Are you wondering how to limit your personal planet-heating emissions? In this guide we’ll look at the origins and components of each individual’s carbon footprint and we’ll offer specific tips on how to reduce them.
This is especially important now, as greenhouse gas emissions from carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have been heating up the planet since the Industrial revolution. This is causing more and more heat records along with frequent extreme weather patterns.
Emitting so much climate warming gases is slowly deteriorating the quality of life on Earth and could make large parts of it inhospitable, bringing along mass migration, social tension and suffering. We are faced with the challenge of transforming our behaviors and our economy into something that doesn’t pollute, destroy and harm our own lives and the planet.
The good news is we can start making different choices and change that. Educating ourselves about the actions we can take and shifting our habits to incorporate more environmentally friendly practices is the key to setting a trend towards a sustainable, habitable and thriving future for our planet.
What Is Carbon Footprint?
As carbon emissions are collectively emitted by people on Earth, each person has an individual carbon footprint. Carbon footprint is the term to describe the total volume of greenhouse gases released from everyday human activity. Individual carbon footprint refers to the greenhouse gas emissions generated by one person’s total activities.
Globally, countries and companies are the ones that are most responsible for the amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. There are some activities not determined by individuals but by companies and industries that in fact, generate the majority of global emissions. The carbon footprint of the products and services they provide is accounted to the individuals that use them even though individuals are not the ones that decide their environmental impact.
According to a study, just 100 companies have been responsible for more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. Just three countries China, the United States and India contribute 42.6% of the total emissions, while another 100 countries only account for 2.9% of the total emissions humans release.
Per capita emissions or the total country annual emissions divided by the total number of its population are showing a different story. The top three countries with the highest emissions per person for 2016 are Qatar (38 tons of CO2 per capita for the year), Montenegro (25.66 tons of CO2 per capita) and Kuwait (25.07 tons of CO2 per capita).
For comparison, China’s per capita emissions are 7.44 tons of CO2 for 2017, United States – 17 tons of CO2 per capita and India 1.9 tons of CO2 per capita.
The statistics are showing that the amount of greenhouse gases released globally each year are unequally distributed among countries which is also valid for the individual carbon footprint of people living in those countries. Many countries in the Middle East have high levels of emissions, especially when compared to countries in Africa.
China was responsible for 27% of the global greenhouse gas emissions in 2021 and is the world’s largest emitter that year, however, an average person in China is still individually responsible for almost twice as less CO2 emissions annually compared to an average person living in the USA.
Even though the responsibility for the current and historic emissions largely falls on governments and the world’s largest corporations – mostly fossil fuel, energy companies and industries, an individual and collectively all individuals can even be more impactful on the course of global statistics on greenhouse gas emissions.
Why Does Individual Carbon Footprint Matter?
Usually, the bulk of the global carbon footprint is the collective of the carbon footprint of all individuals living on the planet. When a large group of individuals decide to take actions that reduce emissions and do exactly that collectively, the global greenhouse gas emissions lessen.
What comprises an individual carbon footprint is the measure of the impact of actions related to how we transport ourselves, what food we consume, what products we buy, what clothes we purchase, what energy we use to power our homes, what services we use, etc.
Each individual is responsible for its own carbon footprint and therefore, the first climate action to make is to decrease your own emissions. One individual can also spark other people and help them learn more about how to reduce their carbon footprint and take action.
Those other individuals, on their hand, can spread the word even further, thus chaining a reaction realizing a collective group of actions of reducing emissions.
The EU, for example, is seeing a downward trend of emissions since they peaked in 1979, due to a rise in individual and political climate awareness. The EU’s carbon footprint dropped from 3.99 billion metric tons in 1979 to 2.73 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2022.
Even though large corporations emit the most greenhouse gas emissions, they still exist to serve the needs of individuals, to provide all the products and services we consume. Therefore, collective individual choices are what can make those corporations choose sustainability as they have to adapt to the choices of consumers in order to survive.
Every single action and every single choice has an impact no matter how big or small – from leaving your car at home and taking the bus just one time to taking a much bigger step like choosing a high-impact career in climate change.
Any small action can turn into a habit and a habit into market signals that can change an entire corporation and save millions of tons of emissions annually. Collective action is the only thing powerful enough to define the world we live in. Not even a whole industry like the fossil-fuel industry is capable of going against consumer choices as our choices determine their profits and their existence.
To be able to reduce our emissions, we need to know what constitutes our carbon footprint. Different actions have different impacts. Driving a car for 10min, for example, could release 560 grams of carbon emissions into the air, while taking the bus instead for 20min could translate into 244 grams of CO2 emissions from this activity.
