Carbon Count

Carbon Footprint 101 – Everything You Need To Know

Carbon Footprint — what it is, what goes into it, and what you can do to better understand and reduce yours.

by Planet A Team
There's one issue that will change the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent threat of climate change. – Barack Obama

If you’ve been paying attention, it’s no secret that the effects of climate change are unfolding before our very eyes. We watched in horror as the Australian wildfires destroyed 18 million acres of land, killing and endangering the animals that called it home. We collectively felt the world’s temperature rise 1.1 degrees in the last decade as the doomsday clock creeps closer to midnight. We sat sidelined as world leaders bullied young climate activist Greta Thunberg in her ascent to Time’s Person of the Year. The climate crisis is even taking its toll on our mental health, causing anxiety and depression in a phenomenon known as ‘climate grief’. With droughts, floods and melting ice caps, it’s easy to feel hopeless. 

But take heart, there’s hope for us yet! Hundreds of millions of people across the globe are making incremental changes every day to reduce their impact on the planet, proving that it is possible for ordinary people to change the world.

What exactly is a carbon footprint?

A carbon footprint is the cumulative amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHG) that each person creates through their daily activities. The excess production of these gases by humans is directly responsible for global warming.

So how do humans emit CO2? Firstly, by breathing, and additionally by burning fossil fuels when we drive our cars or heat our homes. We rack up CO2 emissions with the food we eat, the clothing we buy and the items we use to make our daily lives possible. Even reading this blog is burning fossil fuels through energy that keeps your computer (and our servers) running.

Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O), methane (CH4) and other fluorinated gases. These can be converted so that the total is measured in CO2 equivalents (CO2e). The most common way to express this total is in metric tons (tCO2e), also known as ‘tonnes’. This number—tonnes of carbon dioxide (tCO2e)—is the total that we can work on reducing and offsetting!

What is the average person's carbon footprint?

We know that developing a true understanding of your carbon footprint is far more complex than attending a climate rally or boycotting plastic straws. In fact, there are practical ways for you to make a difference.

You can start by determining your personal carbon footprint! If you know your carbon footprint, you can make changes to reduce it and offset the residual carbon you produce, so that your life has a lesser impact on our planet.

For starters, where a person lives is a reliable indicator for the size of their carbon footprint. In fact, the average American is responsible for approximately 14.95 metric tons of greenhouse gases annually, compared to 5.65 in the United Kingdom and only 1.57 metric tons in India. 

While we can get an idea of the average per capita carbon footprint from the country you live in, your individual footprint depends largely on how you choose to live. The bulk of your carbon footprint is made up of your transport, housing and food choices. The good news: You can vastly reduce yours by implementing more sustainable choices through minor changes to your lifestyle!

Stay with as, as we'll get into the areas of our lives that contribute to our carbon footprint, plus some helpful suggestions to get you started living a more sustainable lifestyle:

Food – The food we eat impacts the environment depending on how it’s grown, produced, packaged and how far it has to travel to reach you. Are you a vegetarian, vegan or meat eater? How you cook your food, how you dispose of your leftovers and how much food you waste all factors into your total carbon footprint. To better understand your carbon FOODprint, read our article.

Switching to just one vegetarian meal per week for a year could save the same amount of CO2 as driving 1,160 miles—that’s about the distance from New York City to Orlando.

Housing – The carbon footprint of your home is made up of a number of factors. How you heat and cool your home, whether or not your home has a healthy building envelope (insulation, windows, doors, wall and roof systems) that keeps conditioned air in, and whether your appliances are Energy Star compliant all affect your energy expenditures.

33.6% of the average American’s greenhouse gas emissions come from housing.

Transportation – How do you commute? Do you run your errands all at once or make separate trips? What kind of car do you drive? How often do you travel by plane? We all have to move around and the way you choose to do so has an impact on your carbon footprint.

Sharing your commute can save 893 kilograms of CO2 annually—that would reduce the average American’s annual carbon footprint 6%.

Shopping & Services – Purchasing clothing and electronics, homewares and furniture all add to our carbon footprints. So do services like dry cleaning and cell phone usage. Even how we dispose of items affects global warming, as landfills are responsible for a whopping 20% of methane emissions. Making informed decisions about our purchases is a great way to reduce our day-to-day impacts on the planet. To better understand the carbon footprint of your clothing, read our article.

The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.

Clearing the slate with offsets

No matter how hard you work to reduce your carbon footprint, we're all still carbon positive. That’s where carbon offsets come in. Carbon offsets are purchases that help neutralize your carbon footprint, and include:
·      Investments in clean energy technologies;
·      Planting trees;
·      Supporting environmental projects locally and globally;
·      Funding research into carbon-reducing technology

Knowledge is power! Once you determine your carbon footprint, you can choose to buy offsets in any amount. In fact, you can even become carbon neutral or negative! In future articles, we’ll show you how to check that your carbon offsets are certified and where you can buy offsets that suit your intentions, meet key environmental criteria and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or its affiliates.
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