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calculating your carbon footprint

How to Calculate Your Carbon Footprint

By Donna Pols TrumpRise Writer
Dec 25, 2019

Are you interested in knowing your household's carbon footprint? Several free calculators are available online. To make the best use of one or more of them, let's start with what, exactly, is meant by a carbon footprint. And keep in mind: it may well be that once you've figured out yours, the more important question is what you can do about it.

A carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other carbon compounds emitted due to fossil fuels' consumption by a particular person or group (e.g., a household or a business). It is typically not a direct consumption; often, it is merely the use of energy that requires burning fossil fuels—like coal and natural gas—which emit CO2. The standard unit for measuring carbon footprint is CO2e, meaning carbon dioxide equivalents. Carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming; other greenhouse gases are methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. Using the unit, CO2e puts all of these gases' influence on global warming in terms of how CO2that would create the same amount of warming.

Clear examples of factors contributing to a household's carbon footprint are electricity and natural gas used to heat/cool the home and run its lights and appliances. In the calculators, these are often in the category of home. Miles driven in cars and flown in airplanes fall into the category of transportation. A third category is related to general consumption (food, clothing, pharmaceuticals, paper-based products, TV/phones, furniture, and other manufactured goods). Everything humans consume has a CO2e cost—for example, beef or medicine production and transportation to your local food or drug store. Or manufacture and deliver your wood and leather couch or the expense of recycling your newspapers and magazines. 

Why does CO2e matter? Extra carbon dioxide causes the Earth's atmosphere to trap the sun's radiation (the greenhouse effect). This human-produced carbon establishes a clear and direct correlation between human activity and global warming. Harmful effects of global warming include glacial retreat, rising sea levels, warming oceans, more intense weather phenomena, and threats to our planet's diversity of life.

The 3 Best Online Carbon Footprint Calculators

Three free online calculators investigated for this article are, in order of simpler to more complex.

EPA's Household Carbon Footprint Calculator
EPA's Household Carbon Footprint Calculator

Epa's Household Carbon Footprint Calculator

The calculator estimates your carbon footprint based on home energy, transportation, and waste. Everyone's carbon footprint is different. The calculator also considers location, habits, and personal choices.

EPA's Household Carbon Footprint Calculator

Terra Pass Calculator
Terra Pass Calculator

Terra Pass Calculator

Terra Pass operates under the assumption that you can't manage what you don't measure. Terra Pass offers three, easy to use calculators: Individual, Business, and Event.

Terra Pass Calculator

Carbon Footprint's Carbon Calculator
Carbon Footprint's Carbon Calculator

Carbon Footprint's Carbon Calculator

Carbon footprint calculations are based on annual emissions from the previous 12 months. The calculator factors in house, flights, car, motorbike, bus & rail, food, shopping, banking, insurance, education, and more.

Carbon Footprint's Carbon Calculator.

For all three, you'll need to have the following information: your average monthly or yearly electric bill, including kWh (kilowatt-hours) purchased, and the same for natural gas consumption (either in dollars or therms, "a unit of heat equivalent to 100,000 Btu or 1.055 × 108 joules"). If your primary source of home energy is coal or heating oil, have these bills at your fingertips. You need to have the make and year of your car(s), fuel efficiency, and how many miles you drive a year. Some calculators include your common airplane destinations, and others ask for an estimate of the miles you travel in an airplane each year. If you use public transportation, know how many miles you travel on buses and trains.

What Do You Need to Calculate Your Carbon Footprint?

For the first two calculators above, this is all the information you'll need. If you use the Carbon Calculator website, be prepared with estimates of the amount you spend yearly on many other consumer items, including food, restaurants, and prescription drugs. These are enumerated in the "secondary" tab on this site's calculator. Also available exclusively on this site are items to offset your CO2e (and links to purchase them). For example, to offset five tons of your carbon emission equivalents, you can "add to your basket" $64.85 for reforestation in Kenya. Where do the dollars go? According to the website, "Your funding supports the planting of native broad-leaved trees in the Great Rift Valley, and supports its developing community."

