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What is a Carbon Footprint?

Measuring a carbon footprint to get a clear definition of what's meant by someone's environmental impact.
PublicadoOctober 28, 2021
ActualizadoMay 7, 2024
AutorCory O'Brien HeadshotCory O'BrienSenior Director - Growth MarketingEditorRyan Barnett HeadshotRyan BarnettSVP, Policy & New Market Development
En este articulo
Definition of a Carbon Footprint
History of the Term Carbon Footprint
The Roots of Your Personal Carbon Footprint
How To Calculate Your Carbon Footprint
Key Factors in Calculating Your Carbon Footprint
Why You Should Reduce Your Carbon Footprint
How To Reduce Your Carbon Footprint
Key Takeaways

The concept of a carbon footprint was introduced to promote individual responsibility for taking care of the environment, and help people do their part to help the planet. Climate change and global warming can feel like daunting challenges, especially when it comes to who’s responsible and how to fix the problems, so a carbon footprint helps make the issues more personal.

However, even among people who are conscious about their environmental impact, the actual meaning of “carbon footprint” remains hazy. With this article, you will learn the definition of a carbon footprint, find out how to calculate your personal carbon footprint, and learn how to reduce your carbon footprint and your impact on the environment.

Definition of a Carbon Footprint

Carbon footprint is a term that represents the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) released into the atmosphere as a result of the activities and choices of a person, group, or business. Those actions include the processes used to make the goods and services people use, since they often create greenhouse gases. When more greenhouse gases enter Earth’s atmosphere, more heat from the sun gets trapped in the atmosphere, and that trapped heat leads to climate change.

In that sense, a carbon footprint definition can be seen as a collection of individual choices mixed with international business concerns. People need goods and services, so companies make, sell, and distribute those goods, and carbon dioxide is often a big byproduct of those processes. The more interconnected the situation, the more complex the potential solution, which means the average person often feels like they can’t make a difference.

When it comes to understanding carbon footprints, we focus on three key areas:

  • Personal Footprint: Your individual contribution towards carbon emissions.
  • Corporate Footprint: The impact of business activities on the environment, including setting goals and reduction targets, as well re-tooling production processes to be more environmentally friendly.
  • National Footprint: The impact of governmental activities on global warming, climate change, and pollution, including setting policies on greenhouse gas emissions, power plant operations, and subsidies offered to companies involved in carbon-intensive activities like coal mining.

History of the Term Carbon Footprint

Early in the 21st century, the public began asking multinational companies to limit activities that harmed the planet. As a way of shifting focus away from their own activities, the fossil fuel industry responded by pushing the idea of individual responsibility.

The term “carbon footprint” was popularized by BP (one of the world's seven oil and gas "supermajors") with a $250 million advertising campaign, placing greater attention on personal choices and actions in terms of taking care of the planet, while shifting focus away from those large multinational companies and their impact on global warming.

The Roots of Your Personal Carbon Footprint

The primary contributors to climate change at a global level are fossil fuels. The burning of coal, oil, and gas by individuals and businesses releases large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. While it can be easier to identify the role that fossil fuel companies and governments play in contributing to and managing global emissions, it’s also important to understand the personal impact you have on the environment.

Here are some of the day-to-day activities you might do that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and your personal carbon footprint:

1. Driving and Flying

Cars and planes are the most common means of transport, and even though fuel economy has improved over time, they still generate a lot of carbon dioxide emissions. As vehicles and planes burn fuel for propulsion, they emit greenhouse gases.

In comparison, cars and planes have a greater carbon footprint than other forms of mass transit, such as rail or bus. Yes, trains and buses also contribute to emissions, but it's not as much per passenger as personal vehicles and planes. (That’s why it’s possible to buy a carbon footprint offset to counterbalance the emissions generated from flying.)

2. Energy Use

One of the best examples of a personal carbon footprint is energy usage at home. A significant proportion of CO2 emissions produced by an average United States household come from using electricity and gas to heat water, keep lights on, and operate appliances. Even a simple change like using energy-efficient light bulbs can drastically reduce this factor.

