Most people are familiar with the term “carbon footprint” which refers to greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide produced through various human activities. They are thought to be responsible for the majority of global warming we see today. As the Earth’s natural resources gradually get depleted, global demand for consumption and production only increases and governments and agencies around the world have taken action through combined efforts to try and deal with what is one of the world’s most pressing challenges. To understand the importance of our carbon footprint, let’s first look at what climate change is, what are the causes for it, and what can be done to make sure we alleviate some of its effects and prevent future climate disasters.
What is climate change?
Climate change refers to the long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns of our planet. These shifts could result from natural circumstances and changes in the sun’s activity or other events such as large volcanic eruptions, however, since the 18th century, human activity has been the main driver for climate change. It has been estimated that the average temperature of the surface of the Earth is now over 1.1°C warmer than it was in the late 1800s, before the first industrial revolution. Records further indicate that the last decade (2011-2020) has been the warmest ever recorded in history and this is only expected to continue.
What are the main causes of climate change?
Although the greenhouse effect is an essential and natural phenomenon that has allowed our planet to maintain the conditions needed to sustain life on Earth, humans have gradually tipped the scales, and certainly not in a good way. Climate scientists have concluded that humans are responsible for the majority of global warming over the last two centuries. Human activities in the forms of fuel burning, production, and consumption are causing greenhouse gasses that are warming the world faster than ever before when compared to the last two millennia.
What is a carbon footprint?
A carbon footprint is one of the main ways in which we measure the effects of global climate change. It can be defined as an environmental indicator that represents the number of greenhouse gasses (GHGs), in the form of CO2 equivalents, that are being emitted directly or indirectly as a result of a specific activity. These emissions can be associated with an individual, an organization, a product, or a specific event or action. Greenhouse gasses such as CO2 and methane (CH4), for example, are released into the atmosphere through activities such as land clearance, the burning of fossil fuels as well as the production and consumption of different products and services.
Why is our carbon footprint important?
The top three highest emitters of greenhouse emissions are coal, oil, and gas. Reducing our consumption of them will reduce our individual and collective carbon footprint which will impact our environment greatly as well as the economy and public health. Let’s take a look at a few reasons why our carbon footprint is important and its reduction in particular.
Alleviating the effects of climate change and protecting the environment
It’s a well-known fact that carbon emissions have a devastating effect on our environment. Reducing GHG emissions can effectively slow down the rates of rising global temperatures, it can help restore balance to rising sea levels, slow down the melting of polar ice caps, and prevent ocean acidification. A prime example of this is what we refer to as coral bleaching, where corals expel the algae (zooxanthellae). It’s estimated that the ocean absorbs about 30% of the carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere, which decreases the pH of the ocean and in turn, increases its acidity.
The rapid increase in temperatures has also contributed to regional and seasonal temperature extremes which disrupt the natural ecosystem of the earth, reducing sea ice and causing intense rainfall or severe droughts which alter the habitat of many plant species and animals. As for sea levels, it’s been reported that there’s been an increase of over 8-9 inches since 1880, forcing people away from living along coastlines and destroying coastal habitats. Sea ice also plays a major part in the regulation of the Earth’s climate by reflecting sunlight into space and providing a habitat for various animal species. Since 1979, we’ve seen a decline of over 30% in arctic sea ice.
Improving the health of the Earth’s population
Reducing GHG emissions is fundamental to lessening the severity of weather anomalies due to climate change and improving the quality of air and water needed for sustaining life, maintaining biodiversity, and a healthy food supply.
The degradation of air quality as a result of carbon and other GHG emissions poses a serious issue to human health. An increased concentration of pollen, mold spores, dust, and particulate matter contributes to asthma and other respiratory diseases, while depletion of stratospheric ozone leads to increased UV exposure where carcinogenic chemicals are dispersed into the atmosphere as a result of extreme weather abnormalities. This accounts for further illnesses such as cancer, stroke, and cardiovascular diseases. Depletion of food resources additionally leads to malnutrition, impacting human development.
Benefiting the Global Economy
Reducing GHG levels boosts the economy on a global scale, particularly when that means that profitable rewards will be made available for strategies, solutions, and innovations that help protect the planet, fight climate change, and implement the use of clean energy. Reducing carbon emissions will also reduce the number of air pollution-related deaths which will ease some pressure on healthcare systems. It is reported that there are over 100,000 annual deaths of US citizens who die from heart attacks, strokes, and other illnesses caused by bad air quality. The price tag from the impact caused by air pollution, particularly fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5, amounts to $886 billion a year.
Maintaining Plant and Animal Diversity
Climate change is one of the biggest threats to the long-term preservation of animals and plants on Earth since it disrupts the ecological balance between species through forced relocation and competition. Although the inhabitants of Earth have evolved to adapt quite well through various changes in time, climate change is simply proving too rapid and harsh for some of them, and many face extinction. Reducing GHG levels will slow down the effects of climate change, alleviating some of the pressure off species struggling to adapt and survive. Maintaining plant and animal populations is important since healthy ecosystems have been attributed to cleaner air, water, and food.
