What Is a Carbon Footprint?

June 25, 2021

The concept of a “carbon footprint” has started to become more comfortable for the average citizen. The basic dictionary definition of a carbon footprint is:

The amount of greenhouse gases and specifically carbon dioxide emitted by something (such as a person’s activities or a product’s manufacture and transport) during a given time.

But what does this practically look like in the day-to-day life of the everyday Jane? What amount of those emissions am I really responsible for?

SHORT-ISH HISTORY

Although the term has technically been around since 1999 (according to Merriam Webster, at least), it didn’t really burst into the scientific journal scene until around 2008. As you can see from this Google Trends graph, the phrase’s searches peaked in 2008 as well. Presumably because, just like me in a sushi restaurant, a bunch of confused scientists encountered a new term and turned to the Internet Machine to help them out.

In the grand scheme of, you know, carbon, 2008 isn’t that long ago. We’ve all had carbon footprints since the beginning of time, but just recently we started to popularize the idea of actually measuring our impact.

BREAKING IT DOWN

The term itself is both fairly self-explanatory and complicated. We’ll break it down by word.

Carbon Footprint

So, yes. Your carbon footprint is about carbon dioxide. But it’s also about a lot of other greenhouse gases like HFCs, methane, and more. There was a push to change the term to “climate footprint” to better encompass the overall impact, but as you can see from this graph… it didn’t stick.

Instead, this industry measures things in terms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). This is a standardized measurement much like a foot or meter. It allows us to evaluate the environmental impact of greenhouse gas in terms of equivalent amounts of CO2. We use standard ratios to essentially convert a metric ton of, say, methane, to metric tons of CO2 with the same global warming potential.

(If you remember from your AP Chemistry class, different gases have different half-lives and therefore different environmental impacts in the atmosphere. My colleague Justin does a great job explaining how this is handled in a separate post.)

But wait… why isn’t it “carbon dioxide footprint?” Probably because it just doesn’t roll off the tongue.

Carbon Footprint

The “footprint” part of this term is all about impact. I like to think of those giant, fossilized dinosaur footprints. Your carbon footprint is the measurement of your own personal mark on the environment. It’s the total product at the end of an evaluation of all of the energy-intensive activities that you participate in. Driving your car, running your a/c, the food you eat, the clothes you purchase… It all adds up to your carbon footprint.

Your carbon footprint is typically broken into three scopes. Scope 1 is your direct emissions, such as from a car, a fireplace, and natural gas in your home. Scope 2 includes your indirect emissions, like the generation of the electricity you use in your home. Scope 3 encompasses everything else: manufacturing processes on goods that you purchased, the shipping emissions from your online order, etc.

At its core, your carbon footprint is a measure of how much CO2e exists in the atmosphere because of your decisions.

THE OVERLAP

Did you notice that your carbon footprint includes things that you don’t have much control over, like the manufacturing process of a shirt? Doesn’t seem fair, right, to put that all back on you?

We have complicated accounting practices to determine who is responsible for each ton of CO2e, and Scope 3 is the trickiest one to pencil out. They’re outside of a person or organization’s “fencelines” and therefore not as easily addressed by direct action. Some organizations, like our long-term partner Interface, are continually raising the bar in this area, requiring their supply chain to operate at a high standard of environmental efficiency.

HOW TO REDUCE YOUR FOOTPRINT

You can reduce your carbon footprint in several ways. The easiest thing for individuals is simply avoiding high-emission activities, like carpooling instead of driving alone. These are called avoided emissions and help the overall state of our environment by simply not creating the emissions in the first place.

You can also encourage corporations to reduce their footprint (and thus, your Scope 3) by choosing to shop sustainably.

HOW TO NEUTRALIZE YOUR CARBON FOOTPRINT

You’ve taken steps to reduce your footprint. You have the bamboo straw, bike to work, make sustainable shopping decisions. But you still have a footprint, because we live in a carbon-heavy world and it’s truly unavoidable. So, what can you do?

This is where carbon offset credits come in. When you purchase a carbon offset credit, you’re reducing your own emissions by 1 metric ton of CO2e. You can purchase enough credits to balance out your carbon footprint and become carbon neutral.

Carbon offset credits come from projects that reduce or avoid emissions. When you purchase a credit, you’re effectively paying someone else to reduce the emissions that you can’t. Carbon offset projects can only be voluntary changes (i.e. not regulated) that would not have happened without your support.

Carbon offset credits are subject to the rigorous methods of carbon accounting. They undergo extensive review to ensure that each credit truly represents 1 tCO2e of emission reductions. Additionally, only the person who purchases the credit can use that reduction against their footprint. This eliminates any issue of double-counting. Kind of like deductions on your taxes, if taxes were a voluntary measurement of your impact on the environment.

THE TAKEAWAY

We believe in reducing what you can and offsetting what you can’t. Offsets aren’t a free pass to pollute; they simply support the voluntary emission reductions of others. There are so many creative ways to reduce your carbon footprint, and it all starts with understanding what creates it in the first place.

This article is contributed by

Emily Six
As Marketing and Communications Manager for Bluesource, Emily collaborates with the team to provide internal and external content and communications. She likes coffee, plants, wine, and the Oxford comma.

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