Although many people are confused about what a carbon footprint calculation exactly is, this measurement can be explained in 7 simple steps.
You can try this right now and measure your carbon footprint in less than a minute by examining your use of energy, shelter, electricity, food, mobility, manufactured products, services, and trade.
Calculate Your Carbon Footprint Now
Understanding the areas of your life that generate the largest share of emissions can help you identify ways to limit the CO2 footprint that is produced by these everyday activities and necessitates.
The following 7 steps demonstrate how carbon emissions are calculated, and offer practical ways to reduce them.
Carbon Footprint Explained in Seven Steps
A carbon footprint measures the emissions generated from areas of life that add to the greenhouse gasses threatening the planet, and many carbon offset companies have their own version that can be used online. These emissions are contributing to increased temperatures around the globe because of a combination of factors, particularly, deforestation. Without large carbon sinks (forests and other areas that trap and store carbon emissions), the damaging cycle continues.
Step 1. Understanding Electricity Use
Each city, town, and jurisdiction has a local power grid that everyone shares. Electricity use is one of the major emitters of emissions globally. That is because most power plants generate electricity by burning coal. In the U.S., carbon emissions from these companies are published for consumers to view.
Some electric companies use coal, natural gas, or petroleum to power the plant. But regardless of the source, each fuel generates a specific amount of CO2 when combusted.
Other companies utilize a series of dams (like the Tennessee Valley Authority), or supplement fossil fuel consumption with solar and wind turbine technology. These hydroelectric dams, solar panel grids, and wind turbines are also used to generate electricity, but their use is less common. In fact, most electricity around the world is generated by coal, or some fossil fuel.
|Fuel Source||Carbon Emissions Per Kilowatt of Electricity|
|Coal||2.23 pounds per kWh|
|Natural gas||0.91 pounds per kWh|
|Petroleum||2.13 pounds per kWh1|
To figure the carbon emissions of electricity use, consider this example:
- One home with 5 people living in it could potentially use 25,000 kWh per year.
- Divide 25,000 by 5 and that results in individual use of 5,000 kWh.
- If the power grid uses petroleum to power the plant, multiply 5,000 by 2.13 and get 10,650 pounds of carbon emissions to calculate the amount of CO2 per year for one individua
The same values above will not be accurate If the home has natural gas lines, oil tanks, or LPG (liquid petroleum gas), and the fuel is converted into heat at the home.
In the table below, notice that two elements are listed with a gallon value; each gallon used in a year should be multiplied by the first number.
|Fuel Source||Pounds of Carbon Emissions|
|LPG||14.99 lbs per gallon|
|Natural gas||0.495 lbs per kWh|
|Heating Oil||25.574 lbs per gallon2|
Many consumers wonder how much do solar panels cost, given that solar panel installation can help reduce your home’s energy emissions. Depending on the location, solar panels can eventually pay for themselves, but its important to understand all the hidden costs associated with them to get an accurate figure.
Step 2. Understanding the Footprint of a Building or Home
Buildings and homes are constructed to keep people and items safe from the elements. What the structure is made of and how large it is are important factors in a carbon footprint calculation.
During the construction process, many resources are shipped and moved around. When a new home is built, prefabricated or ‘cookie cutter’ homes are usually more energy-efficient because they are made in bulk.
This is important because when large items like homes are manufactured, it takes much less effort and resources to cut 50,000 walls in one day instead of only a few for a custom home. Prefabricated homes also have materials efficiently shipped to one place and distributed accordingly.
Alternatively, a custom home or newly designed building must have resources brought in from many places, which doesn’t always maximize a freight truck’s capacity. This increases the carbon footprint of the materials.
Fortunately, the trend to develop sustainable architecture and green building construction is growing. There are a lot of ways to reduce emissions when building structures like the Climate Plus Program: Green Construction.
The program helps construct buildings in a more eco-friendly way. These eco-friendly structures using green building certifications are helping to reduce the eco-cost of new construction.
Facts to consider when building a green or sustainable structure:
- Lower ceilings and less square footage mean less space to heat the dwelling.
- Energy efficient appliances reduce the amount of kWh a home uses.
- Solar panels are an efficient way to supplement electricity needs.
- Upcycling is fun and keeps useful items out of the landfill.
Step 3. Understanding the Footprint of Travel and Mobility
Twenty-nine percent of carbon emissions from gasoline-powered engines are generated by transportation.3
Calculating a transportation carbon footprint is difficult because vehicles degrade differently over time and their carbon footprint can vary, even for the same make and model.5
To calculate the carbon footprint of a vehicle, the most accurate way is to measure the amount of gasoline, diesel or other fuel used.
Since gasoline generates carbon emissions at a steady rate (regardless of how fast it’s burned), the carbon footprint calculation can be figured for any gas-powered motor (lawnmower, boat, ATV, weed eater, etc.)
To measure it, the number of gallons of gas used is multiplied by this constant. To figure the gallons used, simply note it when you fill up your vehicle for the week, and then use a car carbon calculator to measure the carbon emissions generated.
Step 4. Understanding How Spending Impacts Carbon Footprint Calculation
How does your spending impact your overall carbon footprint? Part of the carbon footprint calculation is measured by production and travel. Products that have a longer distance to travel have a larger carbon footprint.
Freight transport of goods has the most impact, but the energy used to produce a product also plays a role. For example, plastics have specific carbon footprints, and when an item contains plastic, the CO2 is factored into the total.
