By Cindy Siegenfeld
You’ve probably heard of the phrase “carbon footprint” and the need to lower it. Many of us are confused about what that means and how that affects the environment. Here are some common questions:
- What is a carbon footprint and how does that relate to climate change?
- If lowering my carbon footprint is recommended, what tools are there to calculate my carbon footprint?
- What changes in my diet will make a difference?
- How can I keep track of my carbon emissions?
- What does it mean when a company is carbon neutral and why is that important?
We hope that by the time you finish reading this, you will realize your actions matter. A recent NY Times article shares that the dangers of climate change are mounting so rapidly that they can soon overwhelm the ability of both nature and humanity to adapt unless greenhouse gas emissions are quickly reduced.
This will take a global effort - individuals, companies, and countries doing everything they possibly can. And that doesn't mean just spending billions of dollars on adaptions to future threats facing us. We should also be focusing on transformational changes within our ecosystem that are sustainable. But if we continue with minimal action, our choices for those changes will become fewer and fewer.
The rate of carbon emissions is the highest they’ve been in 66 million years and the amount of warming in the coming decades is expected to be 250 times greater than the average warming during the past century.
If global warming reaches 1.5 degrees Celsius - as is now likely within the next few decades - roughly 8 percent of the world's farmland could be unsuitable for growing food, oceans and animal life will suffer, and people around the world will be exposed to flooding and more natural disasters that will change habitable areas. If we reach 2 and then 3 degrees Celsius the effects are devastating!
What is a carbon footprint?
According to the Nature Conservancy, a U.S. environmental nonprofit, a carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases (GHG, including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by our actions. In short, our daily GHG emissions contribute to global warming.
Thinking in terms of a household, it relates to the carbon that is indirectly or directly emitted from the food you buy, the gas and electricity you use to heat your home, or the fuel needed for the car you drive.
The global individual carbon emissions average is 4 tons, which would be a good first step for most Americans to aim for. However, if we want to avoid global warming, we all need to strive to get it under 2 tons by 2050.
The average carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16 tons per year, one of the highest in the world.
Lowering individual carbon footprints from 16 tons to 2 tons will take individual effort. Dietary changes will mean eating less meat and focusing on a low-carbon diet. While other changes can mean finding more efficient ways to travel as shared in this diagram below from Our World in Data.
Utilizing some tools to measure your carbon footprint will open your eyes to the changes you can also make in your home, the food you purchase, and the choices you make when shopping.
Tools to measure your carbon footprint
There are an increasing amount of tools and apps being developed to calculate your carbon footprint. Carbonfootprint.com offers calculators for both individuals and businesses and suggests handy ways to reduce your carbon footprint and improve it by, for example, planting trees. Or there’s a straightforward questionnaire created by the environmental nonprofit WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature) that asks questions about your diet and travel habits and offers advice.
One of the easiest is Climate Hero which lets you calculate your carbon footprint in just 5 minutes, reduce your footprint with climate pledges and offset your remaining footprint to 200%. They make it quick and easy with some general assumptions. This gets your gears turning for some important lessons you can take away from the test. Try out a Climate Hero test now.
You can also try some more detailed tools to estimate your personal or household greenhouse gas emissions. Then explore the impact of different techniques to lower those emissions. Here are some of our recommendations for a good start:
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gives you a quick, rough estimate of your carbon footprint by using U.S. average values.
- The Nature Conservancy has an easy to use interactive carbon calculator giving and ways to take action.
- Global Footprint Network shares another approach with an ecological footprint and ratings with an peronal Overshoot Day - find out what yours is!:
- Giki Zero app is a free science based carbon footprint calculator with over 130 steps to suit every lifestyle and budget.
- MyEarth app is GPS based and will calculate and motivate you to make carbon-conscious food and travel decisions. You can even set a target based on a 7.6% reduction.
- Klima is a carbon offset app that will suggest chnages and allow you to offset your carbon emissions with a monthly subscription.
- JouleBug is a sustainability app that combines gaming and social media to compete and connect with your friends with suggested actions for an eco-friendly life.
- EarthHero app helps yoou discover ways to act towards climate change and set green goals for yourself.
- GreenKarma app has a gaming interface that allows you to play and collect CO2 cards for various environmental projects where you can use them to reduce real-life emissions.
Changing your diet can lower your carbon footprint
Food consumption is responsible for about 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Eating low-carbon food is, therefore, one of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint.
We all know that cutting back on meat consumption is essential to lowering your carbon footprint. But you should also learn about how to eat the eco-flexitarian way which will give you extra tools to be mindful and choose food that is sustainably sourced.
Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Ratings on Recipes
What if you just want to focus on a low-carbon diet? Start by looking for recipes that share the Environmental Info directly in the nutritional calculations. You can find a Carbon Footprint Analysis number on each one of The Mindful Fork Recipes. Thanks to My Emissions, they calculate the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) amount and the percentage based on a global average. You can then decide what recipe fits into your daily plan.
My Emissions also has a carbon footprint calculator that is free to use. You can easily look up the carbon footprint of an ingredient and make more sustainable choices. Our hope is one day we can see a carbon rating label displayed on many products and menus allowing eco-conscious consumers to make better decisions when dining out or purchasing products at the supermarket.
What is a good daily carbon footprint rating?
According to Climate Hero, we shouldn't be eating more than 3.05 kg CO2e (3,050 grams) carbon emissions per day. This is based on a UN recommendation to reduce carbon food emissions by 7.65 each year.
When planning your daily meals, chart out your recipes trying not to exceed your fair daily food emissions % percentage for the day. If you go over one day be mindful the next day to choose even lower carbon-rated meals.
If you're finding it difficult to track and reduce your carbon footprint, then use one of the apps mentioned above to assist you. Many will give you the options to offset your carbon emission overages with subscription plans that will fill the carbon emissions gap while you transition to a more plant-based diet. Or simply skip those steps and join a carbon offset program.
Top tips to reduce your carbon footprint
If we are aware, we can incorporate changes that will make a difference. Here are just a few to start with, but certainly, learn more by taking some of the quizzes mentioned above.
- Eat less beef and lamb. Cows and sheep are ruminants that let out large amounts of methane gas, which has a 21 times higher greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide.
- Be eco-conscious and eat an eco-flexitarian or low-carbon diet. Choose from recipes that label the carbon footprint so you are aware of your daily carbon emissions.
- Offset your remaining footprint with a carbon offset program. This is a cost effective way to take responsibility for the emissions you're causing but can't eliminate with lifestyle changes.
- Switch to an environmentally friendly electricity program that reduce your climate impact from electricity usage by 90%. Contact your electric company for available options.
- Use your bike or walk when possible.
- Be more conscious of reducing travel domestically which has the largest impact on our environment. Take a train, bus, car or ferry instead of short-haul flights.
- Join a car sharing program instead of owning or leasing a car. You will only use a car when you really need to. In addition, you often can get access to green vehicles and choose the most suitable size for each trip.
- Ask for an eco-friendly car when booking a taxi/Uber/Lyft. For example, Uber offers users to choose Uber Green where you'll receive a ride in a hybrid or 100% electric car that produces up to 44% fewer carbon emissions than the average Uber trip.
- Fight food waste. Out of all the food produced, 40% ends up as waste. Half of this happens during production or distribution, while the other half happens at home in the kitchen. Learn how to cook more efficiently and to plan out zero-waste meals. Le
- Reduce Plastic Usage. Plastic is made from fossil oil and every kg of plastic creates about 3- 6 kg CO2 emissions. Average is 50kg per person with a foootprint of 150-300kg CO2e per person per year.
- Prioritize products made with wood and bamboo. The choice of raw materials has a big impact when buying things like furniture, home decor, utensils, building materials, toys, textiles, etc.
- Shop less. When buying, go for quality instead of cheap products that wear out quickly.
- Shop more circular. Buying second hand is an easy way to reduce your emissions. You can also donate or sell items you no longer use.
- Maximize recycling. Make sure all the things you throw out are recycled correctly.
Carbon offsetting can be used in addition to maintaining a low-carbon footprint. You can offset your excess carbon output to fund projects that will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere on the planet.
Carbon Offset Programs
Carbon offset programs will give you ways to neutralize your carbon footprint by decreasing the footprint of others. The money you pay goes towards climate positive projects that are made possible by donations from people carbon offsetting. A primary example of these projects is replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy in developing countries that cannot fund these projects for themselves.
Here is a list of some suggested programs:
Support organizations and get involved
Support organizations that are researching new ideas to innovate change, educating the public on how to incorporate those changes, and promoting carbon offset programs.
Speak up for nature by contacting your elected officials or pledging to take action
The Nature Conservancy offers many ways you can take action with a pledge. Simply fill out a form (no donation required) and they will pass it on to an elected official. Your voice matters and will be heard.
Hold on to HOPE for OUR FUTURE
We must hold on to HOPE for our future! Innovative solutions are already in the works to enhance nature's ability to fight climate change. With determination to protect our precious ecosystems, we can turn things around. Together, we can slow down the worst impacts facing our world today and innovate for a better 2030 and beyond!
Excerpt from The Book of HOPE by Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams
It is important to take action and realize that we can MAKE A DIFFERENCE, and this will encourage others to TAKE ACTION, and then we realize we are not alone and our cumulative actions truly make an even greater difference. That is how we spread the light. And this makes us all ever more HOPEFUL!