What is a Carbon Footprint?
Anyone who has the slightest interest in the environment, global warming, or green lifestyles has heard the phrase “carbon footprint.” But what exactly does that term mean? At a time when experts are saying that reducing our carbon footprint is essential to our continued survival on a clean livable planet, it is important to know exactly what it is that we are working toward and what we need to do to keep ourselves and our planet healthy.
A simple definition
The carbon footprint has been defined by the UK carbon trust as “the total set of greenhouse gasses (GHG) emissions caused by an organization, event, product or person.” Breaking it down to its elements, we can further define exactly what that means.
Greenhouse gasses have received their name because of the effect that their production has on the atmosphere and the temperature of the planet. These gasses rise in the atmosphere and remain there. When the radiation of the sun penetrates our atmosphere, these gasses trap this radiation and keep it in the atmosphere. With the heat from the sun remaining in the clouds of these gasses, it does not dissipate and eventually the temperature of the atmosphere rises above previous levels, in essence raising the temperature of the whole planet. A plant greenhouse shows how this works. A glass structure covered with windows allows the warmth of the sun to enter, but not to escape. The temperature of the building becomes quite high, allowing plants to stay warm in colder weather. Clouds of greenhouse gasses act like those windows, trapping heat and not releasing it.
The problem with this phenomenon, called the Greenhouse Effect, is that the ecosystem of the planet requires the magnetic poles to be covered with ice. With the base temperature of our atmosphere rising due to greenhouse gasses, the ice on the poles begin to melt, causing oceans to rise, weather patterns to change, and any number of other effects that can detrimental to our safety and continued existence on this planet.
Greenhouse gasses are any of those gasses that remain in the atmosphere and trap radiation. They include water vapor, methane, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), nitrous oxide, ozone and carbon dioxide (CO2). Carbon dioxide is the primary component of these greenhouse gasses and the one produced most aggressively by human beings. Every time we exhale, we create CO2, but also every time we burn coal or fossil fuel or discard a product that begins to break down in the atmosphere, we produce this gas. The amount of CO2 we create can be traced like a footprint in our path, and that is where we get the name and concept of a carbon footprint.
What is your carbon footprint?
There are two measurements of carbon footprints, primary and secondary. A person’s primary carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide they produce individually. This is how much you exhale, how much fossil fuel you use to drive your cars, trucks and machinery, or how much you produce heating and cooling your house or multiple houses. There’s more though; secondary carbon footprints add to your total footprint by adding the amount of carbon dioxide produced by the goods and services you use. If you dine at a restaurant, your carbon footprint would count the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted to create that meal, the energy used to cook and store the food, the fossil fuels used to transport the foods from their origins to your plate, the energy expended to create the tables, chairs, napkins, glasses, condiments and all the other niceties used to create your meal and serve it to you in a manner to create a pleasurable dining experience – so pretty much everything associated with that meal is accounted for in your secondary footprint.
As mentioned previously, carbon footprints are not only applied to individuals, but also to organizations, events, and products. Your place of business has its own individualized carbon footprint, made up of the needs of the company to do business, such as heating the physical locale, keeping the electricity going (electricity creates a carbon footprint due to the materials needed to create it), keeping supplies stocked, keeping transportation moving to and from the business, etc. If you work in any kind of manufacturing, the creation of the product also leaves a footprint. Even events such as a football game have their own carbon footprint, caused by the transportation and comfort of thousands of people converging on a single area and consuming food and drink, as well as souvenirs and other services. An individual product also has a unique carbon footprint. A fast food burger can be traced to the resources used to feed and raise the beef, those that are used to grow and create the bun and vegetables used, and even the energy to create the paper products to package the burger and the energy needed to dispose of the waste.
We all create a traceable carbon footprint in all the things we do and in all the things we use in our lives. Being aware of this footprint is one of the first steps to going green.