What Is a Carbon Footprint? What It Means and How to Reduce Yours

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You can’t imagine it: Earth has a fever. Droughts, Forest fires, frequent heat waves – if you don’t experience them where you are, you certainly see more of them in the news. According to the National Environmental Information Centers, the year 2020 was the second hottest on record after 2016, with seven of the warmest years on Earth after 2014.

The increase in global average temperature is caused by the increase in greenhouse gas in the earth’s atmosphere. The atmosphere allows energy from the sun to pass through, but greenhouse gases absorb and trap the energy that the Earth would normally emit into space, resulting in more energy and higher temperatures, ”explains Benjamin Cook, climatologist, author of Drought: an interdisciplinary perspective and Research Associate Professor at the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is considered the “biggest button on Earth’s thermostat,” says Cook, which is why the concept of “carbon footprint” has become increasingly important in conversations. on global warming and climate change.

What does “carbon footprint” mean?

Our the carbon footprint is the total amount of carbon we all emit collectively due to all human activities. Currently, the world produces carbon emissions equivalent to about nine gigatonnes (billion tonnes) of carbon dioxide each year. About half of these emissions are absorbed by the oceans and Earth’s biosphere, leaving about four gigatonnes of excess carbon dioxide to accumulate in the atmosphere.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States produced approximately 6.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2019. the global average personal carbon footprint is around six tonnes of carbon dioxide per person per year, the United States is the third highest in the world with around 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person per year, behind Australia and Saudi Arabia, according to UC Berkeley climate science research.

The biggest contributors to carbon dioxide emission in the United States are:

  • Transport: 29%
  • Electricity production: 25%
  • Industrial activities: 23%
  • Commercial and residential heating: 13%
  • Agriculture: ten%

    What effect does our carbon footprint have on the environment?

    The warming trend of the Earth has triggered a cascade of climatic events that include:

    1. Drier soils: Global warming is not uniform across the planet due to differences in the thermal capacities of land and water. Land surfaces heat up faster than water surfaces and, as a result, soils are drier than usual. This affects the growth of vegetation and also makes forest fires easier to spread according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA.
    2. Warming ocean temperatures: Although the ocean can hold more heat below its surfaces than the land can, it eventually reaches the surface and causes high ocean surface temperature anomalies. Among other effects, warming sea temperatures are detrimental to fish species and can cause coral reefs to bleach.
    3. Ocean acidification: As we pump more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the oceans absorb this excess, making them more acidic. This has direct consequences on the health of all marine species but in particular for coral reefs, which cannot build their skeleton, as well as for clams, mussels and marine plankton, whose protective shells cannot stand apart. form under acidic conditions.
    4. Loss of ice reserves and sea level rise: Called polar amplification, the warming trend is uneven between different latitudes. Northern latitudes and the North Pole are warming faster than the rest of the world, leading to a decrease in the duration of snow cover on land, as well as volumes of arctic sea ice and mountain glaciers. Melting ice reserves coupled with thermal expansion of the upper ocean due to warming has resulted in continued sea level rise, according to NASA. The current sea level is about 7 to 8 inches higher than that of 1900, with the last three inches of elevation occurring since 1993. This trend increases the risk of coastal areas flooding during extreme weather conditions and can cause permanent changes to our coasts, disrupting settlements and causing economic loss.
      1. Currently, we are about 1.1 ° C above pre-industrial temperature levels and are likely to exceed the 1.5 ° C limit that was set as a target in the Paris Climate Agreement. This international treaty on climate change, adopted in 2015 by 196 countries, was the first binding agreement to bring all nations together to fight climate change. Each country is expected to commit to achieving ambitious national targets to reduce greenhouse gases and to collaborate internationally to build resilience to adapt to rising temperatures.

        According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), around half of carbon dioxide emission over the past 150 years have taken place over the past 40 years. “Depending on the course we take over the next century, we’ll probably end up with 2-4 degrees of warming by 2100,” adds Cook. Translation: We need to accelerate our transition to renewable energy sources even faster than what is proposed based on the 1.5 ° C target.

        While carbon emissions 2020 fell by around 10% due to the economic slowdown associated with the pandemic, it has hardly affected the build-up of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Carbon dioxide does not dissipate or break down and stays in place for hundreds of years. This means that even if we could somehow stop all of our carbon emissions today, it would take more than a decade to reverse warming trend in which we are.

        What are some examples of my personal carbon footprint?

        First, let’s talk about the concept of a “personal carbon footprint” – the idea was popularized as part of a greenwashing campaign by oil companies, according to Cook. “This was a strategy to shift responsibility to individuals, rather than addressing the systemic nature of our global dependence on fossil fuels,” says Cook. He advises against focusing solely on your personal carbon footprint, as tackling climate change requires “global and systemic change in our energy systems, which is unlikely to happen through individual action alone.”

        That said, from the electricity you use at home to the type of meal you put on the table, it’s true that everyone contributes to the total carbon production in the world. However, your individual carbon footprint is largely predetermined. Here are the factors that matter most:

        • Where in the world you live (in particular, which country and its energy sources and policies)
        • Your socio-economic conditions (more purchasing power means more products produced and energy consumed)
        • How energy intensive is your lifestyle is (think access to heating, hot water and air conditioning)

          How can I calculate my carbon footprint?

          Carbon footprint calculators can help you better understand your individual contribution to the global carbon footprint. They typically take into account your impacts related to domestic energy consumption, transport, waste production and your diet (meat or plant-based). Expect to enter data such as your postcode, the number of people living in your household, and the type of dwelling (single-family home or apartment building) in which you reside.

          Some carbon footprint calculators are more elaborate, like the EPA calculator which requires much more detailed data, such as the type of fuel source used to heat your home, the price of your electric bill, the number of vehicles you own and the number of kilometers you drive. as well as the amount recycled in your household. While these calculators only reveal approximations of your carbon footprint, they can help you identify individual impacts.

          Can I reduce my carbon footprint?

          Tackling global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions requires a dramatic shift from the use of fossil fuels to zero-carbon energy sources, and every country needs policies to encourage this transition. Perhaps one of the most effective things people can do is organize and pressure their governments to act quickly.

          Additionally, we can all make sustainable lifestyle choices to help achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, which scientists believe is necessary to bring global warming closer to the 1.5 limit. ° C set by the Paris Climate Agreement. . Here is some examples of reducing your carbon footprint, all with varying degrees of impact:

          • Limit your family size (the largest)
          • Living without a car (top)
          • Switch to a plant-based diet (high)
          • Recycling (moderate)
          • Bulbs upgrade (low)

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