What is a Carbon Footprint?

Climate Futures
Climate Futures
Published in
4 min readMay 29, 2019

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You can’t manage what you can’t measure. The carbon footprint, as Mike Berners-Lee, author of the book How Bad are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything, explains it, is the climate change metric we should all be looking at and learn to manage. His explanation avoids scientific jargon and offers a firm handle of this overused buzzword for anyone interested in learning about what he calls the “essential but impossible measure”. The following paragraphs explain the essentials of “What is a carbon footprint?”.

When talking about climate change, footprint is a metaphor for the total environmental impact something contributes to. Carbon refers to all the different greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. So, the term carbon footprint refers to the “best estimate we can get of the full climate change impact of something. That something could be anything — an activity, an item, a lifestyle, a company, a country, or even the whole world.”[i]

Carbon and What’s Behind It

Human-induced climate change is caused by the release of climate-warming gases into the atmosphere. The dominant one is carbon dioxide (CO2), which is created by the burning of fossil fuels for energy to support our modern lifestyle. There are other, lesser known greenhouse gases as well. Methane (CH4) is emitted mainly by agricultural activities and landfills and is 28 times more potent than CO2 on a 100-year scale.[ii] Nitrous oxide (N2O), which is commonly known as the laughing gas, is 300 times worse than CO2 and is mainly emitted from agriculture and nitrogen-based fertilizers production.[iii] And, lastly, chemical refrigerants (fluorocarbons) which are several thousand times more potent than CO2.

2017 U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Gas (Percentages based on MMT CO2 Eq.) [iv]

The U.S. carbon footprint breaks down like this: carbon dioxide (81.6 percent), methane (10.2 percent), nitrous oxide (5.6 percent), and refrigerants (2.6 percent).[iv] Each of these gases have different warming potentials and are emitted in different quantities. Traditionally, we express their impact in terms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) or the amount of CO2 that would have the same impact on the climate.

Scale and Direct vs Indirect Emissions

According to the World Bank database, the average American emitted 16.5 metric tons of CO2 in 2014, while an average EU citizen released 6.5 metric tons[v]. For reference, as Berners-Lee explains, “if you filled a couple of standard size 60-gallon [220 l] garden water tanks to the brim with gasoline and set fire to them, about a [metric] ton of carbon would be directly released to the atmosphere.” Two cups of gas on fire would release about a kilogram [2.2 lbs].[vi]

When calculating the carbon footprint, we should take into consideration the whole life-cycle of the product, the activity, or the thing in question. For example, the carbon footprint of the plastic bottle is made up of direct emissions released in the manufacturing process and during transportation, plus, indirect emissions released during the extraction and processing of oil used to make the plastic, through to the product’s whole life-cycle, ideally, until the point when it’s recycled.

2017 End-Use Sector Emissions of CO2 From Fossil Fuel Combustion [iv]

Calculating and Managing Our Climate Impact

Like Berners-Lee says, an understanding of your carbon footprint is essential to measuring and managing it, even if it’s impossible to measure accurately. He likens carbon to money. Everything has a price tag: some smaller, some higher. But while we are more or less aware of our spending, we rarely think about the carbon costs of our choices.

The smaller our carbon footprint is, the better. One thing is for sure, we all have one. It’s unavoidable. Your footprint may be small, but it matters. We all must learn to manage our carbon footprint to help combat climate change. One tool we can use to mitigate our carbon footprint is carbon offsetting. Climate Futures has developed the 1PLANET Martketplace App which uses blockchain technology and enables people to estimate and offset their carbon footprint for different activities. Give 1PLANET a try and take action in your daily life to reduce your carbon footprint!

[i] ‘How Bad are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything’ Berners-Lee, Mike. Greystone Books. Kindle Edition. 2010.

[ii]Primer on Short-Lived Climate Pollutants’ Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development. November 2013. May 25, 2019.

[iii]Meet N2O, the greenhouse gas 300 times worse than CO2’ Grace & Barton. The Conversation. December 8, 2014. May 25, 2019.

[iv] ‘Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990–2017’ United States EPA in United States 2019 National Inventory Report. April 13, 2019. May 25, 2019.

[v]U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report: 1990–2014’ EPA website as of January 19, 2017. May 25, 2019.

[vi] ‘How Bad are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything’ Berners-Lee, Mike. Greystone Books. Kindle Edition. 2010.

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Climate Futures
Climate Futures

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