What Is Your Carbon Footprint?
A person’s carbon footprint refers to the total greenhouse gas emissions for which they are responsible. It is normally expressed in kilograms or tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). The final figure should take into account all the carbon emissions needed to provide the products and services consumed by the individual. 1
The actual term “carbon footprint” comes from the ecological footprint concept, 2 which was developed by William E. Rees and Mathis Wackernagel during the 1990s. But carbon footprints are more focused than their ecological cousins since they measure only emissions of greenhouse gases – the atmospheric gases that drive the greenhouse effect and cause global warming. Other similar environmental indicators include water footprints, land footprints and carbon handprints.
Why Is Your Carbon Footprint Important?
It’s important because by calculating your carbon emissions, you get a rough idea of your personal contribution to climate change. You can then compare it against the average for your country, and the world, and see how you’re doing. If nothing else, it will raise your awareness of global warming and your role in it. For advice on how to lower your personal emissions, see: How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint.
What Should a Carbon Footprint Calculator Include?
It should include emissions resulting from a person’s use of transport (plane journeys, car ownership and usage, bus/train trips), use of hotels, food consumed (meat, specially transported foods), use of personal services (hair stylist, gyms), and the purchase of consumables (for immediate use) and durables (e.g. washing machine) for longer term use. Energy used at home – for heating/cooling, lighting, electronic or garden equipment – also counts.
Some experts say that the best carbon footprint calculators should also include an amount of emissions incurred on the person’s behalf by their country of residence. Others say that such emissions are outside the control of any individual and shouldn’t count.
Carbon Calculations Can Be Extremely Complex
Calculating how many emissions a person is responsible for, can be a complicated business, especially since many of the emissions incurred by the average household are likely to come from “indirect” sources – that is, fossil fuels used in the manufacture, creation or transportation of those products and services – as opposed to “direct” sources – meaning, the wood you burn on your fire, or the diesel you burn in your car. It can be difficult, if not impossible, to gather all the relevant emissions statistics and then calculate a carbon footprint, with any great precision. Which is why most carbon calculators offer no more than a rough approximation of your energy consumption.
Understanding Your Carbon Footprint
Having a bigger-than-average carbon footprint doesn’t make you a bad person, it simply means that the things you do, lead to higher-than-average carbon emissions. The main thing, is to understand why our footprint is higher and how we can reduce it. Here are a few pointers.
• In developed countries, a person’s carbon footprint is affected mostly by emissions from transport and household energy use. So, for example, if you take regular holiday flights and drive a car, this will significantly bump up your footprint. It certainly does on our carbon footprint calculator. Likewise if your living space is large and your share of utility bills is high, chances are you’re using an above average amount of household energy, which will also bump up your carbon footprint. 3
• Next, comes emissions from the consumption of goods and services. Food is a significant factor here. Red meat, especially beef, has a much higher carbon footprint than chicken. So a diet rich in beef and lamb will bump up your footprint accordingly. Best of all from an emissions viewpoint, is to eat no meat. Otherwise, local, seasonal, organic foods usually account for the least emissions, as opposed to foreign, out-of-season, chemically treated foods, that usually (but not always) result in extra emissions from fertilizers and long distance shipping.
• Packaging always increases the carbon emissions of a product. For example, the carbon footprint of bottled water includes the CO2 emitted during the manufacture of the bottle, the cap, and the label, as well as the CO2 emitted during transportation to the consumer.
• In more complex personal products, the indirect emissions can be significant. Which is why it’s strange that many carbon footprint calculators omit to ask about this category of spending. Some items contain raw materials from all over the world, and are manufactured using highly complex robotic processes, which require their own specialist materials. Furthermore, the silicon chips they use are typically manufactured inside special laboratories and sealed areas. In addition, energy is needed to obtain and transport the materials and components to the manufacturing facility, after which more energy is used in manufacturing and shipping. As if to confound this logic, Apple iPads appear to be very light on emissions. According to official data from Apple, an iPad (2018) accounts for emissions of only 113kg of CO2 equivalent over its life cycle, 95 percent of which are generated by the time it gets to the user. Whether this includes the worldwide corporate infrastructure needed to sell and service iPads, is not clear.
