What Is A Carbon Footprint

Wondering what is a carbon footprint?

The term “carbon footprint” has become a familiar expression to many of us. We often hear it on television or when we read the newspapers.

Basically, “carbon” refers to the carbon dioxide and other green house gasses emitted into the atmosphere, while “footprint” stands for “impact”. Just like the footprints you leave on the beach when you walk along the sandy shore lines, “what is a carbon footprint” is the impact left on the earth in terms of carbon dioxide and green house gasses by individuals, organizations or organizations in our day-to-day functions and operations.

The Carbon Trust, an English non-profit organization with a mission to accelerate the move toward a low carbon economy, explains “what is a carbon footprint” as the total amount of greenhouse emissions caused directly or indirectly by a person, organization, event or product.

In turn, Carbon Trust categorizes what is a carbon footprint by organizations into two main types. The first type is organization specific, and measures all the emissions an organization releases to the atmosphere, from energy use to industrial processes. The second type is product specific, and measures all the emissions from a particular product, from its manufacture to its disposal. Here, product could mean tangible items like a television set as well as intangible ones like electricity.

There are also other ways of explaining what is a carbon footprint and categorizing the types of carbon footprint. Another dichotomy often used is “primary footprint” and “secondary footprint”.

Primary footprint refers to the amount of green house gas emissions produced from the burning of fossil fuels. This measure includes our use of electricity (at home and at work, etc), the use of gas for cooking, the use of gasoline for transport etc. When it comes to primary footprint, it is definitely an area we have direct control over.

In turn, secondary footprint refers to the amount of green house gas emissions produced indirectly, as a result of the lifecycle of the products we use. The lifecycle of products include its manufacture and its eventual disposal. While we may not have total control over the secondary emissions of the products we buy, we have control over the products we buy. So before you make your purchases, do consider carefully what is a carbon footprint of the items you are looking at.

In deriving at what is a carbon footprint of individuals and organizations, all the green house gases listed in the Kyoto protocol are taken into consideration. These gases are considered by the scientific community to be responsible for the global warming effect that had started slowly by the end of the 19th century – after the industrial revolution where the massive burning of fossil fuels began, and which escalated exponentially since the 1960s. Among the effects of global warming are the rising sea levels, increase of heat wave and wild fire events, ocean acidification and desertification, all of which have severe impacts on human health and food supply. By measuring what is a carbon footprint of individuals, companies and products, it is possible to understand the factors that give rise to substantial amounts of emissions, and subsequently find ways to reduce them.

In fact, reducing carbon footprint is one of the major objectives of many environmental associations and governments today. One of the most recent examples of proposals to reduce carbon footprint and emissions is that by the European Commission (the executive arm of the European Union) to ban all gasoline and diesel fueled cars in European cities by the year 2050. This proposal, known as “Roadmap to a Single European Transport Area”, also includes other measures, like the 40% use of sustainable low carbon fuels in aviation and a 50% shift of medium distance journeys from road to rail and waterborne transport. The European Union expects to reduce all transport carbon emissions by 60% with these measures.

Of course, there are other less radical ways that each one of us, as individuals, can reduce our eco footprints. For example, by turning off lights and appliances when they are not needed can help you reduce your use of electricity and hence reduce your primary carbon footprint. Taking the public transport instead of driving your own car can also help to reduce your carbon footprint. The carbon footprint for a particular trip is actually shared with all the other passengers on the same bus or train. Replacing your appliances with energy efficient ones also helps you conserve energy and reduce your carbon footprints. And if you haven’t started recycling as a daily habit, it is time you do, as recycling helps to reduce the carbon footprint of products that we use.

In the end, reducing the carbon footprint is really up to us. We as persons, companies or governments must learn that the footprints we leave behind are of our own responsibility.

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