What is a Carbon Footprint and Why You Should Care About Yours

By Arun Venkatraman | AVC

Climate Change won’t solve itself. Are you ready to do your part?

The oft-missed crucial prerequisite towards fighting climate change is the desire to learn more about the complexities of this global crisis than you did yesterday. So if you’re here trying to understand our impact on the planet – congratulations, you are already a step ahead of the curve. But before you pat yourself on the back and then scratch your head on where to start, here are some questions that might help along the way:

First, let’s start with something easy – What’s causing climate change?

To put it simply, human activities create Greenhouse Gas emissions such as carbon dioxide that trap heat and warm our atmosphere, leading to the phenomenon we call ‘Climate Change’.

Next – Who’s responsible for it? Well… let’s save this one for later, shall we?
(Here’s a secret – it’s not you)

Lastly – What’s it got to do with you?

This is the part where your ‘carbon footprint’ comes into the picture. A ‘carbon footprint’ is any individual or entity’s contribution (negative or positive) to climate change, calculated in emissions of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent). This is measured against a ‘carbon budget’ – a scientifically-backed figure of total carbon space available before warming reaches catastrophic levels (2ºC above pre-industrial levels). As of writing this article, the world’s available carbon budget for stopping warming below 2ºC is 1,043 Gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2. Admittedly, a Gigatonne is a lot. But add in the fact that we are emitting ~36 GtCO2e annually not including emissions from land-use change, that number leaves us with an estimated 25 years, at our current rate of emissions. In contrast, average annual per capita emissions in the year 2019 (to discount for pandemic impacts) stood at 4.7 tCO2e (Fun Fact: It would take an average human 3.1 billion lifetimes to exhaust our carbon budget!).

So why should you care about your carbon footprint?

While no one person can solve climate change, your carbon footprint is a key indicator of your impact on the environment – as most material activities lead to carbon emissions. For the sustainably-minded, it is therefore an important marker. Our governments and big business seem to treat the carbon budget as akin to our financial budget and spend it into deficit. But unfortunately, and unlike paper money, we can’t create more carbon space if we run out of it – so every drop counts!

What is contributing to your carbon footprint?

All our day-to-day activities have a carbon footprint, either directly in the case of fossil fuel use, or indirectly, in the case of energy use or product consumption. Here are some of the key areas of activity that contribute to our carbon footprint:

Food

On average, food contributes 10-30 percent of the total emissions of a household – this figure is on the higher side for lower-income households. While food consumption is an indispensable activity, it is also an area where huge cuts on carbon emissions can be made with little effort. In general, meat consumption is a key contributor to carbon emissions – primarily due to the inefficiency in converting plant energy into meat, as opposed to directly consuming plant-based products. Add to this the fact that ruminants such as cows, goats, and sheep account for 7.1 GtCO2e emission per year due to release of methane, a highly powerful GHG, and the real size of the problem becomes clearly visible.

How to reduce food emissions?

While turning to vegetarian/vegan diets surely helps, even simple actions such as cutting down on emission-intensive meat products (such as beef) can really help reduce our footprint. Moreover, highly processed foods that have a far away source of production include supply-chain impacts, meaning that buying local food can help with emissions’ reduction as well*.

Household Energy Use

Depending on where you live, this might be the single most important contributor to people’s carbon footprint. This is because average household power consumption varies wildly depending on geographic location. Whereas in the US, household power consumption stands at 10,715 kWh per year, in countries such as India, it is as low as 206 kWh per year. However, the mix of energy sources in a country’s installed capacity also weighs heavily on household emissions. For example, if the majority of your household power comes from natural gas based plants, your emissions would amount to an average of 0.4 kgCO2e/kWh, whereas for a coal-fired power plant, this figure would be closer to 0.95 (~2x) kgCO2e/kWh.

Ways to Reduce

While household emissions are not completely in our control, smaller lifestyle changes such as switching to energy efficient light-bulbs or replacing old equipment can lead to huge savings too. Furthermore, as renewable energy becomes cheaper and competitive with conventional sources, switching or incorporating renewable energy sources at household level can be one of the most important steps towards fighting climate change.

Transportation

Transportation is oftentimes the most material component of emissions for most households depending on the production activities they are involved in. Right now, most of our transport systems are fossil fuel-powered, leading to massive emissions. While the world seems to be slowly warming up to electric vehicles, adoption of EVs is still only in early stages. Furthermore, our preferred modes of travel have a large impact on our emissions as well – air travel, which is the most emissions-intensive, can emit more than a tonne of CO2e (Typical flight from New York to London emits 934 kgCO2e) per trip.

How to reduce your transport emissions?

Globally, aviation alone accounts for up to 2.5 percent of total emissions. So reducing or cutting down on unwanted air travel can work magic on reducing our carbon footprint. But on a day-to-day basis, even simple actions such as observing the speed limit on our cars, trucks, and bikes can lead to considerable savings on our carbon footprint.

Reduce what you can, offset the rest

Almost all human activities lead to some impact on our carbon footprint – so it’s impossible to completely cut down on our emissions. However, the best way to go about it is to reduce what we can and look for activities that ‘offset’ carbon emissions for the rest. These activities can include anything from supporting tree-planting initiatives to investing in renewable energy.

So, if you’ve convinced yourself to be more environmentally-mindful and want to measure your carbon footprint, you can visit our portal carbonconvertor.org to calculate your transport emissions now.

Auroville Consulting
a unit of the Auroville Foundation

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