From Meteorology to Mitigation: Understanding Global Warming

Individual Carbon Footprints


We have already seen in this lesson that reducing carbon emissions will ultimately require policies to insure that market-based economic decisions internalize the cost to society and the environment of emitting additional carbon. Clearly, there is, therefore, not only a role, but a need, for enacting governmental policies to incentivize moving away from practices that emit carbon, including fossil fuel burning.

This does not mean, however, that there is not also a role for the individual. Clearly, making more responsible individual choices can help in the process of reducing carbon emissions. As we saw earlier, the typical American adds 1 metric ton a year to the atmosphere via the use of a personal vehicle. Of course, they would have furthered additional transport-related emissions through air travel, and even through the food and various projects they purchase, many of which are transported large distances. Then, there is the energy we use to power our homes, etc. By the time all is said and done, the average American, through all of their collective activities and actions, will have effectively emitted roughly 20 metric tons of CO2 equivalent in a given year. Call this your carbon footprint.  Calculate your personal carbon footprint using the US EPA's calculator here.

Carbon footprint comparision graphic
Figure 12.16: What's your carbon footprint?
Credit: Mann & Kump, Dire Predictions: Understanding Climate Change, 2nd Edition
© 2015 Pearson Education, Inc.

Just like real footprints, carbon footprints vary greatly in size. An especially gluttonous individual might emit as much as 30 metric tons a year through his actions—call him a "Sasquatch" (otherwise known as "big foot").  On the other hand, an individual with a more ascetic lifestyle might emit as little as 4 metric tons of CO2 equivalent per year—call her a "Cinderella".

Individuals, one might argue, must do their part in achieving the reductions necessary for achieving stabilization below dangerous levels. Recall that 80% below 1990 global emissions by mid-century, as required for 450 ppm stabilization,  is about 5 gigatons CO2 equivalent per year, whereas current emissions are about 31 gigatons.

Think About It!

How close would the typical American have to come to being a "Cinderella" by 2050 to do their part in achieving the necessary reduction in emissions?

Click for answer.

Since average emissions are currently 20 tons/year,  these emissions must be reduced to (5/31) x 20 = 3.2 gigatons/year, a bit lower than even "Cinderella"!

So, if you are a Sasquatch, or even just a typical emitter, what can you do to try to fit into Cinderella's shoes? Well, a picture is indeed worth a thousand words—see below. 

photo ad of methods to reduce ones carbon footprint
Figure 12.17: Ways to reduce ones own greenhouse gas emissions.
Credit: Dire Predictions by Mann & Kump

In many cases, as alluded to earlier in the lesson, there are simple no regrets strategies that can be taken to reducing ones own personal greenhouse gas emissions. Bicycling to work or to run errands is better for your health, as well as less expensive, than driving a car. Conserving energy by turning off appliances when they are not being used, buying energy-efficient appliances, compact fluorescent light bulbs, etc., lowers your energy bills. Many supermarkets give you a discount for using your own reusable canvas shopping bags, and many coffee shops give you a discount for using your own reusable container in place of a disposable paper cup. Other helpful practices such as the "Three Rs"—reducing, reusing, and recycling materials—are simply a matter of good stewardship, and make us feel better and help keep our environment clean. Of course, it is overly optimistic to imagine that civilization will make the major adjustments in lifestyle necessary to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations based simply on no regrets strategies and an intrinsic commitment to better stewardship.

Policies that provide incentives for these types of behavior will have to play a key role.