What constitutes a country’s emissions is also different from what comprises our individual carbon footprint. For example, much of the U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are associated with electricity generation. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2022 the U.S. electric power sector incurred 1,539 million metric tons of CO2 emissions or about 31% of the total U.S. emissions which are around 4,970 million metric tons of CO2.
Using energy from the grid, which in the US in 2021 was comprised mostly of fossil fuels (79%), could only take 15-20% of an individual’s carbon footprint in the USA (rather than 31%). That is due to the fact that some other activities like flying often can be more impactful on the individual carbon footprint than using grid electricity at home.
Saving one flight per year or cutting beef consumption might cut dramatically our individual carbon footprint compared to drinking from a reusable cup for an year or giving up buying some pieces of clothing.
We also need to be aware that products produced in different countries carry different carbon footprints. For example, a product manufactured in China – the world’s largest emitter with coal-based energy generation (around 60%) could have a higher carbon footprint than the same product produced in the UK.
A person from the UK can reduce his/her carbon footprint if he/she chooses to buy products produced nearby or in a country with higher renewables in the grid energy mix rather than products imported from farther countries (mostly developing countries) with higher fossil fuels in the energy mix.
There are also other actions that can translate into unmeasurable amounts of emissions being saved like getting politically active, talking to people and raising awareness on climate change mitigation or pressuring companies we purchase goods from to adopt sustainable practices.
As every individual is different, everyone has a different mix of lifestyle choices that incur a certain amount of measurable or unmeasurable carbon emissions. Therefore, each person needs to calculate her/his own carbon footprint to be aware of how her/his individual choices impact the environment.
How To Calculate Your Carbon Footprint?
Due to the large amount of data available on the internet, it is easy for a person to find out its individual carbon footprint. One way to do that is to use carbon footprint calculators that give a good measure of our impact.
One company – Clever Carbon, has created a quick quiz to help people calculate their carbon footprint and teach them about their impact in a hip and fun way, making it easy and accessible. This calculator is useful for people who want to get a quick estimate of their impact. The carbon footprint quiz is comprised of five questions and can be done in under a minute.
It shows the total carbon footprint of a person for an year. The company also provides valuable information about the carbon footprint of common items like espresso, capuchino, different foods, general items, different types of transportation and household items. It has developed a lesson plan for children that teachers can use to educate students about carbon footprint and important topics on sustainability.
Another useful tool that helps individuals calculate their carbon footprint is the UN Climate Change’s Lifestyle Calculator that it launched in 2021 in partnership with the Swedish tech company Doconomy.
The calculator includes a set of questions covering several categories like travel, food or living environment. It can be completed in about 10 minutes. A very useful feature is that it provides a breakdown of people’s carbon footprint for each category so they can understand how their lifestyle impacts the climate. Such knowledge allows people to take simple, climate-conscious decisions, especially in the categories with the highest carbon footprint, to reduce emissions.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also provides a sophisticated Carbon Footprint Calculator that takes a couple of minutes to complete and covers three areas: home energy, transportation and waste. It requires more input like the average energy monthly bill and provides tips on how to reduce your emissions in each area.
Another way to get a rough estimate of your individual carbon footprint is to look at the average country values or the per-capita CO2 emissions calculated based on a country’s emissions divided by its population. However, this is an approximate estimate and usually differs from your own personal carbon footprint. It’s also worth noting that the per-capita data focuses on territorial emissions and doesn’t account for traded goods.
How To Reduce Your Carbon Footprint?
As our carbon footprint is determined by the choices we make every day in our homes, with the food we eat, how we travel and what we consume, we can substantially reduce our emissions if we start making more sustainable choices.
For example, eating vegetarian or vegan food, generally, saves more emissions than eating meat. Therefore replacing meat meals with vegetarian ones even a few times a week already saves a chunk of emissions. According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in February 2022, Americans who eat beef could reduce their carbon footprint by up to 48% by substituting non-beef meals with just one serving per day for a more environmentally friendly alternative.
Other changes could be riding bikes more often instead of driving a car or taking a bus, or changing the bulbs in your home with LEDs as they use a quarter of the energy of ordinary bulbs and last up to 25 times longer.
In Energy Use:
There are some areas that create more emissions than others like the energy we use. The energy sector is one that is emitting the most greenhouse gases globally or 36.3 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent emissions in 2021. Total human-made emissions were accounted for 54.5 billion metric tons of CO2e in 2021.