Getting personal

I calculated my household's carbon footprint on each of these websites. While initially, it seemed there were significant differences among the totals for each site, correcting for European vs. American units of measure (metric tons vs. pounds of emissions), and defining "household" (in my case, two people), revealed our per capita emission rate to be about 14 metric tons. 

This compares to the average American household is a bigger and more difficult question, as there are many different studies.

What Is the Average Household Carbon Footprint?

In 2008, MIT's Science Daily estimated the average U.S citizen's carbon footprint as 20 metric tons. The World Bank 2014 estimate of U.S. per capita carbon emissions is 16.5 metric tons. A chart from the Knoema World Data Atlas may help explain these discrepancies, as it shows a reduction in the U.S. per capita CO2e from 1970 to 2016, peaking at about 23 tons in 1973 and decreasing to 15.56 in 2016. Only China is a worse polluter than the United States, mainly because of its much higher population. The world average per capita CO2e is 4 tons, compared to the United States' 15.56, and China's 7.55).

What Does Carbon Footprint Mean for Homeowners?

For consumers unfamiliar with measurements and quantities of these kinds, analysis of where a household's emissions run highest may be more useful than knowing the number that is their "footprint." For example, I thought our air travel would adversely impact our household footprint than it does (the addition was only about 1.65 metric tons in a total of 28). In fact, what accounted for nearly half of our total was not energy expenses or car/airplane travel, but personal consumption—a huge part of which was food.

An article by earthday.org says that U.S. buildings account for 39% of primary energy consumption. The two most common sources of energy for buildings, the report continues, are purchased electricity and direct use of natural gas and petroleum for heating and cooking. Our Sustainable House Hunting Tips article on important sustainability considerations when you are shopping for a home. Another Rise article discusses how a home's "sound building envelope, triple glazed windows, a heat pump, and high-efficiency insulation," for example, will help reduce its carbon emissions—as well as home automation tools.

Does Food Impact a Household's Carbon Footprint?

As stated by the University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems, "on average, U.S. household food consumption emits 8.1 metric tons of CO2e each year. The production of food accounts for 83% of emissions, while its transportation accounts for 11%." (There are significant energy savings by eating locally grown food.) "Meat products have larger carbon footprints per calorie than grain or vegetable products because of the inefficient transformation of plant energy to animal energy."

24 Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

  1. Eat a plant-based diet
  2. Eat local
  3. Buy food in bulk and use reusable containers
  4. Compost your food waste
  5. Don't use single-use plastics
  6. Buy an electric car
  7. Drive less
  8. Take public transit
  9. Live car-free
  10. Install programmable thermostats
  11. Avoid or minimize air travel
  12. Shop with reusable bags
  13. Adopt a minimalist lifestyle
  14. Unplug your devices
  15. Don't buy "fast fashion"
  16. Wash your clothes in cold water
  17. Do an energy audit of your home
  18. Improve your homes heating and cooling system
  19. Increase your home's insulation
  20. Install faucet aerators
  21. Install low-flow faucets and showerheads
  22. Turn your lights off when you are leaving a room
  23. Use LED light bulbs
  24. Generate your own electricity with solar panels

These are "high impact" changes. Low and moderate impact changes include upgrading light bulbs, hanging clothes to dry, recycling, washing clothes in cold water, and replacing a typical car with a hybrid.

Bottom line

The idea that we all contribute to global climate change by merely living our lives can be pretty depressing, knowing that we are part of the problem. And trying to figure out what to do about it can seem quite overwhelming. Awareness is the first step, and carbon footprint calculators can help prioritize our decisions. It's important to know that the choices we make about our homes—the initial design and construction and how we live in them—can and do have an impact. The bonus is that as we work to reduce our homes' carbon footprint, we save money in the process and increase the value of our homes.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-07-10T05:35:18+0000
Donna Pols Trump

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Donna Pols Trump

Donna Pols Trump’s work has been published in literary magazines and online. She has received several Pushcart Prize nominations. Donna’s education includes degrees in Biology and Physical Therapy and a host of writing classes taken and taught at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Her short story “Portage” was selected by judge Anne Tyler for first prize in a 2018 contest sponsored by december magazine.