By: Dr Gareth Evans (4 Sep 12)
“Carbon footprint” is probably one of today’s most heard expressions, often in one of the innumerable sound-bites from politicians and public figures as they compete to out-green each other in the scramble for the environmental equivalent of the moral high ground. Though it has only recently entered the general lexicon, this particular bit of eco-jargon has captured the spirit of the moment – along with its close cousins “carbon emissions” and “carbon offsetting” – but how can we know how big ours is and what can we do about it?
If you want to be very precise about your own footprint, a quick web search will soon offer you any number of sites with carbon calculators, which will allow you to get a very accurate figure – but, as you might expect, they do not always agree with each other. Even so, when you do have your figure, what exactly does it mean? Does it make you an environmental hero or an eco-villain? Unsurprisingly, carbon footprints vary around the world depending on where you live and the more developed and prosperous the country, the larger the average person’s footprint.
Why that should be, is pretty obvious. There are two components to your final total, comprising primary and secondary elements. Primary elements are those which result in our own direct release of carbon – how much we produce burning fossil fuels to heat our homes or travel, for example. Secondary ones involve indirect emissions – the carbon which arises as a result of the manufacture and transport of the things that we buy. The developed world uses a disproportionate amount of energy and consumes a far larger share of resources than the poorer nations – hence the disparity of carbon footprints. To put this in context, while the average inhabitant of the undeveloped world has an annual carbon footprint of less than two tonnes of CO2, the average Briton has one of around eleven tonnes and the average American about twenty. This has prompted the UK Government to seek to reduce our carbon footprint by seven tonnes – down to four tonnes apiece – by 2050. To put all of this in context, many authorities believe that a global average of around two tonnes per person is the maximum which the planet can sustain.Reducing Yours
It is an inconvenient fact of life in the UK of the 21st Century that just about everything we do contributes to our carbon footprint – boiling that kettle every bit as much as taking that long-haul flight to Australia. So how can we – as individuals – reduce our footprint and move in the direction of carbon neutrality, without abandoning useful, productive and socially engaged lives in favour of living in the isolation of a mud hut?
Fortunately there are many things which we can all usefully do. Cutting waste and recycling or reusing whatever you can is one way to make a big reduction in your carbon footprint. All in all, recycling has already reduced the UK's carbon figures from 25 million to 15 million tonnes a year – the equivalent of taking around 3.5 million cars off the road, according to WRAP – the industry’s official body. Reducing your household energy demands is another way to move nearer to carbon neutrality. Simple steps such as boiling only the water you need in your kettle, using energy-saving light bulbs, turning the central heating down by just 1°C, avoiding the “standby” mode on appliances, and making sure you have adequate insulation can all make a big difference.
When it comes to travel, the best way to cut your carbon footprint is to abandon motorised transport altogether and walk or cycle, though, of course, this will not always be a practical solution. Even when it is not, there are always alternatives to consider – public transport, car-pooling and the like – and failing that, the option of either buying a more eco-friendly car, or converting yours to a less harmful fuel, such as liquid petroleum gas (LPG). This will typically cost between £1,500-£2,000, but should reduce fuel costs by nearly half – as well as being far cleaner and kinder to the environment. As for holidays, staying closer to home helps you avoid the biggest perceived villain of the lot – air travel. While flying is undoubtedly the fastest growing carbon contributor, it is not currently the largest, accounting for less than six per cent of the UK’s total CO2 emissions, while road transport is responsible for around 20 per cent. However air travel is growing very swiftly and its contribution will soon account for a much larger proportion of the total if the number of flights made continues to rise as predicted, making reductions now – ahead of this anticipated surge – particularly worthwhile.
In the end, the simple fact of being alive means that we all have a carbon footprint. However, being aware of the problem, coupled with a little thought and care can allow us to make sure that ours is no bigger than it really needs to be.Further Reading
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With global warming dominating so many headlines today, it’s no surprise that many of us are looking to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases our activities produce.Everyday Changes You Can Make to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint
By assessing how much pollution each of your individual actions generates—be it setting your thermostat, shopping for groceries, commuting to work or flying somewhere for vacation—you can begin to see how changing a few habits here and there can significantly reduce your overall carbon footprint.
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Luckily for those of us who want to see how we measure up, there are a number of free online carbon footprint calculators to help figure out just where to start changing.Learn How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint
A great carbon footprint calculator is available at EarthLab.com. an online “climate crisis community” that has partnered with Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection and other high-profile groups, companies and celebrities to spread the word that individual actions can make a difference in the fight against global warming.
Users just take a three-minute survey and get back a carbon footprint score, which they can save and update as they work to reduce their impact. The site provides some 150 lifestyle change suggestions that will cut carbon emissions—from hanging your clothes to dry to sending postcards instead of letters to taking the bike instead of the car to work a few days a week.
“Our calculator is an important first step in educating people about where they are, then raising their awareness about what they can do to make easy, simple changes that will lower their score and positively impact the planet,” says Anna Rising, EarthLab’s executive director.