That is due to the fact that 80% of the energy sector is comprised by fossil fuels and the burning of fossil fuels releases greenhouse gas emissions, mostly carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. They get accumulated in the lowest layer of the atmosphere – the troposphere as they cannot escape the Earth.
Every day the Sun sends heat to Earth that reaches the Earth’s surface and then reflects back to Space. The greenhouse gas emissions create a veil that traps the heat from escaping the Earth’s atmosphere, thus raising the average temperature of the planet.
The way to reduce emissions in the energy sector globally is to replace the burning of fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas for energy production, with renewable energy or low-carbon energy sources. One of the most impactful thing an individual can do to reduce its carbon footprint is to reduce energy consumption and switch to renewable energy sources.
If it’s possible in your country, you can choose your home to be powered by 100% renewable energy like solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear. If it’s not possible to opt for a renewable energy supplier, you could reduce your dependence on fossil fuels by installing solar panels at your home, buying a solar water heater or using solar-powered technology wherever you can such as outdoor or portable lighting, mobile phone power banks, etc.
Driving a car is one of the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions for an individual. The transportation sector in 2022 accounted for nearly 8 gigatons of CO2 emissions globally. According to EPA estimates, an average passenger vehicle emits about 400 grams of CO2 per mile and about 4.6 metric tons of CO2 per year, depending on the vehicle’s fuel, fuel economy, and the number of miles driven per year.
The easiest way to cut emissions from driving a car is to replace it with walking. Another way to replace your car in the city is to use a bike or an electric scooter. Car sharing is also one of the best ways that reduce traffic congestion in the city. Trains are the most environmentally friendly choice when traveling long distances.
For the car trips you cannot avoid, there are also some tricks that can cut on emissions from driving the vehicle:
- Avoid unnecessary braking and acceleration – aggressive driving can result in 40% more fuel consumption than consistent, calm driving.
- Keeping the tires inflated increases fuel efficiency by 3%.
- Avoid leaving extra weight in the car when driving around.
- Avoiding air conditioning in the car also reduces on fuel consumption.
- Turning cruise control on long trips saves fuel.
- If shopping for a new car, consider electric or hybrid as they come with considerably less environmental impact during driving compared to diesel or petrol cars.
Apart from driving, another way of transportation creates an astounding amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Flying is considered to be generating the bulk of a person’s carbon footprint. According to research of the TIME that estimated the emissions of four families in the US for a week, the family that traveled the most had the highest carbon footprint.
A $400 purchase of two round-trip airline tickets from San Francisco to Los Angeles created 436 kg of CO2e for one of the families participating in the research, which was the single largest emission source compared to any other purchase of the four families for the week.
For people that still cannot avoid flying, there are some tips that can be used to reduce the impact.
- Driving for shorter trips or taking the train is more environmentally friendly than flying.
- Flying non-stop with fewer transfers saves emissions.
- Going economy glass is better than using business class as the flight emissions are shared among more passengers.
- Offsetting the carbon footprint of the flight by purchasing carbon removal credits is one of the best ways to eliminate those emissions. There are an increasing number of reliable carbon marketplaces that provide high-quality carbon credits so that people are able to eliminate the emissions that they cannot avoid such as flight emissions.
Changing our diet towards more vegetarian/ vegan meals to replace meat meals is the ultimate way to cut emissions from the things you eat. Particularly, eliminating beet entirely from your menu can cut your carbon footprint from food by around 48%.
According to a Tulane University research, if North Americans collectively swap one serving of beef for a more environmentally friendly option like turkey, the diets’ greenhouse gas emissions drop by an average of 48% and water-use impact by 30%.
Clever Carbon also has a list of the carbon footprint of common items. In the section Consumption: Food, it is calculated that one serving of beef (75g) produces 7.7kg of CO2 while one serving of chicken (75g) releases just 1.36kg of CO2.
Our World In Data – a project of the Global Change Data Lab, a registered charity in England and Wales, provides a chart with the carbon footprint of common foods.
Eating locally produced foods from farms that avoid the use of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals that treat insects, is also more environmentally friendly, according to scientists. However, if people eat vegetable-based meals even if the vegetables are imported from abroad, they still save more emissions than if they eat only local food that includes meat.
Research estimates that a totally “localized” diet reduces GHG emissions per household equivalent to 1000 miles/yr (1600 km/yr) from driving, while shifting just one day per week’s calories from red meat and dairy to chicken/fish/eggs or a vegetable-based diet reduces GHG emissions equivalent to 760 miles/yr (1230 km/yr) or 1160 miles/yr (1860 km/yr) of driving, respectively. Shifting entirely away from red meat and dairy toward chicken/fish/eggs and vegetables, reduces individual GHG emissions substantially.
