How to calculate your carbon footprint -- and why you should care

Wondering where to start? Here are 3 steps to take if you’re looking to reduce your footprint

How often do you drive? (Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels)

Think about all the food you eat in a day. Some people track their calories, which measure the energy you’re getting from the things you consume. A lot of adults likely know a rough daily estimate of what they eat, in terms of calories.

But what about your carbon footprint?

Do you know what your “number” is?

“This is more measured over a year,” said Dr. Seth Wynes, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Geography, Planning, and Environment at Concordia University in Montreal. “It’s the total of all the carbon pollution that goes into the atmosphere because of your actions.”

You can get an idea of your number by finding a carbon footprint calculator online. We took a look at this one. You might find it helpful.

[ Calculate your carbon footprint here. ]

Here’s how it works: You tell the system how many people are in your household, where you live, what you eat, how you travel -- answering all sorts of questions, and the calculator reveals your footprint, and then shows you how you stack up; comparing your number to data from people who live in similar households. (Author’s note: The tool only takes about five minutes to use, and the results can be insightful. I recommend doing it!)

The website that offers this tool, The Nature Conservancy, says the following:

“A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gasses (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by our actions. The average carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16 tons, one of the highest rates in the world. Globally, the average carbon footprint is closer to 4 tons. To have the best chance of avoiding a 2℃ rise in global temperatures, the average global carbon footprint per year needs to drop to under 2 tons by 2050.”

So, the takeaway is this: There’s more we can be doing -- to decrease our own personal carbon footprint, and to help protect the planet from climate change.

We asked Dr. Wynes and another expert, Dr. Benjamin Goldstein, an assistant professor of bioresource engineering in the Department of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at McGill University, for some advice on how people can aim to improve their actions when it comes to the planet.

“As an individual, the biggest areas we can change … the three main drivers, which account for 70 to 80 percent of a carbon footprint, are the way you get around and how much you get around; your home and powering that home; and your food choices,” Goldstein said. “Those are the big three, as a broad rule in the U.S.”

Let’s look at those especially. Consider ...

1. How you get around

Do you drive, and own or lease a vehicle? Many of us do.

“Commuting back and forth is a lot,” Goldstein said. “If you could telecommute even two days a week, that cuts emissions by 40 percent right there.”

Furthermore, if you could avoid using internal combustion vehicles -- meaning, anything you’re filling up with diesel or gasoline -- entirely, that would be even better, Wynes said. “Electric cars are (preferable), or even better than those (are) electric bikes, taking public transit or walking, whenever possible,” he added.

Air travel is also incredibly carbon-intensive, Goldstein said.

“We don’t have a low-carbon way to fly,” he said. “But you can take vacations closer to home, take the train, explore your region or just don’t fly to South America. And that doesn’t mean NEVER (fly to South America). Just do it less often.”

For people who fly regularly, that becomes a really big part of their carbon footprint.

“But if you don’t travel often, it’s not as big of a deal,” Wynes said.

2. Your home, and energy supply at home

Both Goldstein and Wynes recommended a heat pump and solar panels -- and Wynes talked about an induction stovetop, as well. Even something as simple as better insulation, if you live in a cold-weather state, should help to lower energy bills.

Back to that first item: If you know your home will need to have its furnace replaced sometime soon, you might want to start thinking about a heat pump, which collects heat from the ground.

“It allows you to basically switch to geothermal heat from the earth’s core,” Goldstein said. “It’s not renewable, but it will be (around) as long as humans are alive.”

You can read about a heat pump, and what it entails, here. It’s almost like a more complex air-conditioner. It can, by the way, heat your home in the winter and cool it down in the summer.

Some homes can be more difficult than others for installing a heat pump. And these pumps are expensive, although they’re becoming more and more affordable as time goes on, as is the case with most technology, both scientists pointed out.

And a heat pump will pay you back over time, as well. The government may also have rebates or subsidies available.

“But you should look into it ahead of time, before your furnace goes out,” Wynes said. “You don’t want to miss the opportunity because the moment comes and you’re not ready.”

Solar panels on the roof, as mentioned above, are environmentally friendly as well, if you own a home or you have control over where you live, but renters can’t typically make these choices. There are some systemic challenges involved with this idea of a carbon footprint, as Goldstein explained (and we’ll have more on this soon).

Finally, Wynes said, the research lately is showing that natural gas cooking isn’t as good for your health, and induction is better.

After all, natural gas is a fossil fuel, which means carbon dioxide.

Natural gas (Pexels stock image)

If you use something instead like an induction stovetop, another piece of pretty new technology, it only heats up the pan instead of the whole stovetop, for example, if you’re trying to boil a pot of water.

Also, it can bring that pot of water to boil fast, Wynes said.

It’s a very precise way of cooking, and because it’s only heating up the pan, induction isn’t a fire hazard. Even if you leave it on, it won’t burn the house down, Wynes added.

“Some people will buy a range that you can add on the counter, to avoid using natural gas. If you’re buying a new home, it’s a great time to go induction,” Wynes said.

We’ll all likely use induction eventually.

3. What you eat

“What we eat matters,” Wynes said. “You want to try to reduce how much meat you eat.”

And all meat is NOT considered equal.

