What is a Carbon Footprint?

An overview of the term ‘carbon footprint’ and why it matters.

Josephina DiMillo
February 1, 2024
Factory with smoking coming out of it

Every choice we make leaves an imprint on our planet - from the energy we use to the products we buy. Decisions that may seem small have the power to shape the future of our climate. This mark we leave on our environment is known as our carbon footprint.

A carbon footprint represents the amount of greenhouse gasses that are generated and emitted by our businesses, products, and personal lifestyle choices. Greenhouse gasses, like carbon dioxide and methane, trap heat and contribute to an overall increase in the earth's temperature. These gasses create what's known as the greenhouse effect. While the greenhouse effect is natural and essential for maintaining earth's temperature, our activities as humans have increased this effect and led to issues of global warming and climate change. 

To put it simply, your carbon footprint is the trail you leave behind by participating in activities like driving, using electricity, or eating certain foods. Actions like these affect the environment and ultimately lead to climate change. The more you participate in these activities, the bigger your footprint gets. For example, simply driving to and from work each day is a major contributor to CO2 emissions. To put this into perspective, the average American’s commute is around 30 miles, with CO2 emissions per year varying by car size. A small car can contribute 2.1 tons of carbon dioxide, while a large SUV car can contribute 5.7 tons of carbon dioxide annually (source). With billions of people commuting to work around the world, you can see how transportation contributes to a staggering volume of carbon pollution.

Traffic in a city

There are three different types of carbon emissions:

When discussing carbon emissions, there are three categories that we can break them down into.

  1. Scope 1 Emissions: This category refers to the greenhouse gas emissions that your company is directly responsible for. These include emissions from the fuel you burn in company vehicles, leaks from your company air conditioning, and the gas used to heat your office.
  1. Scope 2 Emissions: These are greenhouse gas emissions that are indirectly produced from your company. There are many types of Scope 2 related emissions, but for the majority of people these are the emissions produced from the electricity you consume.
  1. Scope 3 Emissions: This group covers all the other indirect emissions from your company's entire supply chain. These include emissions from business travel, employee commutes, product use, and supply chain actions.

How carbon footprints are calculated

The process of calculating a carbon footprint considers various stages, from the production of the materials to the disposal of the product. The approach usually involves measuring the amount of greenhouse gasses released directly or indirectly at each stage, then adding the total emissions. The sum of the emissions determines our carbon footprint and shows its impact on the environment. This process helps us to understand just how much we are contributing to climate change and ultimately create solutions to reduce it. To calculate your personal carbon footprint, take our free myAclymate Quiz and get a breakdown of your emissions. 

Why businesses should care about their carbon footprint

As a business, you should prioritize your carbon footprint for multiple reasons. Environmental responsibility is becoming increasingly important around the world. Businesses contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, ultimately playing a role in accelerating climate change. Governments are starting to implement standards for carbon emissions, and businesses could face legal consequences if they fail to adhere to these regulations. Businesses can also save money by using less energy and adopting sustainable practices. Additionally, consumers are leaning towards brands that are environmentally conscious and actively care about their impact on the earth. Practicing sustainability helps your company to stand out in a competitive market, especially with investors widely considering environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors in their decisions. Overall, actively reducing your carbon footprint not only drives your business towards success but also contributes to the global effort to fight against climate change.

Poster that says "one world" with a picture of the earth

Individual choices matter. Here are five ways to reduce your carbon footprint:

  1. Reduce Food Waste: When food is wasted, the energy it took to produce it is also wasted. When food rots in landfills, it releases harmful gasses. To minimize waste, you can plan your meals, store food properly, save leftovers, shop locally, and start composting.
  1. Use Public Transportation: Opting for buses, trains, or subways over personal vehicles as frequently as possible can help reduce traffic congestion and overall carbon emissions. Additionally, try to avoid flying when possible. If air travel is necessary, opt for non-stop flights to minimize environmental impact.
  1. Use Energy Efficient Appliances: Transitioning to energy efficient appliances reduces the demand for energy production, therefore mitigating carbon emissions. Choosing appliances with the ENERGY STAR label are a great way to reduce your carbon footprint at home.
  1. Reduce Meat Consumption: Livestock farming creates greenhouse gas emissions. Eating less meat or adopting a more plant-based diet not only reduces your carbon footprint but also brings health benefits. These include lowering the risk of heart disease, managing weight, and supporting healthy digestion.
  1. Support Eco-friendly and Sustainable Products: Buy from companies that are environmentally conscious and energy-efficient when sourcing their materials and manufacturing products. Look for products that use recycled materials or minimal packaging, and invest in items that you can reuse. Supporting these brands can contribute to environmental sustainability and encourage other businesses to adopt these practices.

Hand holding a small plant

In summary, a carbon footprint reflects the impact of our individual choices, business practices, and product life cycles on our environment. Calculating, understanding, and taking active measures to reduce your carbon footprint has countless benefits for both you and your business. Not only will you save money and attract customers to your business, you’re also investing in your own health, happiness, and future environment. A collective effort to cut down on carbon emissions paves the way for a brighter and more sustainable future.

Josephina DiMillo
February 1, 2024

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