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“Our goal isn’t about convincing you to buy a hybrid or retrofit your house with solar panels; our goal is to introduce you to easy, simple ways that you as an individual can reduce your carbon footprint.”Compare Online Carbon Footprint Calculators
Other websites, green groups and corporations, including CarbonFootprint.com. CarbonCounter.org. Conservation International. The Nature Conservancy and British Oil Giant BP. among others, also offer carbon calculators on their websites. And CarbonFund.org even allows you to assess your carbon footprint—and then offers you the ability to offset such emissions by investing in clean energy initiatives.
Photograph by Tyrone Turner, National Geographic
What is a carbon footprint anyway?
Carbon footprint is the term generally used to describe the level of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced by a specific activity. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluoro-carbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). To simplify matters—and since CO2 is the most prevalent GHG—these emissions are expressed in terms of CO2 equivalent based on a conversion table that uses the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Global Warming Potential (GWP) factors.
How does the National Geographic Society measure its carbon footprint?
The Society has measured the carbon footprint of all of its activities, services, and products. These include:
- Emissions associated with heating and cooling of our buildings
- Any fossil fuels used to heat water, operate our kitchen, light our buildings, or power our appliances, computers, and tools
- All electricity we consume in the operations of our buildings and any rented space occupied by NGS staff in North America
- All products we produce, including magazines, books, direct mail, CDs, television programming, film, digital media (website), NG Channel programs, etc.
- All business travel and accommodations
- All travel and accommodations booked through NG Expeditions
What is the Society's carbon footprint?
The chart below shows the total carbon emissions for the Society's operations in 2012. The numbers include all carbon emissions associated with the manufacturing and distribution process, including paper mill operations, printing and binding our magazines, books, catalogs, and direct mail and distribution of all these products whether by rail, ocean freight, or truck all the way through to business or home delivery.
This chart documents by source our total carbon footprint (excepting our employee commuting). It does not include the emissions that we have offset through various Carbonfund certified programs.
How is the Society reducing its carbon footprint?
The Society is continually looking at ways to cut its own energy usage and working with its suppliers to reduce theirs.
Some of the things we have done to date to reduce our emissions:
- Purchasing Windpower RECs (renewable energy credits) for all the electricity used in our buildings and leased spaces in North America
- Purchasing offsets in a reforestation project in Panama to cover all of our natural gas use and steam used in spaces we lease
- Purchasing offsets in various projects for our Adventure travel for each trip we offer
- Purchasing offsets in a forest preservation project in the Amazon region of Brazil for our business travel
- Reduced our electrical consumption by 17 percent from 2002 to 2014, by eliminating excessive lighting, changing to more efficient bulbs, shutting off our computers during off hours, changing our temperature settings, shutting down boilers during off hours, closing our buildings for ten Fridays during the summer months, etc.
- Reduced our natural gas usage by 21 percent from 2003 to 2014
- Reduced our water use by 41 percent from 2002 to 2014
- Eliminated all bottled water sold on our campus
- Actively promoted car pools, working from home, and use of public transit
- Implemented building upgrades to earn a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Existing Buildings (LEED EB) gold certification and to earn Energy Star ratings from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for our buildings
- Joined Climate Leaders (EPA) and Climate Savers (WWF), committing the Society to an additional 10 percent energy reduction by 2015
These are just some of our carbon reduction initiatives. In addition we are actively working with our suppliers (for paper, printing, transportation, postage, data storage, digital media, etc.) to find ways to reduce their emissions on our behalf. We are committed to walking the talk, to lead by example, and to thereby inspire others to care about the planet.
How do we reduce a carbon footprint? Why should we be worried about the way we live our lives and the impact it is having on the earth? Are we too big for our boots? Are we leaving a carbon footprint too big for our own good? So many questions, but hopefully some answers in our carbon footprint facts.
"We have plenty of open spaces and unused land", I hear your say. Yes we do, but our ecological footprint that is dictated to by what we consume in the form of utilities, food and travel is getting bigger and bigger. To the point that with our current lifestyles Australians need in excess of 7.7 hectares of land to sustain them and Americans need 9.6 hectares. And worst of all, I live in a country where we need 11.8 global hectares per person!
And how much land should we be using? With the current population, we should only be using 1.8 hectares of land. If current populations and consumption trends continue, by the mid 2030s we will need the equivalent of two earths to support us. That's a sobering fact, considering we only have one. It stands to reason then, that we cannot keep on living the same lifestyle if we want to conserve resources for the following generations.
So, how is our ecological footprint made up, and how can we reduce our carbon footprint? And do you even know what carbon is?What is Carbon?
Carbon is an element found in all living things; soil, ocean and the air. In nature there are continuous cycles of life and death of which carbon is the key element.
Carbon is produced when plants absorb carbon dioxide (CO2 ) and sunlight in their leaves and water from their roots. These plants are then eaten by animals. Carbon is returned to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide when animals breathe, plants respire and return to the earth when they die and decompose.
