How Do I Reduce My Carbon Footprint
While our individual carbon footprints are not the primary drivers causing climate change or wreaking environmental destruction, changing our personal behavior is absolutely critical to spurring politicians and corporations to action and driving the systemic change that we need. There are nearly 8 billion people on Earth, and according to the Global Footprint Network (GFN), we’re collectively using as much ecological resources as if we lived on 1.7 Earths!
You may not be surprised to learn that the average carbon footprint of an American is about 16 tonnes/year, one of the highest in the world. You may be surprised to hear that the average American footprint is down from a high of 22.5 tonnes/year in the mid-1970s, so at least we’re trending in the right direction!
The countries with the highest carbon footprints are typically those with high levels of fossil fuel extraction and populations with lavish consumption preferences.
One of the first steps to reducing our carbon footprint is to understand it better, so let’s take a closer look.
What is a Carbon Footprint?
Our carbon footprints are the accumulation of harmful gases that result from the direct and indirect emissions of our lives — the energy we consume in our homes, the food we eat, our method of transportation and how far we travel, the clothes we buy, etc.
Harmful gases, often referred to collectively as greenhouse gases, include methane, CO2, and various other compounds that are released into the atmosphere during the production or manufacturing process of the many things we consume on a daily basis.
A Guide to Harmful Greenhouse Gases
Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
CO2 is commonly found in the atmosphere. It is exhaled in every breath we take and is absorbed by plants in photosynthesis. CO2 is also a natural byproduct of burning fossil fuels or trees and of certain chemical reactions from industrial manufacturing. In the mid 1700s, a time period commonly cited as a baseline, the global average atmospheric carbon dioxide was 280 parts per million (ppm). In 2019, the global average had increased to more than 412 ppm. Though the air only contains 0.04% of CO2, it has a profound effect on our climate. It absorbs and radiates heat and, and once released, sticks around for as long as 1,000 years!
Methane makes up less than 0.0002% of the atmosphere. Though it is approximately 200 times less abundant than CO2, and dissipates far faster than CO2m (approximately 10 years), the steady rise of CH4 in the atmosphere has significant effects. Since it is roughly 50 times more potent in terms of global warming potential than CO2, scientists attribute approximately one-sixth of global warming to methane emissions. Common sources of methane include livestock and agriculture, landfill decomposition, treatment of wastewater and fossil fuel extraction.
Nitrous Oxide (N2O)
Like Methane, Nitrous oxide doesn’t make up much of our atmosphere. Only 0.00003% of the air is N2O, but N2O stays in the atmosphere for over 100 years and is extremely potent in terms of its greenhouse effect. It is estimated that N2O has nearly 300 times the warming impact of CO2. Globally, approximately 40% of all N2O comes from human activity while the remaining 60% comes from natural biological processes. Around the world, the largest human contributor to N2O is the production and application of fertilizers associated with agricultural land management.
What is Global Warming?
The increased accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has a profound impact on Earth. Greenhouse gases warm Earth by absorbing energy (heat) and slowing the rate at which that energy is released into and out of the various layers of Earth’s atmosphere and into space.
The increased presence of certain chemicals are also rebalancing constantly (science is real!) and changing the composition of the land and sea. For example, it is estimated that as much as one-third of CO2 is absorbed into the ocean causing it to become more acidic.
These changes have severe consequences for the natural world and its biodiversity. Some species are at the risk of extinction. Many scientists warn of the severe risks to our own species if trends continue.
How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint
Calculating My Carbon Footprint
Accurately calculating your footprint can be complicated if you’re attempting to do it manually. Lucky for us, there are many carbon footprint calculators online!
Atmos uses the EPA's Avoided Emissions and Generation Tool ADVERT to estimate the carbon savings from the projects that it funds with deposits. There are also a number of web-based tools like Joro or GFN that estimate your footprint for you by connecting to your financial institution and analyzing your purchasing patterns.
Once you have a baseline calculation, how do you reduce your footprint? The easiest way to think about it is to break it up into three primary categories: travel, home, and food.