• One final thing to remember: the enemy is fossil fuel. Because it’s only hydrocarbon fuels like coal, or petroleum or natural gas, that release greenhouse gases. Which is why our carbon footprint calculator attaches considerable importance to fossil fuel use. So if you drive an electric car (using electricity from renewables) and switch to household energy from renewable sources, you’ll slash your carbon footprint and do wonders for the planet.
What Is The Average Carbon Footprint in Developed Countries?
According to The World Bank, the global average emissions per capita in 2014, was roughly 5 metric tons of CO2e. By comparison, the figure for the United States was 16.5 metric tons CO2e. This makes the carbon footprint of American households more than 3 times bigger than the global average.
For many if not most U.S. households, the single most effective action they can take to reduce their carbon emissions, is to drive less and/or switch to a car that uses less gasoline. 4
PLEASE NOTE: The concept of “carbon emissions per capita” is not the same as a carbon footprint. Emissions per capita is calculated by dividing a country’s carbon emissions by the number of its inhabitants. Many of the carbon emissions of countries like China and India, for example, are incurred in the manufacture of goods destined for export abroad: they are not generated for the benefit of their own population. To some extent, this is a feature of all economies, but it applies in particular to the Asian manufacturing complex. 5
What Are The Latest Statistics On CO2 Emissions Per Capita?
Global statistics on average carbon footprints from around the world show a huge differential between developed and developing countries. Compare Australia’s 16.77, for instance, with Burundi’s 0.03 – that’s an extraordinary difference. China, meanwhile, has much of the appearance of a developed country, while Saudi Arabia – whose economy is dominated by petroleum and natural gas – has the highest carbon footprint of any nation. But no matter how you look at it, the average carbon footprint in the developing world in vastly different from the average footprint in the West.
Carbon Footprint of 50 Selected Higher Income Countries (+ BRICS)Annual CO2 Emissions per capita
Australia 16.8 tons Canada 16.1 USA 16.1 South Korea 13.6 Russia 12.1 Taiwan 12 Czech Rep 10.4 Singapore 9.7 Netherlands 9.5 Japan 9.4 Norway 9.4 Belgium 9.2 Germany 9.1 Finland 8.8 Poland 8.8 South Africa 8.3 Austria 8.2 China 8 Israel 7.9 Ireland 7.7 New Zealand 7.7 Slovenia 7.5 Slovakia 7 Belarus 6.8 Greece 6.5 Bulgaria 6.3 Serbia 6.3 Hong Kong 6.1 Spain 6 Denmark 5.8 Italy 5.8 UK 5.6 Hungary 5.4 Portugal 5.1 Turkey 5.1 Chile 5 France 5 Lithuania 5 Switzerland 5 Argentina 5 Croatia 4.7 Sweden 4.5 Ukraine 4.5 Latvia 4.1 Romania 4.1 Thailand 4.1 Mexico 3.8 Brazil 2.4 Uruguay 2.0 India 1.9 Source: Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR) (2019)
Carbon Footprint of 50 Selected Low Income Countries Annual CO2 Emissions per capita
Kyrgyzstan 1.7 tons Namibia 1.7 Albania 1.6 Philippines 1.4 Fiji 1.4 Guatemala 1.2 North Korea 1.2 El Salvador 1.2 Paraguay 1.1 Sri Lanka 1.1 Tonga 1.1 Angola 1.0 Nicaragua 1.0 Pakistan 1.0 Puerto Rico 0.9 Zimbabwe 0.8 Cambodia 0.7 Ghana 0.7 Samoa 0.7 Tajikistan 0.7 Senegal 0.7 Bangladesh 0.6 Myanmar 0.6 Nigeria 0.6 Laos 0.5 Papua NG 0.5 Kenya 0.4 Sudan 0.4 Yemen 0.4 Afghanistan 0.3 Haiti 0.3 Mozambique 0.3 Nepal 0.3 Zambia 0.3 Gambia 0.3 Eritrea 0.2 Ethiopia 0.2 East Timor 0.2 Burkina Faso 0.2 Guinea-Bissau 0.2 Madagascar 0.2 Tanzania 0.2 Malawi 0.1 Mali 0.1 Niger 0.1 Rwanda 0.1 Somalia 0.1 Uganda < 0.1 Burundi < 0.1 Chad < 0.1 DRC < 0.1 Source: Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR) (2019)
What Carbon Footprint Is Needed To Achieve Global Warming of 2°C?
