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Facts About the Carbon Footprint

author image Meagan Van Beest
Meagan Van Beest took up writing after graduating with a bachelor's degree in English literature. She has worked in advertising and marketing for the past decade. Her writing has appeared in advertising, brochures, newspapers and online magazines. Currently, as creative director of a design firm, she oversees the graphics, copy writing, and creative direction of print and Web design projects.
Facts About the Carbon Footprint
A traffic jam and traffic on a busy highway. Photo Credit: Starflamedia/iStock/Getty Images

The carbon footprint offers a way to calculate your contribution to the carbon dioxide emissions that affect our climate. It measures the total amount of carbon production created by your energy consumption. Knowing your carbon footprint can show areas where you can decrease your energy consumption and, in turn, reduce your production of carbon emissions.

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An increase in greenhouse gases has shown the potential to raise the average surface temperature, which in turn could change weather patterns and increase storm severity. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, the main emission measured by the carbon footprint, have increased by 36 percent since 1750. Scientists conclude the majority of this increase comes from human actions. The EPA and nonprofit environmental agencies developed carbon footprint calculators to measure individual carbon contributions that affect climate change.


The carbon footprint concept took hold at a 1979 U.S. Senate energy committee discussion about the “environmental footprint” of government operations in Yosemite National Park. Tom Rawls, chief environmental officer for Green Mountain, is largely credited with the first quoted use of “carbon footprint” in a Seattle Times article, “Carbon Count: Forests Enlisted in Global Warming War,” published November 18, 2000. From there, the term gained wider use through a 2005 British Petroleum advertising campaign.

Contributing Factors

While a host of greenhouse gases cause climate change, scientists identify carbon dioxide as the largest source. The U.S. Energy Information Administration found that carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels accounted for 82 percent of the greenhouse gas released in 2006. Power plants, factories and transportation generate the majority of fossil fuel usage. Personally, the way your travel, the electricity you use, the products you buy and the food you eat all contribute to your carbon emissions.

Calculating the Carbon Footprint

The EPA, Nature Conservancy and other organizations offer online carbon footprint calculators. The Cool Climate Network at the University of California, Berkley, estimates the average U.S. household carbon footprint at 49 metric tons of carbon dioxide. While each calculator uses different data, many of them ask for information about your vehicles, public transportation usage, home heating and cooling, household energy use, water consumption, dietary choices and waste management.

Reducing the Carbon Footprint

The main way to reduce your carbon footprint is to decrease your energy consumption. For travel, use public transportation or low-emission vehicles. Insulate your home, use energy-efficient products and reuse or recycle as much as possible. You can also compensate for the effects of your carbon footprint through carbon offsetting. The Nature Conservancy and other organizations provide carbon offset programs that invest donations toward protecting land and planting trees, both proven ways to reduce greenhouse gases.

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