3. Water Use

Limiting water usage plays an essential role in environmental sustainability. Water in the home can either go to waste, or not be used efficiently, due to simple practices such as letting the water run while brushing your teeth, or using high-flow faucets and toilets that use more water than necessary.

4. Waste Management

Generating trash impacts your carbon footprint because the trash services use energy and natural resources such as water, timber, and fuel to process that waste. If they don’t operate efficiently, it can translate to significant greenhouse gas emissions.

5. Food

Another key contributor to your carbon footprint is the food you consume. If you are like many people, you purchase most of your food from grocery stores that partner with large-scale farms. In order to increase production quantity and standardize quality, many of these farms use synthetic fertilizers like ammonium nitrate.

Such fertilizers contribute to climate change in two key ways. First, their production requires a lot of energy in the form of significant amounts of fossil fuels. Secondly, some of these fertilizers undergo a chemical reaction after application that can lead to the production of nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas. Compared to other greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide has a far greater impact on climate.

Another way the food you consume contributes to greenhouse emissions is through transport. For food items to be available to you at your local store or supermarket, they often undergo several long-distance journeys by plane, cargo ship, and truck. This is especially true for uncommon and non-perishable food items.

For instance, 78% of the tilapia consumed in the US is imported from China. Before it gets to your dinner table, it will either arrive in the country by sea or air. From there, depending on where you live, it will have to be transported by road to the wholesaler, and then transported again to your retailer. By covering such large distances, the carbon emissions for each product increase significantly. Eating local food can go a long way towards reducing those emissions.

Additionally, the animal products you consume, especially red meat and dairy, are a key factor to greenhouse gas emissions. The high rates of production required to meet consumer demand is energy-intensive and results in a lot of carbon emissions. Because of this, a plant based diet typically has a lower carbon footprint.

How To Calculate Your Carbon Footprint

If you’re wondering how to calculate your personal carbon footprint, many nonprofits and governments have a carbon footprint calculator you can use. Our favorites include:

Key Factors in Calculating Your Carbon Footprint

Several considerations impact your carbon footprint, and you should account for them when you calculate your carbon footprint:

Size of Your Home

Generally, a bigger house will have more energy, water consumption, and waste management considerations. This typically translates to a higher carbon footprint.

Number of Household Members

This may seem obvious, but more people typically require more electricity, water heating, and waste management resources. The more people in your home–even in a small home–the more greenhouse gas emissions are likely generated from your daily activities.


The country you live in also has a significant bearing on calculating your personal carbon emissions. Some countries still rely heavily on fossil fuels for their energy resources, while others use more renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and geothermal.

As a result, the average carbon footprint by country can vary quite a bit, depending on where you live. For example, the average American carbon footprint is 16 tons, compared to a global average of closer to 4 tons.

Your Daily Activities

A carbon footprint calculator will typically ask you about some of the actions and energy use activities you participate in that can impact the environment. These carbon footprint examples include:

  • The number of cars you drive
  • The type of car (electric, hybrid, or gas-powered)
  • Whether you use public transportation
  • The number of miles you drive each day
  • The frequency of your flights
  • The number of miles you fly
  • The types of foods you eat and how often they are prepared at home vs ordered at a restaurant
  • The types of appliances you use (dishwasher, washing machine, etc.)
  • The types of electronics you use (computer, TV, etc.)

Keeping track of these items will help give you a clearer idea of your ecological footprint. If done annually, calculating and then working to reduce your carbon footprint can go a long way in helping the planet.

Why You Should Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

The overwhelming majority of environmental experts agree that climate change is real, and it's happening right now. So, if you're looking to do something good for the planet and future generations, reducing your carbon footprint is a great place to start. Going green can have a ripple effect on the global community, countless other species, and future generations.

That's why it's important to take steps towards helping the environment today. Although governments do play a significant role in emissions management, personal responsibility also plays an important role.

