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What is a Carbon Footprint? How You Can Reduce Your Environmental Impact

Reducing our collective carbon footprint will require global cooperation, but there are several things we can do to lessen our emissions.

What is a Carbon Footprint?

While the phrase “carbon footprint” has become a familiar part of the English-speaking lexicon, most people only recognize it as shorthand for “the amount of damage you do to the environment personally.” But more specifically, a carbon footprint means the total volume of greenhouse gas output that is released into the atmosphere based upon human activity.

But what are greenhouse gasses?

The phrase “greenhouse gasses” comes from the phenomenon that occurs in greenhouses that facilitate plant growth. Greenhouse structures, traditionally clear glass houses, enable temperature regulation by allowing warming sunlight inside that isn’t released, so the temperature stays warm regardless of the weather conditions outside. Greenhouse gasses are emissions – carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, among others – that effectively trap atmospheric heat, causing the global climate to rise. This is colloquially known as either global warming or climate change.

Unchecked greenhouse gas emissions can, over time, lead to devastating environmental consequences. A persistently warmer climate will have the following effects on the planet:

  • The global snowpack – natural stores of ice in the forms of glaciers and oceanic ice – will melt, leading to rising sea levels and the flooding of coastline regions, making them uninhabitable.
  • The temperature of the oceans will rise, killing of marine life due to changing pH levels.
  • Global temperatures will become too warm, leading to increased droughts, wildfires and stronger and more frequent hurricanes.
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The damaging results of increased climate have a cyclical effect. This means that the worse environmental conditions become, the more greenhouse gasses are emitted, and the more intense the devastation. While there has been a significant amount of damage done already in the form of eroding shorelines and threatened and extinct animals and plant species, the damage done to human populations could be significant. According to the Climate and Health Assessment from the U.S. Global Change Research Program:

“Days that are hotter than usual in the summer or colder than usual in the winter are both associated with increased illness and death. Mortality effects are observed even for small differences from seasonal average temperatures. Because small temperature differences occur much more frequently than large temperature differences, not accounting for the effect of these small differences would lead to underestimating the future impact of climate change.” — Climate Health Assessment: “Key Finding 2: Even Small Differences from Seasonal Average Temperatures Result in Illness and Death”

What We Can Do About Our Carbon Footprint

The way we travel, grow and raise our food, heat our homes and offices, and buy and use our sundries determines the size of our carbon footprint. To reduce our carbon footprint in everyday life, we can take the following actions:

Modify how we travel.

It has been estimated that going without a car for one year may reduce the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent released into the atmosphere by approximately 2.4 tons. However, because the vast majority of drivers likely will not abstain from car use for a year, it may be more feasible to adjust driving habits in the following ways:

  • Reduce driving speed. The faster you drive, the more CO2 you emit per mile.
  • Get your car serviced regularly. Regular maintenance increases fuel efficiency, and keeping fuel and air filters clean reduces emissions.
  • Open your windows. Cutting down on A/C use helps lower emissions.
  • Carpool whenever possible. The fewer cars on the road, the better.

When it comes to air travel, doing less of it reduces your carbon footprint significantly. Reducing flying may lower CO2e emissions by 1.6 tons per roundtrip transatlantic flight.

Reconsider your eating habits.

Although industrial crop cultivation presents its own set of environmental challenges, including water use, forest clearing, soil maintenance, pest control, fertilization and transportation, to name a few, eating less meat is a far more environmentally friendly choice. Eating less dairy – or going vegan – is even better.

From a CO2 emissions-based standpoint, whether you eat organic doesn’t make much of a difference. Organic farming requires considerably more land use, negating the reduced emissions from lower energy consumption.

Even if you do keep some meat in your meal rotation, make sure all the food you buy is consumed. Approximately 40% of food purchased in the U.S. is wasted, creating a tremendous volume of methane as it rots in landfills. Moreover, it requires high levels of water and fuel consumption.

Create an energy-efficient living environment.

Energy consumption releases approximately 630 tons of CO2e into the atmosphere every year. This comes from lighting use, as well as temperature control and food refrigeration. Insulating your home so that you can minimize your heating and cooling use is an excellent start. Consider switching to energy-efficient appliances, too.

Buy less stuff.

Approximately 20 pieces of clothing are manufactured per person per year. The international tidal wave of fast and cheap clothing has led to the release of nearly two billion tons of CO2 into the environment. The fashion industry is a greater consumer of energy than the combined use of the shipping and aviation industries. If you want a new wardrobe, consider shopping at vintage stores.

If you’re an avid reader, purchase your reading material in e-book form, or shop in used bookstores. Paper and pulp industries use nearly half of all the world’s industrial wood.

Taking systematic steps toward sustainable living will reduce your carbon footprint over time. Just make sure you take measures you can stick with – it’s a lifestyle change that will support the health of the planet for generations to come.

Forest Founders: Helping Reduce Carbon Emissions One Tree at a Time

Forest Founders is committed to helping reduce CO2 emissions by reforesting the planet. By giving individuals and businesses the tools to offset their carbon emissions, we are helping to increase environmental accountability across sectors and households. To become a member, please visit our signup page.