Carbon Footprint


If you know anything about tracking animals or people down trails, one of the first things to look for is a pattern of footprints. A footprint is a residual formation that on its face indicates where a moving body was and what direction they are headed. Any good tracker knows, however, that there is much more to a footprint than meets the eye.

A carbon footprint is a measurement of sorts that indicates where we are and what direction we are headed. There are many aspects to this particular footprint and the implications of its size and scope are quite extensive. The main piece of information that scientists are concerned with when it comes to these marks left by a moving body is what it means for the overall well-being of the planet.

At this point, you may realize that these are not just any living beings that draw the interest of scientists. The living being whose activities emit the greatest amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is of course human. That is essentially what is measured by the carbon footprint, the emission of greenhouse gases. There are a lot of human activities that contribute to the growing size of these footprints left on the planet, and below we will follow them to see just what exactly are the overall implications of this measurement of human direction.

Measuring Carbon Footprints

As discussed in our intro a carbon footprint, derived from the term ecological footprint, is a measurement of the emission of greenhouse gases. There are countless ways that this can be measured. The scopes of measurement range all the way from personal calculators that are widely available online to overall objective studies by climatologists.

The measurement of a carbon footprint regardless of the level in which it is being measured is an extremely complex science. There is actually a lot of controversy surrounding the exactness that is even possible within these measurements. The vast amount of variables alone makes this an extremely difficult undertaking.

Variables to be considered in measuring a carbon footprint cover just about every aspect of human life, all the way down to the act of exhaling and flatulence. Based on the definition of this measurement, there is no living being that does not have a carbon footprint. The extent of the emissions by individual human beings varies widely as well.

Corporations and governments are shown to release the greatest amount of greenhouse gases. In terms of organized behavior, the number one entity in the emission of greenhouse gases and therefore the possessor of the biggest carbon footprint is the united states military. The actions that this organization conducts all over the world cause them to exceed the pollution of any other group of individuals.

Direct Carbon Emissions

There are several approaches to take in the measurement of carbon footprints, as mentioned above. If you are studying the direct emission of greenhouse gases, then your results are classified as direct carbon emissions. These are actions that can be as specific as breathing and individual consumption or as vast as the overall pollution that is caused by the organization to which you belong.

Any direct actions that are taken that emit greenhouse gases are referred to as direct carbon emissions. Driving a car, using electricity, the types of foods you eat, etc. are all examples of direct emissions. These also consist of activities like burning items (like garbage). Waste disposal is actually one of the leading direct emissions.

The disposal of waste is a byproduct of all organized human activity. This and other byproducts cause a lot of emissions. This is why large organizations that are tasked with elaborate functions tend to have the biggest footprint.

Indirect Carbon Emissions

There are also a lot of activities that cause emission that is not as apparent. These are often referred to as indirect emissions. Some examples of indirect emissions are:

  • transportation of materials
  • business travel
  • capital goods emission
  • farming emission (production of food)
  • employee commuting
  • processing of sold products
  • end of life treatment

All of the items listed above are indirect emissions. These are activities that are a level removed from direct emissions, kind of the emissions behind the scenes. Indirect emissions are the hidden cost of doing business, in terms of the overall effect on the planet.

Ways to Reduce the Personal Carbon Footprint

Based on the information provided so far you may be in quite a state of panic. What can I do to reduce my personal effect on the well-being of the planet, you ask? Good question, here are some of the infinite ways that you can curtail your contribution to the emission of greenhouse gases:

  • stop driving a car
  • change your diet to only eat low emission plants
  • use as little electricity as possible
  • be environmentally conscious in all of your actions

The items listed above are just a few of the many ways that you can greatly reduce your personal carbon footprint. Living an environmentally conscious lifestyle is a key way to redirect your footprints onto the right path. Your diet, energy consumption, and waste disposal processes are very important to the overall movement of a healthier planet.

The consumption of meat is actually a large contributor to the emission of greenhouse gases, eating plants instead is a great way to reduce your emissions. Riding a bike and walking for transportation is also a good way to reduce your contribution to the emission of gases, as fossil fuels are cited as one of our worst offenses in this area. Recycling your waste is a good way to be environmentally conscious. 

Ways to Reduce Industry’s Carbon Footprint

The emission of industry is the unfortunate side effect of human progress that has contributed to a large overall carbon footprint. More developed nations like Canada and several European countries have reduced emissions through the introduction of cleaner technology. The united states have led the charge in applying a lot of these technologies domestically, but again their activities abroad leave a footprint that cancels out a lot of this progress.

