How to measure exactly how much your personal choices impact climate change

Mic Illustration
Originally Published: 

There’s no question that Earth is in crisis mode. And as carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere continue to climb — and we continue to inch closer to environmental disaster — it becomes increasingly crucial that each of us truly does our part to mitigate the damage. At this point, we know plenty of strategies, like cutting back on single-use plastic and making smart decisions about how we travel, all of which are often touted as methods for reducing our “carbon footprints.” But what exactly does that phrase mean? It’s tossed around a lot these days, though rarely with many details accompanying it. Before you type all your info into a carbon footprint calculator, get those details here.

What is a carbon footprint?

“‘Carbon footprint’ is shorthand for the amount of climate-polluting emissions resulting from the production of a product or service, the operations of a company, or the lifestyle activities and consumption choices of an individual or family,” Matt Gravatt, associate director of federal and administrative advocacy at Sierra Club, tells Mic.

As Bronson Griscom, director of forest carbon science with The Nature Conservancy, explains to Mic, the number takes into account the sum of both carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and other greenhouse gas emissions (or “carbon equivalents,” he notes), as well as the impacts that our use of natural resources have on the land. “For most Americans, the biggest part of our carbon footprint is burning fossil fuels, due to everything from moving around ([such as in] cars [and] planes), heating and cooling our buildings, and the broader industrial systems that support each of our lives (everything from cement for our bridges and the manufacturing processes for our clothes),” he says.

Why is it important to know your own carbon footprint?

“Generally speaking, the higher a carbon footprint is for a person, a company, or a country, the more climate-disrupting carbon pollution they are directly or indirectly responsible for,” Gravatt says. But here’s the thing: Without actually taking the time to calculate and acknowledge your carbon footprint, it can be pretty easy to assume (or at least, think) it’s not quite as big as you might imagine. Think of it as similar to creating a budget and tracking your spending for the first time: You might not realize how much those little one-off purchases add up until you have to write them all down.

In terms of your carbon footprint, having that knowledge is not only crucial in terms of realizing your personal impact; but it also “helps raise awareness around how the choices that are made by everyone — from individuals, to politicians, to utility companies — affect the climate crisis and who how we can reduce those effects by making different choices,” Gravatt says. “It shows us that we can achieve change on a massive scale if we coordinate and organize. Many of us want to do something about the climate crisis, and sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. Understanding carbon footprints is a good first step that can empower and energize you to maximize your potential in the fight against the climate crisis.


How do you figure out your carbon footprint?

So then, how do you actually learn that information? Fortunately, you don’t have to hunker down and do the calculations yourself. “There are countless data points that, combined, can paint a better picture of your footprint, but much of this data is hard to find on your own,” Gravatt says. Instead, several environmental websites offer carbon footprint calculators that do the work for you, giving you a result in tons of carbon dioxide you generate per year.

“Carbon calculators allow users to enter information, such as source of heat ([like] oil or natural gas), electricity usage, and miles driven to estimate a carbon footprint,” Griscom says. “These calculators use average values from similar geographies ([like the] Northeast or Florida) and similar households to estimate your own carbon footprint. Of course, actual household footprints may vary from these average based estimates, and the assumptions underlying each calculator.” The Nature Conservancy offers one calculator that uses data from Cool Climate and factors in your entries for travel, home, food and shopping.

But not all calculators are created equal. “They all use different formulas, with different assumptions regarding carbon emissions conversion rates,” Gravatt says. “Some only calculate CO2 (carbon dioxide) while some use CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) to include other greenhouse gasses. Some allow you to specify the type of car or plane you use or travel in. Some want to know if you recycle or not, if you purchase carbon offsets, how big your apartment is, or how many floors your house has.” For example, he says the Environmental Protection Agency’s calculator factors in home energy use, transportation and waste (like your recycling habits); but not things you buy or air travel. Conservation International’s calculator, meanwhile, factors in your home energy use, transportation (including air travel), waste, diet, and clean energy credits (like purchasing wind or solar energy); but not products you buy. That’s not to say they’re not worthwhile, but it’s certainly important to keep the context in mind when reviewing your score — and perhaps using a few different calculators to get a more holistic view.

Should you aim for a carbon footprint goal?

Most carbon footprint calculators will show you how you compare to various averages. For example, Conservation International shows average footprints by country or continent (according to their site, in the U.S., it’s 21 tons per year; in Europe, it’s eight tons per year; in China and India each, it’s four tons per year; and globally, the average is seven tons per year). The Nature Conservancy’s calculator gives you the option to compare your score against leaders in specific U.S. states with specific household sizes.

But averages are one thing — and the reality is, they’re all too high. “The goal is simple: We all must strive for a net zero carbon footprint,” Griscom says. “We should all strive to be carbon neutral in coming decades. While it is unlikely that we will eliminate all of our emissions, we can dramatically reduce our emissions while at the same time doing things to suck carbon out of the atmosphere,” such as by purchasing carbon offsets.

Mick Harper/Shutterstock

What can you do to improve it?

Aside from purchasing carbon offsets, there are plenty of ways to reduce your individual carbon footprint in your everyday life. “It ranges from things that are both easy and save money ([like] use the cold rather than hot setting on your washing machine) to things that are difficult (we may still need to do some long-distance travel for our work — for example, to solve climate change!),” Griscom says. Some of his favorite steps to take and recommend are cutting out beef and shrimp from your diet (they “have much higher emissions per pound of meat compared to both other meats, like chicken, and particularly compared to plant-derived protein [like] beans [and] tofu”); pledging to go electric for your next car (“many of the new cars coming on the market are higher performance, safer, and much better for the environment”); and considering solar panels for your roof (“it’s now more affordable than you might realize”).

Gravatt notes you can also prioritize public transit and biking over driving, look into renewable wind energy, and have an energy audit done on your home. “Small changes can add up to big reductions in your individual carbon footprint,” he says. But it’s also crucial to think beyond your singular footprint. Gravatt suggests engaging with your local and state government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, educating others in your community on “climate-disrupting pollution,” and getting involved with environmental advocacy organizations. The latter, he says, “can lead to changes in policies and laws that put the onus on oil and gas companies, utility companies, automobile manufacturers, and other big polluters to reduce carbon emissions and take responsibility for their climate pollution at mass scale.”

And considering the state of the climate crisis, mass-scale change is essential. “The individual choices we all make matter, but we also must hold accountable those who limit or constrain these choices — choices like what energy sources we have access to or the direct and indirect pollution of the products we buy,” Gravatt says. “The climate crisis threatens every person and community on this planet; we need to work together, not by ourselves. It’s not easy, but it’s essential: Take action, get organized, speak out, and talk to your elected leaders. Never forget that every action adds up to something much greater — your individual actions and the actions they inspire in your community can make a huge difference.”