What is Carbon Footprint?

What is Carbon Footprint?

“With growing concern in the environmental space, the term ‘carbon footprint’ starts to pop up more and more.  But what is carbon footprint? Why should we know more about carbon footprint? Here’s an easy read to help you understand all about carbon footprint.

Understanding the science behind climate change may be overwhelming and complex, and we’re here to help you understand it better!

According to Carbon Trust, “A carbon footprint measures the total greenhouse gas emissions caused directly and indirectly by a person, organisation, event or product[1]. Carbon footprint pertains to total greenhouse gas emissions and not just carbon dioxide.

Carbon footprints are usually measured in equivalent tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) , during the period of a year. The GHG Protocol of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, covers the accounting of seven GHGs such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PCFs), sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3). Each of these gases mentioned have different abilities to trap heat in the atmosphere and these differences are accounted for, resulting in a carbon footprint in units of mass of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e).

But why are we calling them carbon footprint, or why are we equating other greenhouses gases to carbon dioxide’s global warming potential (GWP)? The answer is, CO2 is the primary anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gas, accounting for 78% of the human contribution to the greenhouse effect in 2010[2].

Most of the human activities including agriculture and industrial activities such as manufacturing products emit these greenhouse gases. Many products also emit these gases throughout their lifecycle. The carbon footprint of these activities is calculated by adding up the emissions resulting from every stage of a product or service’s lifetime (raw material production, manufacturing, use, and end-of-life/ scrap).

Source of emissions:

Meat products have larger carbon footprints per calorie than grain or vegetable products because of the inefficient conversion of plant to animal energy and due to CH4 released[3]. Not just meat, but deep net fishing (using a large net and dragging it across the seabed to catch all kinds of fish) can also contribute to as much CO2 as red meat, according to researchers. So, the footprint of your plate depends on how much you eat of what you eat, and from where you buy. Most often locally available products have far lesser carbon footprint than the same commodity imported or produced in bulk at a further location.

Transportation is another activity that is responsible for the bulk of carbon emissions. In fact, in 2017, it surpassed electricity generation as the top source of greenhouse gases[4]. The impact of carbon emissions from transportation can be reduced by choosing greener modes of transport like trains and buses, or by regularly servicing your car to keep it more efficient, like checking tires and maintaining optimum pressure etc.

Similarly, large volumes of energy are consumed to heat or cool homes. Simple acts like turning off the electronic and electrical devices that are not in use and using energy efficient appliances including LED lighting will help reduce energy consumption.

Typically, the majority of an individual’s carbon footprint can be attributed to transportation, housing (heating and cooling needs) and food. Measuring or calculating carbon footprint provides the baseline needed to implement an effective sustainability and carbon reduction strategy even at an individual’s level. Despite its importance, it is difficult to calculate carbon footprints accurately due to poor knowledge at the grassroot level and limitations in the form of data available, especially regarding the complex interactions between contributing processes.

Yet, carbon footprint is a very important parameter to measure the impact of an individual on the planet. This is where tools like Adva play a vital role. For example, Adva puts together pieces of information you provide about your lifestyle like how you commute, how much red meat you consume, or how frequently you fly etc., to calculate your individual carbon footprint by applying standard values. It not only helps you calculate these emissions but also suggests easy ways to reduce the emissions. It also rewards these emission reductions, which motivates individuals to embrace the lifestyle changes and build habits. Estimating our footprint help us focus and work on improving our lifestyle for a healthier planet and life.

While real solutions demand attention and action on a larger scale involving policy makers and large corporates, there are choices that individuals can make in their life to minimize their personal impact on the planet.

[1] The Carbon Trust (2018) Carbon Footprinting Guide.

[2] IPCC (2014) Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. O. Edenhofer, et al. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

[3] Weber, C. and H. Matthews (2008) "Food miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States." Environmental Science & Technology, 42(10): 3508-3513

[4] Climate Central