To serve a piece of beef, for every calorie you get from a steak, you had to feed that cow 10 calories, Goldstein said. That cow also comes from a farm, which involves carbon emissions. Think about everything involved: The land, water, greenhouse gasses, and also, cows emit methane.

“Beef is very environmentally intensive,” Goldstein said.

But that doesn’t mean you need to become a vegetarian or a vegan. Aiming to reduce your consumption helps, too.

“Turn meat into a treat,” Goldstein said. “Make it more special, which is what it used to be, anyway. Eat it more sparingly.”

And we do live in an age in which there are other options. Goldstein mentioned Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, reminding people that “good alternatives exist.”

As for why beef is perhaps more problematic than other forms of meat, you have to consider the process of getting cows to maturity.

“With beef, we have to keep cows alive for much longer,” Goldstein said. “From a carbon perspective, pork and chicken are more efficient.”

It takes more to grow a cow; they’re five to 10 times more carbon intensive.

“If I want a pound of beef and a pound of pork, there are five to six times more greenhouse gas emissions in beef than pork,” Goldstein said.

Pigs and chickens also don’t create as much methane. These are all good things to keep in mind next time you’re looking at a menu at a restaurant or grocery shopping.

Beef (Photo by Los Muertos Crew from Pexels)

Looking at the calculator, and how it ties into the bigger picture

As we touched on earlier, this whole idea of a carbon footprint reflects each person’s individual contribution to climate change: The total of greenhouse gasses you add from eating, transportation, living in your home, and buying everything you need to survive and flourish.

Carbon footprint calculators can motivate people to change, and it’s best to look at one like a communicative tool to help understand lifestyle, and how it contributes to climate change, Goldstein said.

But the individual footprint is just one part of the climate dilemma.

Just remember, we can take actions, and the choices we make are influential, but the system we live in constrains what we can actually do, Goldstein said.

More on the system

We didn’t create our surroundings – we’re born into a lot of our circumstances.

For instance, let’s say you live in the Midwest. The tendency is for electric to come from coal or natural gas.

“I need to live my life,” Goldstein said, as he was the one who came up with this example. “Even if I want to be climate friendly, I can’t control where (these things) come from. I have to live in the system I’m embedded (in).”

Sure, some electricity providers might give you some green-friendly options, but most electricity comes from the grid, and it’s fossil-fuel based. “We can’t change that,” Goldstein said. “We can’t tell people to use low-carbon energy if it’s not available.”

He also used this example: Think about how we get around: Why is there a lack of high-speed rail networks? High-speed rail would help people avoid flying, avoid driving everywhere and avoid sitting in traffic.

“If we had alternatives ... then people could get around in more low-carbon ways,” Goldstein said.

So, in the meantime, what we CAN do about the system is this: Get in touch with your representatives. Write to them, tweet at them, encourage them to vote for initiates that are low-carbon. You can vote in a carbon-friendly way, as well.

“That’s what it’s going to take,” Goldstein said.

Our transportation systems and energy systems are pre-determined for us in some ways, so we have to think beyond our own households.

‘We’re going to see changes to our planet either way’

As the author of this story, when I mentioned what I kept seeing and reading in our own comment sections, this idea of “I’m only one person, what difference does it make anyway?,” Wynes offered a smart analogy.

“It is a difficult mental obstacle to overcome,” he admitted. “But a lot of people vote, and they believe that counts and matters.”

So, why is this different?

And beyond that, he added, “The planet is overheating. The wildfires happening out west, that’s because of climate change. Sea levels are rising, and hurricanes are more intense … (that’s related, too). What we really want to do is to make those disasters a lot less disastrous, so we can have a more habitable planet.”

But it will require action from citizens, governments and businesses.

Where to go from here

If we look analytically at this idea of a carbon footprint, one problem is, inherently, it puts the burden on the individual -- and this is bigger than that, as Goldstein pointed out.

As he said above, a lot of this is systemic: Our infrastructure systems, cultural systems and more.

“But I don’t want people to feel bad,” Goldstein said. “We just need to be more informed. ‘Do the things I do make me happy? Is it enough? Do I need to have an extra car, or am I OK with one?’”

When it comes to climate-related issues, just think: It's not just you -- it's children and future generations we have to protect, as well. (Photo by Kindel Media from Pexels)

All these questions are interrelated.

Goldstein added, “We need to empower people -- I don’t like when people feel hopeless and dejected about it. We need to attack it from both sides.”

What else can we do?

Consider that when you take action, it just might be contagious.

If you’re the first person in your neighborhood to get an electric vehicle, you’re likely to share that, and say something like, ‘I’m saving money on fuel. The car is so quiet,’ and neighbors will pick up on it and talk about it. It’s similar with solar panels on your roof, or replacing your furnace with a heat pump -- people will likely hear about it or look and ask, “What’s that new thing?”

“You have to make these changes and talk about them. It’s part of going all in on this problem, that really needs everyone’s contributions.”

Goldstein’s research expertise is in developing methods to quantify and map resource use in cities. He has also published research on estimating and analyzing the carbon footprints of individual households across the U.S.

Wynes’ research expertise is in climate change mitigation with a focus on actions and education on the individual level. He has also written a book on ways that individuals can reduce their carbon footprint.