Carbon Footprint 101: How to Calculate it and Reduce it

Carbon footprint is one of those terms that has gradually — over the last 10 years or so — moved its way from the obscurity into everyday conversation. But what, exactly, does it mean? What is a carbon footprint, how can you measure yours, and how can a carbon footprint be reduced?

The term carbon footprint is defined as the amount of carbon (usually in tonnes) being emitted by an organization, event, product or individual directly or indirectly. Everyone’s carbon footprint is different depending on their location, habits and personal choices. Each of us contributes to the greenhouse gas emissions (water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone) either by the way we travel, the food we eat, the amount of electricity we consume and much more.

However, there are people, organizations, nonprofit institutions (like Richmond Vale Academy) and even local governments who have begun talking about the carbon footprint and motivating each other to put in place programs to reduce their carbon footprint, like our Climate Change Activist Program.

Click here to go straight to how to calculate it

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What are Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

Greenhouse gases are a group of gases that are able to trap heat (longwave radiation) in the atmosphere, keeping the Earth’s surface warmer than it would be if they were not present. These gases are the fundamental cause of the greenhouse effect, which is creating global warming and consequently climate change.

Greenhouse gases allow sunlight (shortwave radiation) to pass through the atmosphere freely, where it is then partially absorbed by the surface of the Earth. But some of this energy bounces back out towards space as heat. Of the heat emitted back to space, some is intercepted and absorbed by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The molecular structure of these gases allow them to absorb some of the escaping heat and then re-emit it towards the Earth which increases global temperatures.

So, the more greenhouse gases we have in the atmosphere, the more heat stays on Earth. This process, which is very similar to the way a greenhouse works, is why the gases that can produce this effect are collectively known as greenhouse gases.

There are 2 ways that a greenhouse gas (often abbreviated GHG) can enter our atmosphere. One of them is through human activities. The main human sources of GHG emissions are: fossil fuel use, deforestation, intensive livestock farming, use of synthetic fertilizers and industrial processes. The other is through natural processes like animal and plant respiration.

The better your footprint calculation is the more effectively you can shrink it. Calculating your carbon footprint can help you to prioritise the steps you can take to shrink it, by identifying what the biggest opportunities for reductions are.

There are many existing and evolving standards for calculating carbon footprints but in reality no footprint is precise. Even for simple activities such as burning a litre of petrol, which releases a known amount of CO2, there are still uncertainties about the emissions caused by extracting and refining the petrol before it was burned.

There are many ‘carbon calculators‘ on the web to help people work out the carbon footprint of their life or individual activities such as flights. However, the answers can vary widely between websites depending on the methodology used. For example, one website might focus only on the fuel use involved in flying while another might include an estimate of the climate impact of the vapour trails caused by the plane. Similarly, one website might estimate a person’s footprint based only on their home energy and travel, while another might include an estimate of all the goods and services they consume, from clothes and computers to education and healthcare. Depending of what you are going to calculate, the formula is going to look like this:

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Housing

Electricity : use (kWh/yr) * EF (kg CO2e/kWh) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Natural Gas : use (therms/yr) * EF (kg CO2e/therms) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Fuel Oil: use (litres/yr) * EF (kg CO2e/litre) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
LPG : use (litres/yr) * EF (kg CO2e/litre) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Waste : use (kg/week) * 52 * EF (kg CO2e/kg) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Water : use (litres/day) * 365 * EF (kg CO2e/kWh) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)

Note: Each of the usages are per person, per year. For example if your home uses 3000 kWh of electricity a year and you share it with two other people your share of electricity use will be 1000 kWh.

Travel

To calculate your travel footprint you need to work out how much travel you have done in the last year using various forms of transport. Taking these distances you can multiply by a carbon intensity for each form of transport.