1. You Will Help the Environment

Research from a study by the nonprofit World Wildlife Fund indicates that we may lose 20-30% of species by 2050 if nothing is done. In addition, many trees and forests will be lost due to rising sea levels. This means less oxygen for everyone, and higher temperatures overall. The flooding and hurricanes associated with climate change can cause massive property damage.

2. You Will Save Money

Specific actions that reduce your carbon footprint can also save you money. We recommend starting small by taking shorter showers and unplugging electronic devices when they're not in use. Or check out this list of Smart Home Energy Saving Devices That Save You Money. These simple changes can have a positive impact on your bills and the environment.

3. You Will Improve Your Health

Small actions can make a big difference when it comes to improving your health. When you're making an effort to reduce your carbon footprint, such as walking places instead of driving, you'll be sending less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Additionally, if you consume less food that has been processed or grown in less-than-ideal climates, you'll be improving the overall health of your body.

How To Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

The good news is that immediate impacts that reduce your carbon footprint don’t take as much time or effort as you might think. Even better, small changes can lead to big results over time. Our favorite tips for how to reduce your carbon footprint and start your own personal climate revolution and include the following:

1. Go Solar

Using less electricity generated from fossil fuels can make a significant difference in your carbon footprint. One of the easiest ways to do this is by installing solar panels on your roof. The carbon footprint of solar panels is almost zero, so you can generate your own electricity from sunlight, and reduce your home's energy costs in the process. (Get a free estimate of your savings here.)

2. Improve the Energy Efficiency of Your Home

Making your home more energy efficient is one of the easiest ways to lower your carbon footprint, as it means you’re literally using less energy. Home improvement experts recommend tasks such as:

  • Adding an additional layer of insulation to your attic areas
  • Adding spray foam insulation to your walls
  • Replacing cracked weatherstripping around doors and windows
  • Installing double-pane energy-efficient windows
  • Insulating your water heater and lowering its temperature to 120 degrees Fahrenheit

Steps like that will help keep the treated air inside your home at the same temperature for longer, making it more comfortable. That will also help your heater and air conditioning system run more efficiently, which lowers your carbon footprint and your energy bills.

Since different materials and depths of materials have different levels of efficiency, it's always a good idea to check with a professional to understand your options. They can help you find the best type of material for your home, and even install it if needed.

For more tips and tricks, check out 6 Tips For Saving Energy (And Money!) Every Month.

3. Buy Energy-Efficient Appliances

Using energy-efficient appliances is one of the easiest ways to reduce your carbon footprint and save money on utility bills. It's always a good idea to look for the blue "Energy Star" symbol on products before making your purchase, as this means the appliance has been independently verified to be energy-efficient.

4. Switch to a Reusable Water Bottle

If you're an avid bottled water drinker, consider using a reusable container instead. The manufacture and transportation of single-use plastic bottles release significant amounts of greenhouse gases. Instead, find a fun bottle that befits your personality, and keep it filled for drinking at home and when you leave the house.

5. Raise Awareness

Once you've taken care of your own home, it's time to look at the bigger picture, because the key to a low carbon footprint is getting everyone to work together. Educate your family and friends about the impacts of climate change and how individual people can make a collective difference.

Helping others understand the issue will make them more likely to do something about it themselves. If everyone works together, it just might be enough to help reverse global warming!

Key Takeaways

A carbon footprint refers to the CO2 emissions created by people, businesses, governments, and organizations, and we are both collectively and individually responsible for those emissions.

Activities such as driving, using electricity generated from fossil fuels, flying, and buying food that travels a great distance all contribute to your footprint. Fortunately, there are specific actions you can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help curb climate change.

Palmetto provides solar panel solutions that can help you tap into solar energy and reduce your utility bills. Get started today with a Free Savings Estimate, and help you reduce your carbon footprint with a solar panel system that suits your needs.

Sobre el AutorCory O'Brien HeadshotCory O'BrienSenior Director - Growth Marketing

Cory brings over 8 years of solar expertise to Palmetto, and enjoys sharing that knowledge with others looking to improve their carbon footprint. A dog lover residing in Asheville, NC with his wife, Cory graduated from UCSB. If you run into him, ask him about the company he founded to rate and review beer!

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