is a small, general portion of the individual contributors, though they all release greenhouse gases at a different rate. For example, walking will produce carbon dioxide because you are breathing it out into the atmosphere, and running will produce it at a faster rate because you are breathing heavier. However, these things are a tiny and expected contribution, in comparison to the emissions of cars or, one of the biggest contributors, agriculture.

What steps can we take to reduce our carbon footprint?

So, the real question you’re here for: how do you reduce your carbon footprint?

The best way to set out on this journey, would be to calculate your current carbon footprint from the things you can control. This includes your diet, your home and energy usage, the transport you use, and the things you own. There’s no point setting out for a goal if you don’t know where the starting line is.

Once you have a clear idea of where you’re starting from, it’s time to figure out what you can change. It’s all well and good thinking you can cut certain things out of your diet, but if you rely on those things, it might be easier to take a different approach. A great example of this would be buying food that has been produced locally.

Though you cannot change all of agriculture to reduce a big proportion of your footprint, buying things locally will reduce carbon footprint in other ways, including cutting out the transport of the food to you, and the transport of you to the food. This means not going further than you have to for your groceries. If there’s somewhere within walking distance that sells fresh, local produce, you’re cutting all four corners at once and making a great circle.

Reducing your vehicle travel can also be something attainable (for most people) and noticeably impactful. If you’re grabbing your car keys or bus pass on the way out of the house, take a moment to consider if you could get wherever you’re going without those things. If the answer is ‘yes’, then it’s time for the switch.

Always remember, we’re all on this journey together. Whether you can only make tiny swaps to your diet, or swearing off gas emitting vehicles all together, every single person’s contribution goes towards reducing carbon emissions and helping the planet. Not only that, but you can also help to inspire other people to start their own carbon footprint journey.

Can you make a difference? Absolutely.

For more resources on this topic, head over to our dedicated section on the Climate Crisis.

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