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 own carbon footprint?
- What are the best ways to reduce my carbon footprint?
Which factors impact my carbon footprint the most?
There is a long list of things that determine your individual CO2 debt and carbon footprint, but a few major factors will contribute the majority of your emissions output.
Many people are unaware that dietary choices can have a major impact on 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 as a whole is a very environmentally degrading food product due to the methane gas emissions associated with livestock as well as the emissions produced when raising and managing cattle.
To offer some perspective in terms of a numeric impact: a person who eats steak every single day is adding an entire metric ton of CO2 to the atmosphere every year. Switching to more eco-friendly meat option 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. For those who must fly for work, economy class seating is the most eco-conscious choice because it maximizes the number of people traveling on one flight (sort of like carpooling).
Heat and power
When you consider your household’s overall impact on the environment, there is no question that the 49 metric tons of CO2 that an average U.S. household emits into the atmosphere every year is a significant contributor. Your home’s carbon footprint is largely determined by home energy choices. First of all, 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.
There are also many energy smart decisions homeowners can make 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 consumptions month to month. Perhaps the most dramatic energy efficient upgrade one can make is to install 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.
What is my carbon footprint and how do I calculate it?
Calculating your CO2 impact as an individual or as a household is a bit more complicated than it may seem. To do so, you have to determine the emissions output of everything you do in life 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’re eating 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 a complicated process 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, when it comes to your individual emissions debt in terms of air travel, diet or even waste output, the calculations can be more complex. We would recommend using an all-in-one CO2 emissions calculator – this one is provided by a green non-profit. Using one of these tools will allow you to get a much more holistic, accurate understanding of your overall carbon impact.
How can I reduce my greenhouse gas emissions and overall carbon footprint?
Once you have a more concrete understanding of how much atmospheric carbon you’re personally responsible for, you may wonder, “What can I do to lower my carbon footprint?” There are many methods to reducing 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. A strong list of reputable car manufacturers are already making electric vehicles that are affordable, practical and attractive. EV charging stations are popping up across the country and major car manufacturers like Honda, Chevy, Nissan and General Electric all offer quality EV models. If you’re a luxury car buyer, you could always get one of those Teslas. We’ve heard they’re pretty sleek.
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 in the world 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 which state you live in, your solar panel payback period could be as short as 3 years. For those looking to get a ballpark estimate for what solar would cost them, try our Solar Calculator. For homeowners looking to get real quotes from vetted solar contractors in their area, check out the EnergySage Solar Marketplace.