In order to to hold the rise in Earth’s temperature to 2°C or less, we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. This much is clear. But how much do we have to reduce them by? The answer, says the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project – a global collaboration of energy research teams – is until we achieve average per capita emissions of 1.6 tons. (Which is not easy to achieve on our carbon footprint calculator unless you stop living completely!)
In their 2014 report, Pathways to Deep Decarbonization, the organization states: “… assuming a world population of 9.5 billion people by 2050, this means that countries would individually need to reach close to a global average of CO2 emissions per capita of 1.6 tons in 2050, which is a sharp decrease compared to today’s global average of 5.2 tons, especially for developed countries with current emissions per capita much higher than today’s global average.” In a footnote, the report qualifies the figure of 1.6 tons by adding the words: “For a 50% probability. 1.1 tons for a 66% probability. 6
The following year, an updated report produced ahead of the Paris Climate Agreement, entitled “Deep Decarbonization in the United States” (2015), was described on the DDPP website, as saying that “… it is possible to systematically revamp the U.S. energy system in a way that reduces per capita carbon dioxide emissions from 17 tons per person currently to 1.7 tons in 2050.”
This was echoed by the Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in Canada – Phase 2 Summary Report (July 14, 2015), which says: “The target is for all countries to hold greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at 1.7 tonnes per capita by 2050.”
Subsequently other online resources cite the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project as advocating annual per capita emissions by 2050 of 1.87 tons.
Meanwhile, another 2015 scientific study declared that average per capita carbon dioxide emissions should be about 2.5 tons of CO2e, in order to stay within the 2°C global warming target. 7
Whether the correct figure is 1.1 tons, 1.6 tons, 1.7 tons, 1.87 tons, or 2.5 tons the fact is, it’s utterly unachievable, unless world governments perform a U-turn and start to take climate change mitigation seriously.
NOTE: To understand why governments and fossil fuel companies are so slow to decarbonize, see: Root Cause of Climate Change.
At the very least, they need to provide dramatic incentives for the roll-out of electric vehicles using green electricity, as well as other renewable technologies. In addition, they need to eliminate all fossil fuel subsidies and impose a large enough carbon tax to compel faster decarbonization throughout the coal, oil and gas industries. Perhaps they should also encourage everyone to use a carbon footprint calculator. Whether the Covid-19 pandemic is going to encourage or discourage this U-turn is anybody’s guess.
Impact of Climate Change On Carbon Emissions
In theory, given the severity of our climate crisis, emissions should fall as renewable energy progressively replaces coal and other fossil fuels. It’s also quite possible that more countries will rely on nuclear energy for their energy needs, despite serious doubts over nuclear waste storage. The use of nuclear energy instead of natural gas, for instance, might reduce emissions significantly. But, with global population climbing towards 11 billion by the end of the century, it’s hard to see how renewables can generate the energy levels needed. The use of concrete is a case in point.
The Carbon Footprint of Concrete
Concrete is the most widely used material on earth, apart from water. Almost three tons of it are used per year, for every man, woman, and child on the planet. (Source: World Business Council for Sustainable Development.) Since the CO2 emissions in the manufacture of structural concrete (using 14 percent cement) are roughly 180 kg of CO2 per tonne of concrete, 8 9 by the time we have 11 billion people in the world, concrete manufacture will generate 5.94 GtCO2e (gigatonnes or billion tonnes) per annum. That’s roughly 10.8 percent of the total global greenhouse gas emissions for 2019 coming from concrete alone.
What’s more, the climate change adaptation plans of cities located in low-lying coastal areas, are projecting the need for higher and more extensive sea walls – due to projected rates of sea level rise – and concrete is really the only material capable of meeting this need. This and the demand for strong, weather-resistant houses, extra roads, apartment blocks and other high-rise buildings, will only add to global emissions in Africa, Asia and South America.
As a result, climate change and the general move out of fossil fuels and into renewables, may not reduce CO2 emissions as much as we think. The fossil fuel sector may prove more resilient (or valuable) than we expect and we may be forced to accept higher global temperatures in order to allow poorer countries to complete their development.
What Are Carbon Offsets?