This byproduct of industry means that a lot of the currently developing countries all have rather large carbon footprints. The cleaner technology used by developed nations is often quite expensive and unavailable in these parts of the world. The growing industry in China and India specifically is a relatively large source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Some of the cleaner and offsetting technology that has been introduced in more developed parts of the world are:

  • alternative energy sources like wind, solar, and nuclear power
  • waste heat recovery systems
  • electric vehicles
  • scrubbing technology for power plant exhaust systems
  • improved reforestation techniques
  • low emission farming techniques, such as hydroponic methods
  • highspeed rails for mass transportation

These are some of many of the solutions that individuals have developed to lower our overall carbon footprint. There are other suggested authoritative solutions as well that involve subsidies for efficient technologies and taxing harmful behaviors. The results of these methods can lead to incentives and disincentives for useful and harmful behavior.

Schemes to Reduce Carbon Emissions: Kyoto Protocol, Carbon offsetting, and Certificates

Authoritative solutions to shrink the size of carbon footprints have varied over the last several decades. As previously mentioned a more localized approach involves carbon taxes. Taxes are effective disincentives to targeted behavior, for example, a smoking tax reduces cigarette usage and income taxes make people less prone to work.

Carbon taxes, in a similar fashion, disincentivize high emission activities. A scheme that some countries have developed in the realm of carbon taxation is the concept of carbon offsets. Higher emitting organizations can purchase these offsets in return for continuing their large footprint leaving activities. The resources that are reallocated by these offsets are then ideally supposed to contribute to the well-being of the planet in some way.

The nations that are more concerned with an overall carbon footprint have gotten together on several occasions to discuss the reduction of emissions. Such a meeting of several industrialized nations took place in Kyoto Japan in 1997. The results of this meeting led to the creation of the Kyoto Protocol.

The Kyoto Protocol is an agreement of sorts between several nations to reduce mankind’s effect on the planet. It consists of several different components including goals and timetables as well as different definitions of terms. The protocol separates the targeted areas of footprint reduction into the categories of the mandatory market and the voluntary market.

Mandatory Market Mechanisms

The mandatory market is just how it sounds. This is an area of strict requirements that bind countries to the reduction of their emissions. The protocol set up three mechanisms to enact this movement.

The first of these mechanisms is the Clean Development Mechanism. This mechanism is designed to incentivize countries to develop cleaner technology. This is carried out via the creation of carbon offsets and other incentives among protocol members.

The second mechanism is Joint Implementation. This is a way to get consenting parties to the protocol to work together in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Countries can file several aspects of their attempts to clean up their emissions jointly as well as share different ideas and technological progressions.

The third mechanism is emissions trading. This is similar to the carbon offset scheme but on a global level. Several over-the-counter trade centers were created in which countries can deal with a cap and trade system to encourage cooperative overall reduction. 

Voluntary Market Mechanisms

There are also voluntary components to the cap and trade system. This is what is mostly meant by voluntary market mechanisms in the protocol. Companies can enter into different trade schemes with trading commissions in an attempt to become carbon neutral.

Carbon neutrality is the goal that many companies are pushed toward by the Kyoto protocol. This is not so much a technical term as it is an incentive within the protocol to reduce your footprint. By buying carbon credits through an emissions trading system, companies can offset their emissions and become carbon neutral.

Buying yourself into carbon neutrality may not initially seem like a legitimate method of actually reducing emissions. However, in order to buy these credits, companies are forgoing valuable resources that could be used for overall progress and supporting current and future employees. This has an overall effect of capping their production and reducing their footprint.

Average Carbon Footprint per Person by Country

So, what is the size of your carbon footprint you ask? Well, to get a personal measurement you can use our personal carbon footprint calculator. Then, depending on where you live, you can compare your footprint to the overall average in your country.

The global average carbon footprint in 2014 was calculated out to 4.97 metric tons CO2/cap. In 2017 the average US citizen had a footprint of 20 metric tons. And in 2007 the EU averaged 13.8 tons per person.

The US average carbon footprint is a lot greater than that of other industrialized countries. There are several factors that contribute to that statistic. For one thing, the United States is laid out much differently in terms of residential settings than other countries. There is an average of more vehicles per person in the United States as a result.

There are other factors that contribute to the US large footprint as well. As previously mentioned the activity in which the US government partakes contributes a vast amount of greenhouse gas emissions to the planet. A lot of this is from the Pentagon, however, there are several other parts of official business in the United States that creates a larger footprint.

The diet of Americans is also a contributing factor to a larger footprint. There are a lot of farms located in the US for the production of meat and poultry and this is not the most environmentally friendly way to produce food. There are several activities as well that Americans partake in that are more harmful to the environment than the activities of people in other industrialized nations.