Vehicle: distance (km/yr) /*EF (kg CO2e/km) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Bus: distance (km/yr) * EF (kg CO2e/km) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Metro: distance (km/yr) * EF (kg CO2e/km) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Taxi: distance (km/yr) * EF (kg CO2e/km) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Rail: distance (km/yr) * EF (kg CO2e/km) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Flying: distance (km/yr)* 1.09 * EF (kg CO2e/km) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)

Food

To calculate your food footprint you need to estimate the amount of food you consume and the emissions that result from the supply of that food. To simplify this process you can estimate the typical food energy you consume each day in different food groups, and base your calculation on this.

Red meat: consumption (kCal/day)*365*EF (kg CO2e/kCal) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
White meat: consumption (kCal/day)*365*EF (kg CO2e/kCal) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Dairy: consumption (kCal/day)*365*EF (kg CO2e/kCal) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Cereals: consumption (kCal/day)*365*EF (kg CO2e/kCal) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Vegetables: consumption (kCal/day)*365*EF (kg CO2e/kCal) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Fruit: consumption (kCal/day)*365*EF (kg CO2e/kCal) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Oils: consumption (kCal/day)*365*EF (kg CO2e/kCal) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Snacks: consumption (kCal/day)*365*EF (kg CO2e/kCal) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Drinks: consumption (kCal/day)*365*EF (kg CO2e/kCal) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)

Products

The method you can use for your product footprints is based on how much you spend each month on new goods. This expenditure is divided up into six different product groups from which you estimate an emissions factor that captures the emissions arising from the materials, manufacturing and distribution associated with each product group.

Electrical: spend ($/month) * 12 * EF (kg CO2e/$) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Household: spend ($/month) * 12 * EF (kg CO2e/$) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Clothes: spend ($/month) * 12 * EF (kg CO2e/$) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Medical: spend ($/month) * 12 * EF (kg CO2e/$) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Recreational: spend ($/month) * 12 * EF (kg CO2e/$) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Other: spend ($/month) * 12 * EF (kg CO2e/$) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)

Services

The process for calculating your services footprint is very similar to that used in products footprints. Using monthly expenditures for seven different groups of services you can estimate the total footprint.

Health : spend ($/month) * 12 * EF (kg CO2e/$) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Finance: spend ($/month) * 12 * EF (kg CO2e/$) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Recreation: spend ($/month) * 12 * EF (kg CO2e/$) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Education: spend ($/month) * 12 * EF (kg CO2e/$) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Vehicle: spend ($/month) * 12 * EF (kg CO2e/$) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Communications : spend ($/month) * 12 * EF (kg CO2e/$) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)
Other: spend ($/month) * 12 * EF (kg CO2e/$) = emissions (kg CO2e/yr)

Going green or being eco-friendly can seem intimidating, but reducing your carbon footprint doesn’t need to involve a radical lifestyle overhaul! There are many simple and affordable ways almost anyone can contribute to helping the environment.

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#1- Change Your Lightbulbs

How often do you think about your lightbulbs? Chances are, not very often. An easy fix you can make that will help the planet every day is to switch all of the lights in your house to compact fluorescent bulbs. One bulb can reduce up to 1,300 pounds of carbon dioxide pollution during its lifetime.

If every house in the U.S. switched its bulbs, we could reduce the electricity spent on lighting by one half. Worth climbing up that ladder and whipping out your screwdriver, huh?

#2- Unplug Your Gadgets

Completely powering off your gadgets isn’t just good for your devices, it’s good for the planet. What’s even better is unplugging your chargers when they’re not in use. If you’re someone who always leaves your phone charger dangling from the wall, doesn’t power off your cable box and forgets to put your computer on sleep mode, many of your tech behaviors can use some adapting. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, adopting these practices can save you $100 each year on your energy bill.

 

#3- Watch the Thermostat

One easy way to reduce your family’s carbon footprint is to simply be conscious of your thermostat’s settings. When you aren’t home, set your thermostat higher in the summer and lower in the winter to conserve energy. If you can, program it to adjust automatically.

You can also use ceiling fans and air fans in the summer to reduce AC costs; and use low-energy space heaters and bundle up to save on heating. It have been shown, that colder temperatures are good for sleep, so keeping thermostats low during winter can have multiple benefits!

