Carbon Week: Calculating Your Carbon Footprint

During the past year or 18 months, the subject of global warming has experienced a meteoric rise to the top of the list of worldwide environmental concerns; from Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth [], to the cover story in Time magazine this week, it’s hard to turn around without hearing something about it. TreeHugger thinks all of this mainstream media coverage and “Hollywood-ization” of the topic is great — the more people that are aware of the problem, the better — but the idea that our world is slowly but deliberately warming can easily leave you with an overwhelmed, powerless feeling. For the rest of the week, we’ll be looking at and working on ways to combat that feeling, lay out some tools and ideas for mitigating our individual contributions to climate change. This is a huge topic (one that we’ll just barely scratch the surface of in one week) and it may seem small and trivial to look at it from the individual’s level, but one million people doing one thing still adds up to one million. Step one: calculate your carbon footprint.

Before we get too far, let’s lay this out there without delving into the science too far: burning fossil fuels creates carbon dioxide, which is a gas that traps heat in our atmosphere; this series of actions is primarily responsible for global warming. Your carbon footprint is created when you add up your day-to-day and less frequent behavior that results in carbon dioxide emissions. That means when you drive your car, turn on your lights, cook or heat with natural gas (or heating oil) or fly on an airplane, you’re adding to your footprint. Calculating what impact your behavior has on the atmosphere is not only the first step toward mitigating your personal impact on global warming, but it contextualizes your impact with real-world behavior (driving less = less global warming, on the simplest of scales) and shows you how changing your behavior can have a positive effect.

Working from the idea that you can’t make positive changes until you know what changes to make, carbon calculators make it easy by just asking for a few numbers you can get from utility bills and gas and travel receipts. Fill in things like how many people live in your home, how many kilowatt-hours of electricity you use, how far you fly in a year and how many miles you drive, and, presto! There you have it, and congratulations! You’ve made the first step toward reducing (or totally canceling) your personal contribution to global climate change.

Sounds easy enough, no? While each calculator might come up with slightly different numbers, they should all land you in the same ballpark (and when we’re talking several tons of emissions per person per year, a little bit way is a small drop in the bucket). With that small disclaimer said, TreeHugger recommends the calculator provided by the collaboration between SafeClimate and the World Resources Institute [], along with Carbonfund’s calculator [] for a very simple, very quick and easy calculation. Similarly, the calculator at the website that supports [i]An Inconvenient Truth [] will provide good answers and give you a good idea of where you stand without taking too much time or asking for information you’ll have to go digging back into the utility bill archives or guessing to get. All told, it shouldn’t take more than 10 or 15 minutes.

So, now that this is done, what do you do next? We’ve got all week to cover that, but we’ll be looking at carbon-responsible products and companies, along with how to reduce and offset your carbon emissions and shrink your carbon footprint; all together, you’ll have a good, easy-to-follow regimen for helping make the world a cooler, safer, greener place for us all.