However, since the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s and into the 1900s, the burning of fossil fuels (coal, gas and oil) and the high levels of deforestation throughout the world has increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
This means that more carbon di oxide is being expelled and less plant matter is available to absorb the gas.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere. Life on earth would cease to exist without this gas keeping the planet warm, but now there's too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the earth is becoming increasingly hotter like a greenhouse.
Whilst planting trees is a good start, using less fossil fuels is also critical. By making some behavioral changes to our lifestyles like walking or cycling rather than using our cars, using less electricity or buying locally-grown produce are all ways in which we can reduce our carbon footprints.
The biggest component of your ecological footprint is made up of meat and animal products at 33%. Even if you are a vegetarian, you would be using more space than a vegan. Production of a single 150 gram serve of meat is estimated to use over 200 liters of water and create 5 kilograms of greenhouse pollution.
In addition, to produce one pound of meat, an animal must consume tens of times that weight in grain. Therefore, the land on which the grain is grown is counted in the footprint. This grain must also be shipped and the meat processed, which adds to the growing footprint.
Practical Ways - By eating one less serving of meat a week, in a year you would save up to 10,000 liters of water and 300 kg of greenhouse pollution!How to Reduce a Carbon Footprint Generated from Clothing
Clothing make up 14% of the footprint. Do you buy clothing from recycled materials? How often do you buy new clothes? And have you ever thought about how much water it takes to produce your clothes per year? Well, 150 000 liters to be exact which is made up of the amount of water used in its production, manufacture and transportation. That doesn't include the kilograms of pesticides and fertilizers taken to produce the material.
Practical Ways - Buy fewer clothes and rather repair and mend rather than replacing.How to Reduce a Carbon Footprint Generated from Housing Construction
Practical Ways We all need shelter, but when renovating, buying new or an existing property consider how you can improve its water and energy consumption and go for a greener build. Use local building materials with recyclable content. Don't use fossil fuels and attach water tanks to your roof to store rainwater for your garden. Use solar power and wind turbines. By buying near public transport you can leave your car in the garage and save even further.How to Reduce a Carbon Footprint Generated from using Other Services
10% here! These include your plumbers, electricians, architects and landscapers.
Practical Ways - Employ green plumbers, green electricians and green architects who are sympathetic to sustainable and green building. When you have your garden landscaped do it with organic material and leave out the chemical fertilizers.How to Reduce a Carbon Footprint Generated from using Planes and Accommodation
8% here is attributed to modes of transport and accommodation!
Practical Ways - Limit your plane travel and take eco-holidays where the owners are responsible towards the environment and are looking to provide low-impact holidays. Remember if you are camping or on a picnic to light cooking fires safely, and remove all rubbish when you are done.How to Reduce a Carbon Footprint Generated from Using Vegetables
8% of your ecological footprint. Going to buy frozen and canned vegetables has taken more resources than buying fresh produce from your local farmer or growing your own.
Practical Ways - If you have a garden or even a balcony, grow your own vegetables and herbs. Use plenty of manure and natural pesticide sprays to kill those bugs and beasties and support your local farmer at your local farm shop or farmers' market. Become a localvore and know the importance of eco conscious biodiversity .How to Reduce a Carbon Footprint Generated from Manufactured Goods
7% of your ecological footprint goes in manufactured goods.
Practical Ways Think of renting before you buy. This includes power tools, camping equipment, lawnmowers and motorized gardening equipment.How to Reduce a Carbon Footprint Generated by Cars
Cars and road transport make up 6% of the carbon footprint and are the biggest contributors to greenhouse emissions. For every liter of gas or petrol you use, you emit 2.5 kg of greenhouses gases into the atmosphere.
Practical Ways - Car pool, take public transport, buy locally and even cycle or walk to work if you can. By cycling or walking you are getting the additional benefit of exercise.How to Reduce a Carbon Footprint Generated by Using Furniture and Small Appliances
2% of your ecological footprint is spent on furniture and small appliances.
Practical Ways - Do you really need the latest deep-fryer or popcorn maker? Can you not make do with a deep pot for both? Limit your small appliances and see if you can buy wooden furniture that has come from well-managed forests that are sustainable. Stay away from timber that has come from rain-forests and the like.How to Reduce a Carbon Footprint using Beauty Products and Toiletries
1% of your ecological footprint. You would be shocked to know that with all the additional chemicals, fragrances and colors added to beauty products and toiletries these days, the average woman could end up with 2 kg of synthetic chemicals in her body through skin absorption.
Practical Ways - Read our section on how to make your own natural beauty products to see how you can make cosmetics naturally and safely for all your beauty needs.FINAL OUTCOME? SO JUST HOW BIG IS OUR ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINT?
A sustainable lifestyle is one that does not use more natural resources at a faster rate than the earth makes available. We should make wise decisions about our environment and always try to recycle where possible. We should all be aiming towards a more sustainable lifestyle.
So what is your own carbon footprint? Why don't you head over to our Carbon Footprint Calculator and find out for yourself!Did you find this page helpful?
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