Clothing, paper products, electronics and everything in between produce a carbon footprint. Although the demand for more sustainable products is growing, clothing and various convenience items (like plastic toothbrushes) create a footprint when they are made and have one after they’re discarded.
When performing a carbon footprint calculation, the energy and methane produced by decomposition and even recycling are added to the figure.
Step 5. Understanding How Food Impacts Footprint Calculations
Food has a large carbon footprint, but only five percent of the carbon footprint is from transport.
Meat is the main contributor, but dairy ranks high as well, with veggies and fish having a much lower impact on the environment. However, it’s important to remember that exotic fruits and vegetables can have a higher footprint than a farmer who raises beef for his consumption.
Going red meat-free (not all meat) and dairy-free 3 days a week can reduce a food carbon footprint by 15-20 percent. Beef has a high carbon footprint because of the methane produced by cattle. Lamb and mutton don’t change the land nearly as much as cattle but still create a lot of methane and are second on the list for carbon emissions. Being aware of the impact your food has on the environment is a simple and immediate way that you can reduce your carbon footprint.
On a positive note, nut trees have a better impact on the environment because they absorb more carbon than it costs in CO2 to transport them.5
Step 6. Carbon Footprint Calculation of Services
Services include cleaning services, lawn care, hair care, and any business that provides a service in trade for cash.
One way to calculate service carbon footprint is to first list the services received. After that, calculate how many times a year this service is used and estimate transportation, equipment, and a personal share of that.
Example: Lawn Care
- Leaf blowers and trimmers use close to 100 percent of their power while in use. (2 stroke, 4 stroke engine)
- Lawnmowers, about 33 percent (4 stroke engine)
- chainsaws, 70 percent (2 stroke, 4 stroke).
Two-stroke engines have three phases, and there is a difference in how each phase sounds and its power level.
Each phase has grams of CO2 output/hp per hour; 0 – 718.87g, 1 – 480.31g, and 2 – 141.69g6
One leaf blower used for 90 minutes while deploying each phase intermittently produces
- 0 – 2 percent
- 1 – 4 percent
- 2 – 94 percent
Step 7. How Do Different Countries’ Emissions Compare?
- When calculating a carbon footprint, the location matters. The United States has a carbon footprint that is 15 percent of the world’s share at 5.41 metric gigatons.
- China’s carbon footprint is 28 percent or 10.06 metric gigatons.7
China’s carbon footprint issue lies with industry and coal consumption. Coal creates twice the amount of carbon than other fossil fuels. 70 percent of China’s energy consumption comes from coal.8
Programs for Change: Refactoring the Carbon Footprint Calculation
Innovations are leading the change in the way people get their energy. Biogas is a recycled waste used for powering electricity. One productive way to create biogas is collecting manure from livestock and putting it through an anaerobic digester.
Clean water programs try to solve another issue the world is struggling with. Ten percent of the world’s population lives without safe drinking water.
While the world waits for new inventions to help ease the greenhouse gasses being produced, many scientists recognize that nature has already provided an excellent solution in trees. Trees are the world’s most ancient, and most effective carbon capture technology.
Replacing the world’s forests with native species can also have a powerful impact in reducing these emissions, while simultaneously rebuilding habitats and natural carbon sinks.
By understanding how a carbon footprint calculation is made, you can learn about your impact on the planet and take immediate steps to offset it by using tree-planting carbon offset projects that reintroduce the forests (and carbon sinks) the planet desperately needs.
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1 EIA. 4 November 2021. How much carbon dioxide is produced per kilowatt-hour of U.S. electricity generation?. U.S. Energy Information Administration. 31 December 2021. Web. <https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=74&t=11>
2NA. NA. Calculate your carbon footprint. Shrink that footprint. 30 December 2021. Web. <http://shrinkthatfootprint.com/calculate-your-carbon-footprint>
327 July 2021. Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions. US Environmental Protection Agency. 1 January 2022. Web. <https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions#:~:text=Transportation%20(29%20percent%20of%202019,ships%2C%20trains%2C%20and%20planes.>
4Lindsay Wilson. NA. Calculate your driving emissions. Shrink that footprint. 2 January 2022. Web <http://shrinkthatfootprint.com/calculate-your-driving-emissions>
5Hannah Ritchie. 24 January 2020. Do you want to reduce the carbon footprint of your food? Focus on what you eat, not whether your food is local. Our World in Data. 1 January 2022. <https://ourworldindata.org/food-choice-vs-eating-local>
6 Banks, Jamie and McConnell Robert. 2015. National Emissions from Lawn and Garden Equipment. Environmental Protection Agency. 2 January 2022. Web. <https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2015-09/documents/banks.pdf>
712 August 2020. Each Country’s Share of CO<sub>2</sub> Emissions. Union of Concerned Scientists. 2 January 2022. Web <https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/each-countrys-share-co2-emissions>
82022. How is China Managing its Greenhouse Emissions?. Center for Strategic and International Studies. 4 January 2022. Web. <https://chinapower.csis.org/china-greenhouse-gas-emissions/>
915 October 2021. Frequent Questions About Livestock Biogas Projects. United States Environmental Protection Agency. 4 January 2022. Web. <https://www.epa.gov/agstar/frequent-questions-about-livestock-biogas-projects>