I keep hearing comments in the media for the need to reduce our personal, corporate and global carbon footprints.
What the heck is carbon and what does it have to do with a footprint?
Before we dive into what a carbon footprint is, let's start with carbon, and as a gas, carbon dioxide (CO2).
The word carbon comes from the Latin carbō (“charcoal”, “coal”).
Coal, which is mainly carbon, is used as a fuel, are often referred to as a “fossil fuel”. It’s called “fossil fuel” because it comes from the chemical remains of prehistoric plants and animals.
And carbon is a basic element necessary for life, too. Our bodies are estimated to be 18% carbon.
Carbon, as a gas it's carbon dioxide (CO2), is one of a number of greenhouse gases (GHG) and the most common. But there are others, too.
Let’s meet them now. https://climatekids.nasa.gov/greenhouse-cards/ (be sure to click on each card to see its front & back)
Greenhouse gases (GHG) absorb and trap heat in the atmosphere like a greenhouse, hence their name and help warm our planet.
Earth’s existence depends on an exquisite and delicate balance of heat and cold. A Goldilocks zone: not too hot and not too cold.
Problems arise when this balance is thrown out of whack by the buildup of greenhouse gases (GHG) beyond the planet’s ability to use and/or absorb them. This disruption results in rising temperatures which is known as global warming. And global warming causes climate change with negative effects on our planet.
Who came up with this idea of a carbon footprint?
A carbon footprint is a concept which is related to, and grew out of an older idea of an ecological footprint, a concept invented in the early 1990s by Canadian ecologist William Rees and Swiss-born regional planner, Mathis Wackernagel at the University of British Columbia.
I initially thought the concept of a carbon footprint would have been promoted by large and influential environmental organizations like the Nature Conservancy, or perhaps the Sierra Club. What I discovered next surprised me. Ironically, it was popularized by British Petroleum (BP) in their early 2000s ad campaign: “Beyond Petroleum” (BP).
The BP ad campaign has been praised by some as being an exemplar of an oil corporation as a socially conscious company. Others have criticized it as presenting an inaccurate portrayal of the corporation.
Disagreements aside, let’s explore what a carbon footprint is.
It’s not visible like a footprint in the sand but everyone and everything has one.
The term carbon footprint is defined as the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHG), usually measured in tons (2,000 lbs.) or metric tons (2,204 lbs.) , being emitted into the Earth’s atmosphere by an organization, event, product or individual directly or indirectly. And the symbol is CO2e.
Each of us contributes to greenhouse gas (GHG)emissions by everything we use, buy, eat, wear, how we travel and how we get around.
The average carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16 tons, one of the highest in the world. Globally, the average is closer to 4 tons per person.
So, if your carbon footprint isn’t visible, how can you wrap your head around what a ton of carbon dioxide and other GHG looks like, let alone 16 tons, if you live in the US?
In 2009, the United Nation’s climate talks in Copenhagen attempted to answer this question with the giant multi-media art installation by Millennium ART entitled, "CO2 CUBES: Visualize a Tonne of Change " https://youtu.be/ZfIM8f6nma4 . (best in full screen view) The cube is made of 12 shipping containers and measures 27′ x 27′ x 27′, the height of a three-story building. The CO2 CUBE represents one metric ton of carbon (2,204 pounds). It reflects the carbon footprint that an average citizen in an industrialized country produces in one month; this same amount is created by a U.S. citizen in only two weeks. The project's goal was that if the public could see the actual size of a ton of greenhouse gases (and not just imagine it), they would begin to understand their impact on the planet and work to find solutions to minimize the damage.
Another way to conceptualize a ton of carbon dioxide and other GHG is to use a carbon footprint calculator. Many are available online. None of them give an exact calculation of your individual carbon footprint. What they do is provide an indication of your carbon and GHG emissions based on the particulars of your life situation and personal choices you input into them.
Some calculators require you to gather as much information as possible about the things you and your family do that use energy before inputting this information in to it.
Others are more user-friendly and animated, too.
Another way to develop a carbon instinct is to watch a video(s) on how a seemingly ordinary thing(s) in your daily life then see the carbon footprint it creates.
Check out this video on the carbon footprint of a sandwich: http://www.facebook.com/NPR/videos/10155743247386756/
Calculating your carbon footprint is a way to figure out which changes you can make to have the most positive impact for our planet. These are personal and individual choices. Change isn’t easy and sometimes you have no readily available alternative but it’s a beginning.
I hope that this blog post gives you a basic understanding of greenhouse gases (GHG), the problematic impact of excessive GHG emissions and an understanding of a carbon footprint.
Next step for me, and I hope for you, too, is to explore the myriad innovative and intriguing responses to this issue of our time: carbon marketplace(s) where carbon is priced, usually by the ton, then traded almost like, a type of commodity; carbon offsets programs and projects where you buy carbon credits to negate your personal GHG emissions; making carbon credit donations, carbon capture, even carbon taxes.
David, Laurie. Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming. New York, Orchard Books, 2007.
Berners-Lee, Mike. How Bad Are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything. 1st Edition, Vancouver, BC ; Berkeley [Calif.], Greystone Books, 2011.
Thomas, Isabel. This Book Will (Help) Cool the Climate: 50 Ways to Cut Pollution and Protect Our Planet! New York, Random House, 2018.
“Household Carbon Footprint Calculator.” Environmental Protection Agency, 2021, www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator.
“Carbon Footprint Calculator.” Global Footprint Network, Global Footprint Network, 2021, www.footprintcalculator.org.
NASA Climate Kids. NASA, climatekids.nasa.gov. Accessed 3 June 2021.
Cole, Adam. “How Your Sandwich Changed the World.” YouTube, uploaded by Skunk Bear NPR, 20 June 2017, www.facebook.com/NPR/videos/10155743247386756.
“CO2 Cube Highlights.” YouTube, uploaded by Obsura Digital, 14 Dec. 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfIM8f6nma4.
Some Related Books from Our Collection:
"How to reduce your carbon footprint: 365 simple ways to save energy, resources, and money" by Joanna Yarrow.
"The climate diet : 50 simple ways to trim your carbon footprint" by Paul Greenberg. New York: Penguin Books, 2021.
"Earth-saving acts for eco-warriors: join the fight for a sustainable future". New York: Sterling, 2021.
"How to unfu*k the planet: a little bit each day" by Jo Stewart. Melbourne, Vic. : Smithi Street Books, 2021.
"Inconspicuous consumption: the environmental impact that you don't know you have" by Tatiana Schlossberg. New York : Grand Central Publishing, 2019.
"The zero-waste lifestyle: live well by throwing away less" by Amy Korst. Berkeley, CA : Ten Speed Press, 2012.
"Living without plastic: more than 100 easy swaps for home, travel, dining, holidays, and beyond" by Brigette Allen and Christine Wong. New York, NY : Artisan Books, 2020
Curiosity Corner writer & contributor:
Helen Beckert, Reference Librarian at the Glen Ridge Public Library