The Average Carbon Footprint Per Person Is Rising Fast: Is It Too Late? (10 Ways to Help Now)

By Georgette Kilgore | Updated on August 18, 2021

The average American ecological footprint is rising at an alarming rate. According to the latest information from the Department of Energy, the average carbon footprint per person (in the U.S.) annually is 16.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2). However, the latest data indicates that that average amount is over 20 tons! That is more than three times the global carbon footprint per person average of 4.9 metric tons in 2013.

While these numbers are alarmingly high, there is still a chance for the average American to reduce their carbon footprint and decrease the current rate of climate change. Scientists agree the only chance of avoiding the increasing rise in global temperatures is to drop the average person’s carbon footprint to under two tons by 2050.

Calculate Your Carbon Footprint: How Many Trees Does It Take to Offset a US Household?

Your daily activities likely involve the use of electricity, traveling by car, heating or cooling your home, heating water, and cooking. But, each of these tasks (and more) all contribute to your carbon and ecological footprint.

The average footprint of electricity in the U.S is 6.68 metric tons, making it the largest culprit of a US household’s carbon emissions at 40% of the annual average. Next, heat for cooking, water, and air factors in at 5.85 metric tons (35% of the annual average). Last is transportation and air travel coming in at 24% of the annual average at 4.04 metric tons.

Your vehicle contributes even more to your emissions footprint, due to the frequency of driving and mileage. The average American’s annual car mileage is 11,224 miles, contributing to 15% of the average American’s carbon footprint. However, that number is low compared to most of us, who drive anywhere from 15,000 to 25,000 miles a year.

Since the average carbon footprint of an American home is 48 metric tons per year, and since a single tree can offset about 31 pounds of carbon (depending on the tree), it takes about 3414 trees to erase a household footprint for one year. (Of course, some trees offset more carbon than others. The Mangrove, for example, is a huge ‘grabber’ of the CO2, and it stores the gas away from the atmosphere.)

Calculate your footprint HERE.

The average household's carbon footprint can be divided by percentages like this pie graph.

Carbon Footprint Of Average American: Main Sources of Emissions

Your carbon emissions measurement, by source, is larger than just how many miles you drive and how much electricity you use. There are a number of aspects that combine to produce your personal footprint.

Spending

Consumer spending also plays a role. For example, you can reduce your mileage and buy an electric vehicle, but ultimately the vehicle came from somewhere. Industrial production accounted for 22% of the carbon emissions from the United States in 2018. The same is true for appliances you buy, home improvement tasks, clothing, and furniture. Manufacturing processes (a lot of which is conducted in China, where emissions regulations are nearly non-existent) spew greenhouse gases every minute of every day.

Diet

Your food choices also contribute to America’s footprint, a whopping 10%. Since 1990, U.S. agricultural emissions have increased by 58.7%. Transportation contributes about 5% of food emissions, but the large part comes from production and packaging, which is 68%.

Per calorie, meat products tend to have higher carbon emissions than vegetarian products, for reasons including production, land use, and methane from raising cattle. The same is true for dairy production.

Household

Emissions vary per household. Lower income households tend to have a higher carbon footprint from food (close to 30% of their household’s carbon footprint). The average American carbon footprint also comes from the energy use in the home, but is also largely based on lifestyle.

How Does the Carbon Footprint of the Average American Compare to Other Global Residents–Carbon Footprint Per Person Breakdown

Since each individual’s carbon footprint is different based on their household, spending practices, transportation, and other factors, it is also crucial to examine the difference in emissions by country (and even by state, because hydroelectric power is more environmentally friendly than coal fired plants).

In 2016, Qatar had the highest per capita carbon emissions at 38.9 metric tons. But when we look at the world’s largest economies based on 2017’s nominal GDP, the United States had the most carbon emissions among the world’s other competing economies at 14.95 tons. Close in second place was Canada at 14.91 tons.

Comparing this to China, which had 6.57 tons but is yet the leader in the world in carbon emissions (emitting 28% of the world’s carbon emissions in 2020), there is clearly a disparity between how much a country emits from production versus per capita.

World Footprints Per Capita

World average footprints vary, depending on a number of factors including population density, location, and wealth.

U.S. State Factors

Across the United States, the average American emissions vary per state. In 2016, Wyoming had the most per capita emissions. Due to its low population (600,000 people in 2016) and cold temperatures, this could be an explanation for their high per capita emissions in comparison to locations such as New York which had the lowest amount of per capita emissions in 2016, likely due to its large population (which could be correlated with a large variety in household income), multi-family units that share heating and cooling, and low energy activities.

10 Easy Ways to Reduce the Carbon Footprint of Average American

You can reduce your carbon footprint with these top 10 ways:

  1. Go vegetarian! Shifting to a vegetarian even diet one day a week reduces the impact you have on the planet. Imagine how much of a difference you could make on both mileage and production simply by eating more local produce, and less meat and dairy for the whole week!
  2. Research the carbon footprint of the main staples in your diet. A simple switch from beef to chicken can also have an impact.
  3. Cut down on your electricity usage. Dry clothes on a line to reduce dryer use, make sure the dishwasher is completely full before running, and turn off lights when not using them. There are many ways to reduce electricity use and you’ll save money too!
  4. Do less carbon intensive activities. Spending more time outside doing activities such as gardening and biking can replace other more carbon intensive hobbies, such as shopping, going to the movies, or taking long drives.
  5. Work remote. In 2020, the work-from-home lifestyle became ever more present in our society. While many businesses are resuming office work, ask if you can work remotely (or at least more days from home) to reduce your commute.
  6. Walk or bike more, and drive less. After working at home and driving less, evaluate if a car is a necessity in your life and if you can avoid purchasing another one in the future. If not, seek out ways to reduce the amount of time you spend driving, and when it’s time for a replacement, check out energy efficient alternatives.
  7. Reduce how much you purchase. Every item you bring into your home has a footprint. Choose items that have reduced or recycled packaging, avoid plastics, and check out companies who offer sustainable products and clothes.
  8. When you are shopping, see if you can find a carbon neutral or low emission version of what you need. Beware of greenwashing (the claim that a business is carbon neutral or sustainable, but in reality, isn’t). Always do your research.
  9. Switch to energy efficient products and green energy if possible, such as lighting, smart power strips, smart appliances, high efficiency machines, and Energy Star appliances. (Also look into upgrading your homes windows and insulation… that will have a huge impact on the amount of energy you spend for heating and cooling.)
  10. Purchase a carbon offset. Even after you reduce your footprint, the truth is that you still have one. That is why it is crucial that you offset your footprint by planting trees (or other techniques), which naturally reduce carbon in the environment. At 8 Billion Trees, we make offsetting your carbon footprint easy.

Thankfully, it’s not too late to change the planet’s fate. By working together to eliminate carbon emissions, we have a shot at undoing the damage that’s been done.