What types of carbon footprints are there?
Several types of carbon footprints can be identified depending on the activity we’re looking at. They can be measured according to the GHG emissions per year for an individual, business, or relevant activity.
Individual carbon footprint
Carbon footprints based on individual use take into consideration the GHG emissions associated with a person’s chosen means of transportation, use of electricity at home, consumption of goods, eating habits, and recycling methods.
A product’s footprint on the other hand takes into consideration the use of energy as it applies to all stages of production when it comes to creating a product. This includes GHG emissions from raw material extractions, various production processes, the generation of energy required, product alteration for companies, product use by customers, transportation between different stages, and all waste associated with it.
A corporate footprint includes an inventory of GHG emissions relating to the operations within an organization or a company. It’s one of the main ways to identify energy efficiency within an organization as well as results from joint efforts and collaborations with other companies in the sector.
How to calculate a carbon footprint
According to the ISO 14064 standard and the guidelines established by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, emissions from three different categories are taken into account when calculating a carbon footprint. The first scope focuses on emissions generated through operations, a company’s vehicle fleet, and overall energy usage. The second scope presents the climate impact of the purchased energy, electricity, heating, and cooling. The last scope centers around the CO2 emissions of business travel and other obtained products or services. Calculating carbon footprints can be quite difficult, however, and achieving precise and accurate numbers can be tricky due to the many complexities and processes involved.
How can we reduce our carbon footprint?
One of the best ways for us to collectively reduce our carbon footprint is through responsible consumption in our day-to-day lives. This could mean consuming local seasonal products which cuts down on CO2 emissions derived from transporting goods and refrigerating them. Another step is to invest in next-generation home appliances that are energy-efficient and to get familiar with the sustainability standards throughout the value chain. It’s estimated that by replacing the incandescent tube lights and bulbs in your household and switching them with fluorescent lamps (CFL bulbs) a household can reduce their monthly electricity consumption by 75%. As for reducing waste, recycling whenever possible is always the best choice as well as reusing packaging and opting for refurbished goods.
Furthermore, using more sustainable methods of transportation whenever possible will also make a huge difference. According to a report published by the APTA, by taking a single car off the road and switching to public transportation instead of driving, a reduction of over 30% in total carbon emissions can be achieved. Public transportation or other eco-friendly modes of transport such as bicycles, electric scooters, and walking will benefit the environment and public health. As for driving, hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), and all-electric vehicles (EVs) are far better options as these types of vehicles produce lower tailpipe emissions when compared to standard petrol or diesel vehicles.
To give you a practical example of just how big of an impact we can all make, it’s further reported that a single individual who switches from a 20-mile commuting trip with a car to public transportation, can effectively reduce their annual CO2 emissions by 20 pounds a day, which is around 48,000 pounds on an annual scale. This equals to a 10% reduction in all greenhouse gases produced by a typical two-person household with 2 vehicles in use.
Measures companies can incorporate to reduce their carbon footprint
There are several ways in which companies and organizations can take action toward reducing their carbon footprint. Switching to 100% renewable sources for consumption is a great first step, along with running campaigns for raising awareness, investing in various environmental projects, and paying green taxes. Promoting energy efficiency in all sectors of operations and production comes with additional benefits such as improved daily operations, the optimization of various production processes, and better management of resources and equipment.
Fortunately, there is a wide array of renewable energy sources that companies can choose from based on their requirements, location, and demand. Optimizing the supply and delivery chain will provide further progress and results as intelligent cloud storage systems and smart technology solutions can improve the flow of information and supplies. Promoting a circular economy and applying its principles is also thought to provide advantages for companies.
Future Policies and Agreements on Climate Change
According to a series of UN reports, scientists and governments analyzing available data agreed that limiting global temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C is essential to avoiding severe climate disasters and maintaining a climate suitable for life on Earth. Future predictions paint a worrying picture, however, as current policies point to a 2.8°C temperature rise by the end of the century.
Luckily there are now multiple climate change solutions that can deliver long-lasting economic benefits while protecting the environment and improving the lives of people. Global frameworks and agreements have been put in place to ensure counties have the needed guidance and support along the process such as the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Paris Agreement.
This is a great opportunity for countries worldwide to take action in the right direction as these proposals rely on the promotion of a circular economy, the implementation of renewable energies (one of the most powerful ways for a country to reduce its ecological footprint), reforestation, and the use of technologies capable of detaining CO2 and reusing it efficiently. Reducing our carbon footprint so that we can mitigate the effects of climate change while also ensuring the preservation of the Earth’s biodiversity is crucial to making sure we leave a future for the next generations to come.