The Carbon Footprints of Energy

The types of energy that countries, companies, and individuals use is also a contributing factor to the size of their carbon footprint. There has been a movement towards clean and more sustainable energy in the last several decades, but these technologies are not yet at the level of supporting large civilizations. The old less efficient technologies, for the time being, are necessary to maintain our societies.

The burning of coal and oil are these old technologies that many societies are dependent on for survival. These are by far the least efficient sources of energy when it comes to reducing your carbon footprint. Coming in third to these elements of energy production is natural gas.

Nuclear power has risen up as a viable alternative to coal for electricity in recent decades. In terms of a carbon footprint, nuclear power is extremely efficient and lets off very little greenhouse gases. However, there is a slight issue with radioactivity and nuclear waste.

The issue of a nuclear meltdown is present in the minds of a lot of individuals that live around power plants. There have been several in the last 50 years, and some of these incidents have left large surrounding areas uninhabitable for long periods of time. The footprint looks a lot better for nuclear power, but it can be fairly dangerous to human life when something goes wrong.

Hydropower is an even older solution than nuclear when it comes to the production of electricity. The construction of large hydro-electric dams was a popular idea at one time to compliment the power generated by coal. However, the construction of these dams is extremely burdensome in cost and similar to nuclear power there have been some catastrophic repercussions to the failures of dams.

Outside of electrical power there are several other applications of energy that need to be considered in the reduction of your carbon footprint. Powering the means of transportation is an important aspect of civilized society that has contributed greatly to a growing overall footprint. Below we will consider some of these forms of transportation and the implications of how they receive their energy.

Passenger Transport

Other than driving cars, which contributes greatly to individual and overall footprints. There are several forms of joint and mass transportation. Many of these are helpful solutions to the problems of pollution from individual vehicles, but mass transportation has its emission costs as well.


Since the Wright brothers first left the ground at the very beginning of the 20th century, man has greatly improved the speed and efficiency of his travel with flight. The airplane is one of the safest and by far the fastest way to travel about your country and the world.

The overall footprint of air travel is small, making up only 2.5 percent of global carbon emissions. This makes for a small footprint per passenger on commercial airlines. Private jets, however, are a different story, and greatly contribute to an individual’s carbon footprint.


The most popular form of transportation, of course, is the roadways. Hundreds of millions of people on the planet own vehicles. These vehicles contribute greatly to the emission of greenhouse gases.

There has however been a movement toward more fuel-efficient vehicles in the last few decades. Consumers are driven to purchase these vehicles by higher gas prices and higher levels of efficiency. Most car companies have resorted to producing vehicles with smaller engines, hybrids, and even electric cars to increase efficiency.

Fuel-efficient cars do lower an individual’s carbon footprint, however there is a trade-off to buying these vehicles. The production of these vehicles does lead to a lot of indirect emissions and greatly contributes to a car company’s carbon footprint. Although the savings appears at the individual footprint level, the net often times can be negative toward and produces more emissions.


A tried and true method of mass transportation, especially in larger commercialized areas, is via rail. Trains and subways are a way that many people commute to and from and within larger cities. These methods of transportation are efficient because they transport mass amounts of people.

Riding a train or a subway is a good way to reduce your personal carbon footprint. This is especially true in countries where the train systems have been modernized to be more efficient.[28] Electric rails are a very efficient form of travel


Travel by sea is not as popular in this century due to increases in much faster technologies. Individuals in larger cities along waterways, however, do use ferries which are more efficient than individual vehicles.[29] This method also saves on the emissions of building structures across waterways for individual traffic.

The Carbon Footprints of Products

Another component of society’s and your own personal carbon footprint is the consumption of products. Everything from the food that you eat and the containers that it comes into your cell phone and electronics and more contributes to your carbon footprint. Greenhouse gas emissions are a necessary byproduct of producing the things that we need to survive and use for productive and recreational purposes.[30]

The type of diet that you have was mentioned earlier as a contributing factor to your overall footprint. The numbers show that the average vegan has a dietary emission that is roughly three times smaller than someone that consumes a larger amount of meat. Even falling in the middle of these two extremes, for example cutting your meat consumption, or eating more fish, will improve your personal carbon footprint.

The production of the plastic, glass, and aluminum that make up many of our personal products and containers is also a contributing factor to our overall footprint. This is why it is important to live an environmentally conscious lifestyle. It may not be possible to avoid using a lot of these goods, but taking actions like recycling containers and old products can go a long way in the preservation of the earth.

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