What is a Carbon Footprint and Why is it so Important?

    The Carbon Footprint is the amount of carbon compounds (primarily carbon dioxide and methane) generated by the actions of a person or a group, either through certain activities or the production of goods and services.

    Why do we care about this metric? 

    Carbon Dioxide and Methane are two of the main components of Greenhouse Gases. These Greenhouse Gases are responsible for trapping heat in the atmosphere and contributing to Global Warming. 

    Global Warming has many adverse effects on the global environment, including increased wildfires and flooding, decreased fresh water supplies, and lower yields from farming.

    So, by measuring your personal Carbon Footprint, or the Carbon Footprint of certain activities, you can gauge how large of a contributing factor it is to Global Warming.

    Understanding the Impact of Carbon Dioxide and Methane Gasses

    80% of our waste ends up in landfills, including inorganic and organic waste.  

    When organic waste naturally decomposes it produces carbon dioxide. When organic waste ends up in a landfill, it is often in plastic bags and is quickly buried. So, when it decomposes there is little or no oxygen present. Under these conditions methane, not carbon dioxide, is produced as it decomposes.

    According to the EPA, methane is 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the earth over 100 years, and 80 times more powerful over the first 20 years. 

    We mostly worry about our waste ending up in landfills or polluting the oceans, but about 20% of it (in the US) is incinerated. The incineration of inorganic waste uses natural resources like timber, metal and fuel. This process produces greenhouse gases and other pollutants.

    The Idea of the Carbon Footprint

    There are several online tools available to estimate your personal carbon footprint, based on your household size, vehicles, and general expenses. Even though there is no way to test the accuracy of this data, it is a good way to compare certain activities to see what in your life is leaving the largest footprint.

    For example, you can see how much of an impact an electric or hybrid car has, compared to an older model gas car.

    The calculators clearly show how much a vegetarian or vegan diet compares to a heavy meat diet.

    Calculating individual carbon footprints began as an advertising campaign in 2005, by the oil and gas company BP. The intent was to divert attention from the industry and place the responsibility for Global Warming onto the consumers. (The same thing has been done with single use plastics with the recycling campaigns of the 1980’s.) They shifted the blame from the industry onto the consumer.

    In recent years, there has also been a lot of research, and a lot of public data made available, on the Carbon Footprint of certain industries, and even some larger companies. So, if you are considering a change in any major areas of your life, or if you are just in the market for a new car, you can easily get information about its carbon footprint. (As of the writing of this article, the Nissan Leaf has the lowest Carbon Footprint, and Aston Martin has the highest.)

    Ways to Reduce your Personal Carbon Footprint

    Choice of Diet– Avoid sources of Animal Proteins (especially red meat) and Rice (rice paddies are high methane producers). Vegetarian and Vegan diets have the lowest carbon footprints. Avoid foods that have been transported long distances, and heavily processed and packaged foods.

    A/C and Heating– Increase the energy efficiency of your home. Try opening windows in the summer before automatically turning on the air conditioning. Put on a second layer before turning up the heat in the winter. Not only will you save money by using the heat or the air conditioning less, but it will help reduce your Carbon Footprint. 

    Household Appliances– Choose Energy Star appliances, use CFL light bulbs, use cold water to wash clothes, avoid a clothes dryer.  

    Transportation– Purchase an electric or hybrid car. Reduce the amount that you drive by carpooling to work, or exploring other modes of transportation that make less of a carbon footprint. Consider walking or bicycling when you can.

    Follow the 5Rs of Zero Waste– Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot 

    Plastics– There is more than one good reason to reduce personal plastic consumption. Plastics produce greenhouse gasses during every stage of its lifecycle. The extraction and transportation of plastic is dependent on oil, gas, and coal. The production and disposal of plastics also release tons of carbon emissions. Plastics are quickly becoming the number one polluter of the planet. 

    These are only a few suggestions. 

    Take some time to be mindful of your daily activities and do a little research to learn about their full impact on the environment. Then find an alternative to reduce your carbon footprint.

    There are international agencies and environmental groups that are putting pressure on various industries to make changes to reduce carbon emissions and slow global warming. Take the time to search for some in your local area and give them the support they need.

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