Footprint by Footprint: Calculating Carbon

illustration of contributors to a carbon footprint

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Every day of your life, across everything you do and buy, you contribute to rising greenhouse gas emissions. Now, you can track the impact of all that activity — the stuff you buy, the places you go — to understand your carbon footprint.

There are many carbon footprint calculators available. And some are better at tracking different ecological impacts. So, pick one that calculates the information you want to know. Once you settle on a calculator, it is best to stay with it so that your measurements remain consistent.

Like a step-counting or diet app that provides feedback about your activity or calorie intake, a carbon calculator won’t solve your environmental challenges. But it can help orient you when you make decisions. Just as you might forego cheesecake after dinner to lose a few pounds, deciding not to buy raspberries that were shipped halfway around the world can slice away at your contribution to climate change.

Why would you want to understand your carbon footprint? With information comes the ability to make deliberative changes that make a difference. First, let’s consider some of the lifestyle factors a useful carbon calculator will address. Then, we’ll dig into several of the calculators we find helpful and why.

Counting Carbon

Each type of calculator addresses a slightly different mix of activities and lifestyle choices that add to your personal carbon footprint. Your ideal carbon calculator will let you focus on the areas where you are willing and able to make changes. Let’s look at contributors to your carbon footprint you’ll likely want to consider.

Common Carbon Culprits

A carbon calculator can help you understand how much carbon different factors in your day-to-day life produce. Many of these factors are straightforward: How much electricity or natural gas does your home use per year? What kind of car do you own and how often do you drive it? Do you frequently use public transportation or make long distance trips via plane, train, or ferry?

Practical tools, such as the CarbonFootprint.com’s Individual, Small Business, Large Business, and Products carbon calculators provide information at a granular level so that you can focus on specific changes you could make to reduce your footprint. For example, breaking out the carbon costs of heating and lighting a home gives you practical information you can use to make informed decisions.

man pumping gas into vehicle

The fuel we put into our cars, how much we drive, and even how we drive all add to our carbon footprint. Image: paulbr75, Pixabay

Carbon-Producing Fuels

Despite advances in green energy, a large percentage of electricity is still produced using fossil fuel-based sources, such as coal or natural gas. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 62.9 percent of U.S. electricity was generated from fossil fuels in 2017.

Most forms of transportation still use petroleum or a carbon-producing fuel source. Most cars, boats, trains, and airplanes burn fuel to carry you to your destination. All that exhaust pushes a large amount of carbon into the atmosphere. In 2016, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions averaged out to approximately 6.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents in the air we breathe.

A useful carbon calculator should provide separate calculations for each mode of transportation you use. And there are other factors that many people don’t consider.

Additional Carbon Contributors

Most of us know that the fuels used to get transport us, power our work environments, and keep us comfortable at home can create a lot of carbon. But each of us contributes to greenhouse gases in other ways that may not be as obvious. Think about the carbon costs of the items you buy or use in your day-to-day life.

For example, the amount and type of food or drink you consume affects your carbon footprint. This takes into account the amount of processing required to grow, harvest, and process what you eat, and the energy generated to make, treat, and refine beverages you drink. There’s also a sizable carbon footprint associated with transporting  food and beverages to your local market.

Likewise, the furniture and clothes you buy had to be manufactured. The wood, fabric, and other materials were harvested, processed, and distributed in ways that use energy. And these processes most likely introduce toxins into the environment.

Your choice of calculators should calculate the carbon associated with your daily activities — from shopping and doing the laundry to the foods your household consumes. Since we all have different lifestyles, be sure the calculator you pick reflects yours, and presents results in a way that is useful to you.

Man in grocery store

The foods and beverages we buy don’t just affect our pocket books; they have a carbon cost as well. Image: mohamed_hassan, Pixabay

Recommended Calculators

You can find many different websites that offer the means to calculate your carbon footprint. Here are a few notable examples.

  • CarbonFooprint.com has an extremely thorough carbon calculator available which includes an analysis of both primary and secondary carbon sources from daily life. Each section of the calculator gives you opportunities to buy carbon offsets, making action easy. (Note that costs are British currency, distances are kilometers, and temperatures in Celsius, so you may need converters to calculate the amounts you input.)
  • For a more in-depth visual depiction of your results, the CoolClimate Network at the University of California Berkeley provides a calculator that illustrates the breakdown of emissions across individual categories of activity. You can review how much of your travel emissions are due to fuel from your car, as opposed to air travel. Or, you can compare the carbon footprint of your home to the footprint of other homes in the United States.

Shop Around

In addition to the three calculators Earth911 recommends, you may want to try out these sites. Remember to decide on a calculator and use it consistently, as different sources of data produce different estimated carbon footprints. Your choice may not be perfect, but you can apply the feedback consistently to your daily decisions.

Think of your carbon footprint as a diet goal and use the information you obtain to improve your decisions. Equipped with actionable information, we can collaborate to make the Earth safe and clean, based on shared knowledge. When people act together, we can change the world.

 

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Taylor Ratcliffe

Taylor Ratcliffe is Earth911's customer support and database manager. He is a graduate of the University of Washington.

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