Unlike a polluted river or overflowing landfill, carbon footprints are a contributor to climate change that's hard to see. But while they might not be as visible as the footprints they're named for, they do leave a significant mark: according to the Nature Conservancy, "The average carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16 tons, one of the highest rates in the world."
The first step to reducing your carbon footprint is knowing what it is. That might sound impossible, but there are actually online calculators you can use to get a rough estimate of your carbon consumption, based on lifestyle factors like how much you travel, how much electricity you use, and what you eat. Beyond general advice, like knowing that you should eat less red meat, your carbon footprint can be a helpful marker for knowing which of your daily activities has the highest cost to the environment.
How to Calculate Your Carbon Footprint
Your carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide and methane) that are created by your actions. You can calculate it by using an online carbon footprint calculator, such as this one from the Arbor Day Foundation. You'll fill in a series of questions about your household income, modes of transportation and miles traveled, heating and water usage, the square footage of your home, and your diet. When you finish, you'll receive your total carbon footprint (in metric tons per year) and a helpful visual chart that shows the areas in which you're using the most carbon.
What That Means
While it's hard get a perfect estimate, your results are a helpful overview of how much carbon you're using in your daily life. (You might be stunned by the number — I know I was!) What I found most helpful was not just knowing how much carbon I was using, but the areas in which I used the most. My electricity usage, for instance, is something I hadn't given much thought, but it's an incredibly easy area to cut back. Kitchen appliances like my toaster now stay unplugged unless I'm using them. Needless to say, my travel has decreased over the last year, but I know to be more mindful of it in the future, and to choose driving over flying when I can.
What You Can Do About It
The massive complexity that is climate change can feel overwhelming some days, and seeing your carbon footprint in the tons might not help that feeling. That's why it's so important to remember that there are actionable steps we can all take.
One of the easiest ways to offset your carbon emission is donating. Many carbon footprint calculators, such as the Arbor Day Foundation calculator, lead you to an option to offset your carbon emission, asking for $20 per metric ton. If you can't pay off your total emissions, Arbor Day includes helpful markers such as the carbon emission of one flight or of the average miles driven per year. When shopping online, many companies also offer the option to offset the carbon created from shipping your package, which usually costs just cents rather than dollars. Or you could try out something like EcoCart, a new company that partners with e-commerce brands on their carbon neutral goals, so that all you have to do is add a free Chrome extension to neutralize your online shopping.
Donating is a straightforward way to offset your carbon emission, but it's important to work on reducing it, too. A great place to start is by looking at the areas in which you use the most carbon, and exploring ways to reduce your usage. This can be as simple as unplugging appliances, turning off lights, and walking instead of driving when possible. You can even use tools like the MorningStar Farms Veg Effect Calculator to see how making plant-based swaps can help reduce the carbon emission of what you eat.
Rather than letting your carbon footprint hang over your head, think of it as something you can take action to reduce. After all, knowledge is power, and the more you know about your carbon emission, the easier it is to decrease it. Starting with reduced carbon emission in your own home is one more way to help the planet, and home, we all share.