What is a Carbon Footprint?
Before we discuss ways to decrease our carbon footprints, we need to understand what carbon is and what a carbon footprint is. Most know that carbon is an element in the Periodic Table of Elements, and some know that life is carbon-based. It is essential to understand there are complex systems at work. Read Carbon 101 for an overview of these systems. That will give you background and context for this article.
Recently, carbon has come front and center as we engage in a worldwide conversation about the effect carbon has on our climate and, consequently, humans as a whole. The second article of this series discusses this in more detail. In this context, the phrase carbon footprint has become part of our vocabulary. When talking about a carbon footprint, footprint refers to what is left behind by an individual, precisely how much carbon one person releases directly or indirectly through everyday activities.
It is crucial to understand that humans are a part of the system and subject to nature’s laws. Therefore, when we alter one thing, it will change something else, and those alterations will affect all life on Earth. Likewise, your choices ripple out to affect humans halfway around the world. Reducing our carbon footprint should be a goal for every household, for the environmental benefits, and because it is generally a healthier lifestyle.
Your Carbon Footprint
Your carbon footprint is the carbon you have pulled out of storage and put back into circulation. Most of us think of driving a car when we think of putting carbon into the atmosphere, but there are far less obvious ways we do this. For example, when you eat a quarter-pound hamburger, you pull 14.6 gallons of water out of the system, using 13.5 pounds of feed and producing 4 pounds of greenhouse gases. How many quarter-pound hamburgers have you eaten in the last year? We tend to disconnect from the process of production. This detachment blinds us to the resources that we are using.
To calculate your carbon footprint, you must include these hidden emitters of carbon dioxide. There are many carbon footprint calculators on the web. We recommend the Footprint Calculator put out by the Global Footprint Network. This calculator allows you to “add detail for accuracy” for some of the categories, make sure you do that. Ultimately, it will give you your carbon footprint and many other stats. It will tell you your Earth Share. This number represents how many Earths there would be to sustain your lifestyle. It means your ecological and carbon footprints, breaking down your consumption by category.
Ways to Reduce your Carbon Footprint
Reducing Energy Usage
First, let’s deal with how to decrease our carbon footprint: reduce our electricity use. Here in Phoenix, this is challenging, with temperatures in the summer hitting 115 degrees in the shade. There are ways to minimize the need for the energy-sucking air conditioner, though.
1. CREATE SHADE. Close your blinds and plant trees that will block south and west-facing windows. Plantlife reduces the ambient temperature by several degrees and has the added benefit of pulling carbon out of the atmosphere. It will also reduce noise and pollution from cars on the road. Several native species are low maintenance, low water, and fast-growing.
2. INVEST IN A SMART THERMOSTAT like the Nest. The Nest “learns” your temperature preferences and automatically adjusts for optimal energy use when you aren’t home. It will also give you a report on the energy used, allowing you to see your peak use times and adjust.
3. UNPLUG AND ADJUST! Our electronics have a substantial carbon footprint. When appliances are not in use, unplug them. Adjust high energy usage for the night. If your T.V. is off, it is still drawing power (is there a light on? That takes energy!). For those appliances that are used every once in a while, unplug them. Program your pool pump to come on when the sun has gone down; it won’t have to draw as much power. Use the dishwasher, washer and dryer, and other high-energy appliances at night and sparingly.
4. INVEST IN SOLAR. Seriously, please do it! We went solar, and we will never go back. We have a 3,000-square-foot house that was designed poorly for energy savings. The main living area is two stories; both thermostats are out in this cavernous space. The upstairs bedrooms were like iceboxes during the summer because the air was continually running. Aside from being illogical, it was expensive for us and the planet. We invested in solar panels and got the Nest thermostat. We do not pay anything for energy. Nothing, not a dime.
Reducing Carbon, Increasing Health and Community
Next, let’s look at how you can reduce your less obvious carbon footprint. The first three are focused on food. Food production, consumption, and disposal are one of the most significant contributors to climate change. The problem, however, is that many Americans aren’t hearing or talking about their food’s carbon footprint. More than half of those surveyed, in a survey conducted in concert with Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication, the study titled Climate Change and the American Diet, resoundingly reported the willingness among Americans to eat less meat. Most have rarely heard about the environmental impact of food in the media. And nearly two-thirds said they rarely discussed how their diet affects climate change. That same number said nobody has ever asked them to eat more plant-based foods.