Reducing food waste is also a big step towards cutting your individual carbon footprint. On average, Americans waste around 40% of the food they buy. Making a shopping list, and planning your meals can have a substantial impact on the environment.
Eating at home also saves more emissions than eating at a restaurant or a fast food chain. One source claims that a typical restaurant meal in the US generates 3.67 times more CO2e emissions than a meal prepared and eaten at home. Cooking and eating at home is a cheaper and simpler way to reduce your carbon footprint.
One of the most sustainable ways to think about shopping for your clothes or common items is to buy less in general. Every single item comes with some carbon footprint, so buying less stuff is always the most sustainable option. The second thing is to buy only clothes and items that you genuinely love and need. Investing in quality products that last long time is better and more environmentally friendly than buying 10 pieces of fast fashion clothes that you wear once or twice.
In general, it is considered that clothes made from natural fabrics like cotton, denim, linen, wool, and silk are better for people and the environment than synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon, acrylic and viscose.
According to studies carried out by the Stockholm Environment Institute, the energy used and CO2 emitted to manufacture 1 ton of fiber is much higher for synthetic (polyester, nylon, acrylic, viscose) than natural fibers (cotton, hemp, linen). According to 8 Billion Trees, organic cotton is much more sustainable than conventional cotton. It also emits 78% fewer CO2 emissions when compared with polyester and 91% fewer emissions when compared with nylon.
A kilogram of CO2 Emissions per Ton of Spun Fiber
|Crop Cultivation||Fiber Production||Total|
|Polyester (USA) ||0.00||9.52||9.52|
|Cotton, conventional (USA)||4.20||1.70||5.90|
|Cotton, organic (USA)||0.90||1.45||2.35|
|Cotton, organic (India)||2.00||1.80||3.80|
Other Activities With Impact
Other actions that a person can take to reduce its carbon footprint, with often unmeasurable but high impact are:
- Reducing consumption overall.
- Choosing recycled products rather than non-recycled
- Recycling waste and also larger items that are no longer needed like appliances and clothes.
- Supporting companies with strong sustainable values and practices.
- Lobby your pension fund or your bank to support green initiatives and give up any fossil fuel investments and to increase their sustainable values and practices. If they refuse, move your savings into ‘green’ funds.
- Lobby your government to give up fossil fuels in the energy mix and replace it with renewable energy and new technologies like hydrogen.
- Vote for political parties and representatives with sustainable agenda and who prioritize green energy production.
- Skip packaging when you buy products, bring a reusable bag and buy products from zero-waste stores.
- Avoiding single-use plastics is a must. In the cases they cannot be avoided, they can be replaced with biodegradable and sustainable options.
- Joining initiatives that plant trees, preserve forests or take care of natural habitats is an activity with enormous environmental impact. According to data, offsetting 1 ton of CO2 is done by between 31 and 46 trees.
Even if a person does everything he/she can to reduce his/her carbon footprint, there are still residual emissions left from the things we cannot avoid buying and using on a daily basis. Offsetting the emissions that you cannot avoid by purchasing high-quality carbon credits is an activity that has an enormous emissions-cutting impact.
A carbon dioxide removal credit is a term used to describe the removal of 1 ton of CO2 equivalent emissions, done by a project or initiative that generates the emissions saving elsewhere.
There are some platforms that individuals can purchase carbon removal credits directly from like Carbon Removed or direct air capture company Climeworks. Climeworks develops a technology that captures CO2 from the atmosphere and then stores it underground in a solid form – the most reliable form of carbon sequestration. It also offers flexible subscription packages for the public to support the development of the technology.
Some other platforms that offer both carbon removal credits and carbon offsets are Swedish purpose-driven climate action enabler GoClimate and Wren – a CA-based company that offers a monthly subscription for people who want to offset their carbon footprint.
No matter what activities you do in your daily life, you can also think about what is the greener choice. Riding your bike rather than taking the car is one simple action that done multiple times saves a substantial amount of greenhouse gases. According to research, however, energy use from fossil fuels, flying and driving a car are the items with the highest carbon footprint for an individual.
Therefore lobbying your government to stop electricity generation from fossil fuels or switching to renewable energy if possible and avoiding flying and driving can have the most impact on your personal emissions. Eating a vegetable-based diet and avoiding beef is another critical step towards a more sustainable living.
If every single person does her/his part in reducing emissions by some simple choices, humanity collectively could save gigatons of CO2e emissions annually. As a result, humans will start taking responsibility for the climate crisis and effectively tackle the issue for the long-term.