What Is A Carbon Footprint and How To Reduce Yours

carbon footprint polluted beach
Image: Getty Images

Despite being a part of our everyday lexicon for years, many still struggle to understand what exactly a ‘carbon footprint’ is beyond a general feeling of guilt. Let’s get back to basics to remind ourselves why we’re trying to reduce it in the first place.

What is a carbon footprint?

Simply put, a carbon footprint is a way to determine how much an individual or a company is contributing to carbon pollution in the atmosphere — a key factor fuelling climate change.

For an individual, it takes into account things like how much energy you use for daily tasks and whether it is clean energy as well as your purchasing of products that have a particularly negative impact on the environment.

It was first conceptualised as the ‘ecological footprint’ in the 1990s by University of British Columbia researchers, William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel but it’s since developed into a much more consumer friendly term.

Google Trends indicate the term’s search interest started to grow in 2005 and 2006 before growing to its peak in the late 2000s. Since then, it’s remained a steady constant in our lives.

Now, companies have begun to monetise the idea offering consumers the option of paying a little extra in order to offset their carbon footprint. Australian airlines, like Qantas, also claim to offset emissions caused by flying planes around the world by supporting carbon reduction initiatives.

For the individual Australian, however, it comes down to a few simpler tasks. We’ve established we all have a carbon footprint, we’ll have to quantify what ours actually is to figure out how to reduce it.

How to calculate your carbon footprint

Calculating your individual carbon footprint means taking a look at what a normal day or week looks like. If you drive 50 kilometres to and from work in a fuel-guzzling car, that will add to your footprint score. Eating meat for every meal? The emissions created to get it on your dinner plate will be taken into account, too.

Thankfully, there are tools to help determine what it is without you resorting to some complicated algorithms and scientific calculators.

The Global Footprint Network offers a calculator to give you an estimate of how much carbon pollution your lifestyle emits as well as how many Earths you’d need to sustain it once climate change takes us all down. It’s brutal but it delivers its point.

carbon footprint calculator
Image: Global Footprint Network

Because a single score might not give you a complete idea of your pollution contribution, it’s a good idea to try out a few calculators to get a better idea. Some are more extensive and require you to collect more information while others will take you just a few minutes to get an immediate snapshot or your polluting ways. Some ones to check out include Carbon Neutral, the Australian Greenhouse Calculator and the WWF’s Ecological Footprint Calculator.

These calculators serve to highlight the ways your everyday tasks are contributing to climate change. Understanding that a high meat intake and driving short distances instead of walking or catching public transport are also a climate change problems will help you to make informed decisions about how you can change to reduce your carbon footprint.

It all starts with understanding how it works but its the actions you take that will really matter in the end.