A surplus of food is a relatively new phenomenon that many older Americans will have seen throughout their lifetime. We eat and waste more food than ever. With more people in the middle class, families have more spending money and less time. This lifestyle shift started in the 80s and has spiraled into “supersized” fries, drinks, and humans, resulting in a tremendous rise in diabetes and heart disease. Our health is at risk, as much as the planet is. About half of American adults have one or more diet-related chronic diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers, the report states. More and more evidence shows that the kinds of food we eat worsen our gut health and immune system, which play significant roles in protecting our overall health. Researchers say that changing how we eat could help prevent us from getting sick sooner — or later — in life.
1. EAT LESS MEAT, especially red meat. We are the only society on Earth that feels we must eat meat daily. In many places around the world, meat is a privilege. As mentioned above, the number of resources that go into producing that meat is intensive. EarthDay.org is running a campaign focused on food. It is called Foodprints for Future, highlighting ways our food choices impact the planet. One simple thing you can do to reduce your foodprint is to make it a point to have one or two vegetarian meals a week. My children love this because I make them pancakes for dinner. Pancakes are one thing they will all eat (parents, you know this is worth its weight in gold!), and it is meatless. Win, win. Red meat is not good for us. It is full of fat that raises cholesterol. Heart disease is the number one killer in this country, primarily due to our diets, including so much red meat.
2. REDUCE FOOD WASTE. When food decays, it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. I have three small children; food waste is prevalent in our house. You don’t know how often they want something, and as soon as it is in front of them, they no longer “like” it or “want” it. The struggle is real. Commit to making less food and reducing portion size to reduce food waste. In the U.S., portion sizes are out of control and affecting our health. According to research, Portion sizes began to grow in the 1970s, rose sharply in the 1980s, and have continued in parallel with increasing body weights. We need to remember that an abundance of food is a privilege that we squarely take advantage of when we throw away food. Food insecurity is an issue worldwide, including here in the U.S. The USDA defines “food insecurity” as the lack of access, at times, to enough food for all household members. In 2017, an estimated 15 million households were food insecure. According to ActionAgainstHunger.org, around the world, more than 780 million people live in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 per person per day, an amount which is impossible to support a healthy livelihood in any part of the world.
3. GROW FOOD. The processes of harvesting, packaging and shipping food all produce carbon. Also, part of the equation is your trip to the store to buy it all. Gardening is a fun family activity. We have a garden and grow food from the seed. My children love this time with their dad playing in the dirt. We compost and use the soil to produce hardy plants, even in the desert.
4. BUY LESS. Everything you buy is manufactured, shipped, and packaged. All of that releases carbon but also creates waste—instead, swap clothes, jewelry, etc., with your sister, friends, etc. My mom and I frequently switch jewelry and outfits to change our wardrobe. Have a garage sale or donate to local charities, homeless, or woman’s shelters. Buy from an electronics recycling facility like ACE. Buying local helps strengthen your local economy and reduces carbon by cutting out the shipping and, often, manufacturing. But most importantly, it gets you out in your community.
Call to Action
Historical evidence shows that 21-25% of a population needs to change their behavior to enact significant system-level changes. 67% of U.S. adults believe the U.S. government needs to do more to reduce the effects of global climate change. It is clear that while we can lean on our government, individual behavior changes are more critical. Individuals can make a difference; they have throughout history. The present is not an exception to this truth. These behavioral changes influence our neighbors, children, family, and friends. They, in turn, affect their neighbors, children, family, and friends. A ripple starts that cannot be stopped and spreads in ways we cannot imagine. Soon these ripples touch governmental policy and law. Before we know it, we have joined together to affect real institutional change that all started with simple choices. You can create significant impacts with the small decisions you make. The ripples we begin ultimately are what we leave behind when we are gone.