In an age of global climate change, people around the world are looking for ways to reduce their share of the approximately 15 trillion pounds of greenhouse gases emitted each year. In the United States, one of the top three polluters in the world, many Americans are looking into home energy solutions like energy efficient upgrades and solar installations. However, for some homeowners, the first question is, “what is my carbon footprint, and what are the biggest contributing factors?” In this article, we’ll answer the following questions:
What lifestyle choices influence my carbon footprint?
How do I calculate my carbon footprint?
What are the best ways to reduce my carbon footprint?
There is a long list of things that determine your CO2 debt and carbon footprint, but a few major factors will contribute most of your emissions output.
Your dietary choices can majorly impact your annual emissions output. The consumption of beef, in particular, is a significant contributor to your carbon footprint. Though steak is incredibly popular in the U.S., beef is a very environmentally degrading food product due to the methane gas emissions associated with livestock and the emissions produced when raising and managing cattle.
To offer some perspective on a numeric impact: a person who eats steak daily adds an entire metric ton of CO2 to the atmosphere yearly. Switching to more eco-friendly meat options like chicken or fish is a quick and influential way to slash your emissions debt.
In some cases, travel and commuting behavior can determine your CO2 output more than anything else. Frequent flyers are some of the largest emissions producers in the world because of the remarkable amount of CO2 generated through air travel. Consider this: one roundtrip flight between Boston and San Francisco will net about 2.23 tons of CO2. If you’re a frequent flyer, your regular business flights or travel will rack up a significant carbon bill.
The only simple solution to this problem is to consider impulsive travel with all costs in mind, including the negative externalities that will harm the environment. Economy class seating is the most eco-conscious choice because it maximizes the number of people traveling on one flight (like carpooling).
Heat and power
When you consider your household’s overall environmental impact, there is no question that the 49 metric tons of CO2 that an average U.S. household emits into the atmosphere yearly is a significant contributor. Home energy choices largely determine your home’s carbon footprint. First, it’s important to consider where your power is sourced from, even when buying from a utility. Most utilities are required to supply a certain amount of energy from renewable resources, and some may even have community solar options that allow you to source all the energy you buy from clean sources.
Homeowners can make many energy smart decisions independent of any utility or energy company, and various smart energy products you can invest in. Smart home thermostats help to maximize efficiency in terms of heat use, while LED lightbulbs and window insulation can help to reduce overall energy consumption month to month. Perhaps the most dramatic energy efficient upgrade one can make is installing a solar panel system, which can slash your home’s emissions output almost entirely. Check out our Solar Calculator for a personalized solar estimate based on your roof and location.
Calculating your CO2 impact as an individual or as a household is a bit more complicated than it may seem. To do so, determine the emissions output of everything you do and sum it to determine an annual total for your greenhouse gas emissions. Here are some of the factors you will need to consider and calculate to determine your total impact:
What state do you live in, and where do you source your energy? (Certain states are much greener than others, so the energy you use will have a variant impact in terms of CO2 emissions)
How much do you drive, and what type of car is it?
How often do you fly?
What is your typical diet? (As referenced above, beef contributes half of all food emissions, so big steak eaters will have to calculate how often they eat beef in a year)
Do you have home add-ons like pools? Are they heated? (Homes with and without pools are a night and day difference in terms of annual energy usage and carbon output)
Ultimately, calculating your footprint is complicated because you won’t have static values to work with for every aspect of your lifestyle. However, you can use your home energy usage to get started. When working with these static carbon emitters, it’s a fairly simple process because you can use the EPA’s conversion formula:
7.03 × 10-4 metric tons of CO2 / kWh of energy consumed
Here, it’s just a matter of taking the annual kilowatt-hours (kWh) from your utility bills and personal or household vehicles in order to equate a CO2 value. However, the calculations can be more complex regarding your individual emissions debt regarding air travel, diet, or even waste output. We recommend using an all-in-one CO2 emissions calculator – a green non-profit provides this. Using one of these tools will give you a much more holistic, accurate understanding of your overall carbon impact.
Once you have a more concrete understanding of how much atmospheric carbon you’re responsible for, you may wonder, “What can I do to lower my carbon footprint?” There are many methods to reduce your carbon impact. Here are our top three:
1. Switch to an electric vehicle.
Though there may be some style and fueling preferences associated with fossil fuel automobiles, EVs are a popular option in today’s day and age. Many reputable car manufacturers are already making electric vehicles that are affordable, practical, and attractive. EV charging stations are popping up nationwide, and major car manufacturers like Honda, Chevy, Nissan, and General Electric offer quality EV models.
2. Make your home energy efficient.
They’re all the rage: energy efficient homes are gaining popularity because they are both eco-conscious and incredibly cost-effective from an energy savings perspective. Investing in treatments like window insulations, programmable thermostats, and ENERGY STAR appliances will go a long way in cutting your energy use and carbon footprint.
3. Install a solar panel system.
As of 2017, solar energy is the cheapest energy resource globally, and U.S. solar prices reflect that trend. Going solar is the most dramatic and impactful energy decision you can make for your home, and it is considered a low-risk investment with strong returns. Depending on your state, your solar panel payback period could be as short as three years. For those looking to get a ballpark estimate of what solar would cost them, try our Solar Calculator. For homeowners looking to get quotes from vetted solar contractors in their area, check out the EnergySage Solar Marketplace.