#4- Line-Dry Your Clothes

Going old-school to dry clean clothes is a great way to minimize your personal carbon footprint. Consider hanging your clothes out to dry instead of throwing them in the dryer. According to the World Wildlife Organization, one dryer load uses five times more electricity than washing – the equivalent of turning on 225 light bulbs for an hour.

#5- Fly Less

Before you book your next flight, you might want to think about the enormous carbon blueprint planes leave behind. Commercial aviation is responsible for about 2 percent of the global total of carbon dioxide emitted annually by human activity. Instead, consider greener options such as buses or trains, or try vacationing closer to home. To reduce business travel, try to use video conferencing for those important meetings.

#6- Print or Digital, Be Mindful Reading the News

People have been debating the environmental costs of consuming news online versus reading the print paper since the beginning of the digital media revolution. Newspapers, according to one study, cause roughly their weight in carbon emissions. That said, surfing the web expends energy, the amount of which varies based on the device you use.

The best policy to adopt when it comes to news consumption is to be mindful. If you subscribe to a print paper, be sure to recycle your paper every day. If online news is your preferred medium, chose an unplugged laptop or e-reader, rather than a plugged-in device for the majority of your browsing time.

#7- Plant a Tree

This classic way to give back to the environment is one of the most efficient ways you can cut your carbon footprint. Trees provide shade and oxygen while consuming carbon dioxide. According to the Urban Forestry Network, a single young tree absorbs 13 pounds of carbon dioxide each year. That amount will climb up to 48 pounds annually as trees mature. Just one 10-year-old tree releases enough oxygen into the air to support two human beings.

#8- Eliminate or Reduce Meat Consumption

Eliminating or at least reducing your meat consumption may actually be the best thing you can do to fight climate change. According to a report by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined. Emissions from livestock, largely from burping cows and sheep, as well as the manure they produce, currently makes up almost 15 percent of global emissions; notes the study, while beef and dairy alone make up 65 percent of all livestock emissions. In addition, to produce a pound of beef, 5,000 gallons of water are needed.

#9- Buy Local Food

Love eating watermelon year-round? That’s great, but chances are, it isn’t grown anywhere near where you live during the winter. Purchasing foods that are both in season and grown locally can drastically cut down the carbon emissions of the vehicles used to transport your winter watermelon across the country. According to the Worldwatch Institute, food travels 1,500 miles on average between the farm and the supermarket. We bet you can find foods grown closer to your home if you try to find them.

#10- ‘Green’ Your Commute

Choosing to walk, bike or take public transportation is a small but impactful way to help in the fight against climate change. Some 65 million Americans have taken up biking in recent years and many are opting to take their bikes to work. Numerous cities are also investing in the infrastructure to help make the commute safe, fun and easy.

#11- Join an environmental organization

One of the best way to reduce your carbon footprint is joined to an environmental organization; in which you will learn everything you have to know about environment, carbon footprint and ways to reduce it.

Richmond Vale Academy, is  a nonprofit institution where more than 500 students from St. Vincent and around the world; have participated on their programs to reduce poverty and protect the environment!

One of our programs, is a  6-month environmental gap year. A gap year comes under many guises – backpacking, a career gap, a short gap (most of the times for 6 months); travelling, time out, a sabbatical – but they all mean the same thing. Also, a gap year is constructive time out to travel in-between life stages. It usually means travelling, volunteering or working abroad. Often it means all three!

This 6-month gap year in particular, has the purpose that you learn and teach along with people from all over the world and contributing to create awareness, spreading the knowledge about Climate Change and Global Warming in the communities, and specific in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, there are many ways to shrink your carbon footprint. These will have a direct effect on the health of the planet, but also in yours and your wallet’s. To have a “greener” life is not only helpful but it is also very fulfilling.  If you really want to live this life and get to know first hand how to not only reduce but to do something to reverse it; then we invite you to join our programs. We assure you that you will have the time of your life and make a huge contribution into making our planet, a better place for you and everyone.

Finally, if you have any questions, please leave us a comment in the comment section below. Also, please share it with all of your friends.

 

Carbon Footprint 101: How to Calculate it and Reduce it

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