We’ve all heard it thrown around, especially when it comes to climate change, “eco friendliness”, and natural products. That famous phrase that companies love to use (many times incorrectly). When talking about climate change, footprint means the total impact that something has. Carbon, on the other hand, is a shorthand for all the different greenhouse gases that have been found to contribute to climate change and global warming. So we can determine that 'carbon footprint' means the best estimate we can gather of the full climate change impact of something (either a product, an action or just the course of a day in a person’s life). You can pretty much calculate the carbon footprint of anything - an activity, product, lifestyle choice, a company, a country or even an entire continent!
The "carbon" in carbon footprint
Climate change, or global warming as a matter of fact, is caused or accelerated by the release of certain types of gas into the atmosphere. The main greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide CO2 (hence ‘carbon footprint’), which is emitted whenever we burn fossil fuels in homes, factories, cars or power stations.
But other than carbon dioxide, there are other greenhouse gases which contribute to the carbon footprint we leave behind. One of these is Methane, which is emitted mainly by agriculture and landfill sites and is about 25 times more potent than CO2 (YIKES). Nitrus oxide is another, which is released mainly from industrial processes and farming. But these are a lot of factors to take in when calculating a carbon footprint. So, how can we make that simpler?
Calculating a carbon footprint
Now that we know that a single item or activity can cause multiple different greenhouse gases to be emitted, a carbon footprint becomes a bit complicated to calculate. Instead, the convention is to express a carbon footprint in terms of carbon dioxide equivalent. In other words, we take all of the climate change impact and greenhouse gases caused by an action and we group them into one and express that in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide that would have the same impact.
Let’s take, for example, a drive to the grocery store to get some ingredients for a recipe. How would we calculate the carbon footprint behind that action? Well, driving there burns a certain amount of fuel (carbon dioxide), and the grocery store is powered by electricity (which burns more fuel), its employees probably drove to work, the products in the store were probably all shipped there, so that definitely must be factored in. Even beyond that, the fruits, vegetables, meats, and other produce were all grown or raised on farms, which have their OWN carbon footprints. Phew, that’s a lot! Well, all of these elements must be combined to understand the full carbon footprint of a given activity or product. It may seem like a lot (and it is!), so that’s why emissions are classified by direct and indirect emissions.
In this example, a direct emission would be the fuel it takes to get to the grocery store, the fuel that it takes to power that store, and the fuel to go back to your house. The indirect emissions include everything else!
"Whoa. Can I calculate my own carbon footprint?"
Yes you can! Although it’s no easy task, you can use a carbon footprint calculator to help on your endeavour. These calculators give you a rough estimate of your carbon footprint based on the size of your household, the types of appliances you have, the type of vehicle you have, how much you drive, what you eat, and even how much you recycle.
"This is...scary. How can I reduce my carbon footprint?"
The only way to reduce your carbon footprint is to be aware of it in the first place and to understand which of your actions are making a bigger impact. For example, you could drive more efficient vehicles or just take public transportation, you can use energy-efficient appliances, you could insulate your house so that it requires less heating or air-conditioning, consume local food (or food that requires less transportation to get to your hands), you could go vegan (meat has a higher carbon footprint than fruits and vegetables), the opportunities are endless! But the first step is recognizing that you can do more, and just by reading up on this important subject you are doing that.
Remember, small changes can have a big impact!