In climate science, the term “carbon offset” refers to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (measured in tonnes of CO2e) which is made in order to balance, or compensate for, an equivalent emission made elsewhere. These carbon offsets are typically investments in carbon-reducing activities or technology.
The point is, if the offset reduction is the same as the carbon emissions of the original activity, then the activity is said to be “carbon neutral”. So, if a country or a company buys enough offsets to cancel out their excess emissions, they become “carbon neutral”.
Most carbon offsets are purchased by countries, under the auspices of the UNFCCC. These purchases take place in the large ‘compliance market’. Large companies tend to be active in the ‘voluntary’ carbon trading market, often in order to achieve notional carbon neutrality. Typical offset projects include renewable energy projects (wind farms, biomass energy, or hydroelectric dams), or they might involve methane abatement, reforestation, energy efficiency, the destruction of industrial pollutants or wind turbine projects.
Individuals are also active in the voluntary market. For example, a celebrity might purchase carbon offsets to compensate for carbon emissions resulting from personal air travel, in order to maintain their reputation for climate awareness.
Critics claim that carbon offsets rarely deliver what they promise. For example, in 2009, the carbon management company Carbon Retirement reported that less than 30 percent of the money spent on some offset schemes, actually gets to the projects involved. 10
Carbon Footprints Of Companies
A company can have its carbon footprint measured by completing a greenhouse gas emissions assessment, or some other form of carbon accounting assessment. An organizational carbon footprint calculator is a helpful guide for companies taking their first steps on the road towards net zero emissions and corporate sustainability, as well as an obvious way of assessing the effects of climate change on the products, brands and services involved.
How To Calculate Your Company Carbon Footprint?
In order to calculate your company’s annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, you need to collect a variety of data on buildings, travel, energy usage, logistics and operations.
A common approach is to divide up the company’s GHG emissions according to the level of control it has over them. This allows for three main types of GHG emissions: 11
• Direct emissions from activities the company controls, such as on-site combustion of fossil fuels during any manufacturing process, and the running of a vehicle fleet.
• Emissions from use of electricity.
• Indirect emissions from processes and services outside the direct control of the company, such as the transport of raw materials, the creation of the packaging materials, and the promotion of the final product.
Once you have your emissions data, you can decide how rigorous you want your footprint to be. Do you, for example, want to adopt an internationally recognised standard or a national industry standard? For example, the international standard ISO 14040:2006 can provide a framework for conducting a life cycle assessment (LCA) study, while the ISO 14060 group of standards provides more tools for monitoring, reporting and verifying of GHG emissions and removals.
By calculating a carbon footprint, companies can identify how best to ‘green’ their business, in order to prepare themselves for a more climate-responsive set of shareholders, business partners, and customers. Look out for our Company Carbon Footprint Calculator, coming soon.
- “Carbon footprinting: towards a universally accepted definition“. Wright, L.; Kemp, S.; Williams, I. (2011). Carbon Management. 2 (1): 61–72.
- “Defying the Footprint Oracle: Implications of Country Resource Trends“. Wackernagel, Mathis; Lin, David; Evans, Mikel; Hanscom, Laurel; Raven, Peter (2019). Sustainability. 11 (7): 2164.
- “Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle.”
- “Quantifying Carbon Footprint Reduction Opportunities for U.S. Households and Communities“. Jones, Christopher; Kammen, Daniel (2011). Environmental Science & Technology. 45 (9): 4088–4095.
- “Carbon dioxide emissions embodied in international trade.” OECD
- Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project
- “Environmental and resource footprints in a global context: Europe’s structural deficit in resource endowments“. Tukker, Arnold, et al; (2016). Carbon footprint calculator. Global Environmental Change. 40: 171–181.
- “The Cement Industry and Global Climate Change: Current and Potential Future Cement Industry CO2 Emissions”. Mahasenan, Natesan et al; (2003). Greenhouse Gas Control Technologies – 6th International Conference. Oxford: Pergamon. pp. 995–1000.
- “The carbon footprint of normal and high-strength concrete used in low-rise and high-rise buildings.” A.P.Fantilli, et al; Case Studies in Construction Materials Volume 11, December 2019.
- “30% of carbon offsets spent on reducing emissions.” BBC News. 7 December 2009
- What Is A Carbon Footprint? : Carbon Trust