For travel, consider the vehicle you drive and what type of fuel you use (gasoline versus electric). One of the easiest ways to reduce your footprint from travel is to swap out your old gas guzzler for an electric vehicle. If you live in California, companies like Cartelligent can help you get into a new EV quickly and easily. There are similar services in states around the country.
Flying gets a lot of attention in carbon footprint calculators because the jet fuel used by aircraft has a particularly high carbon intensity. The EPA estimates that aircraft contribute approximately 12 percent of U.S. transportation emissions, and account for three percent of the nation’s total greenhouse gas production. In reality, less than half of Americans fly at all in a given year (pre-pandemic). Some business travelers fly every week for their job and skew that “average” higher. If you fly multiple times per year, try introducing video conferences for less critical meetings and gatherings.
Finally, consider public transit and any form of human-powered travel, such as biking or walking. Walking and biking outside has no negative impact on the environment and is great for our personal health and well-being! Is there a carbon footprint associated with your bicycle? Yes! There certainly is, but this is quickly turned net-positive through regular use.
Reducing our footprint at home is one of the most impactful ways for us to quickly make an impact.
First, consider the electricity, gas, water and fuel usage as part of running your home. Using appliances with higher energy ratings not only reduces your footprint but helps you save on your monthly utility payments. If your appliances burn fossil fuels, consider replacing them with electric upgrades. By doing so, you’ll create a more comfortable, safer, and higher-performing home for you and your family. Two additional benefits are that it's possible to save large amounts of money and create a positive climate impact when you make these changes and power your home with rooftop solar.
Of course, the size of your home matters too. If it’s possible to comfortably downsize, it’ll take less energy to power your homes.
Next, think of all the physical products you buy as part of running your home. All products have their own carbon footprint that is created from the raw materials, manufacturing and their final delivery.
Consider substituting sustainable and locally made alternatives. More and more options are starting to go plastic free. When you start to look, you’ll see that there are sustainable and climate-focused alternatives for nearly everything you might need to run your home. Locally made products cut down on the energy needed to deliver that package to your doorstep and help support your local economy.
The next category is food. Your dietary habits can have a significant impact on your personal carbon footprint.
Conventional meat production can be very carbon intensive. If you eat meat, cut it out for one meal per week to start — this is a quick way to reduce your footprint while expanding your menu options. Instead of beef or pork, consider less carbon-intensive meat alternatives like chicken, and start to sprinkle in some veggie-only meals. It’ll be good for your health and your pocketbook.
It’s important not to beat yourself up too much. If you’re really aching for a burger, enjoy it! Being sustainable is not about depriving yourself of those things that bring you happiness. Using meat that is sourced from ranches that use regenerative practices is a great way to provide climate benefits while satisfying those cravings.
Taking Action to Reduce your Carbon Footprint is Easy!
There is no debate about the severity of climate change and global warming. The good news is it’s reversible if we all start now! It will take time, consistency and all of us doing just a little bit more.
We can work together to reduce our collective carbon footprints by starting with the easier changes. Becoming more eco-friendly and focusing on simple concrete ways to make a positive difference goes a long way if we’re all doing it. Simply turning off the lights when you leave a room is an excellent habit to reduce your footprint.
One of the easiest ways to take action is by letting your money do the hard work by putting your money in a climate-focused bank account.
Atmos provides banking products centered around sustainability. The money you deposit with Atmos funds the transition to a clean economy by supporting things like renewable energy, building-performance overhauls, weather resilience, and regenerative agriculture. Your money never touches carbon intensive industries like fossil fuel extraction, industrial agriculture, and generic real estate like almost every other bank.
The setup is free and quick, with no minimum balance and no monthly fees. Up to $250,000 is FDIC insured, and your green bank accounts can yield up to 0.51%, a nationally leading rate, or earn you cash back when you spend at hundreds of sustainable businesses.
Atmos supports many non-profits that share the same agenda — to protect the earth and stop climate change.
It’s More Important Than Ever to Reduce Your Footprint
It’s true that we’re living in a critical time in human history. The frequency of weather-related natural disasters is projected to increase and our health and happiness as a species may be at risk if we aren’t able to reduce our collective footprint. Change starts at an individual level, and every action we can take to reduce our carbon footprint is sorely needed.
Reducing your carbon footprint is not about reducing your fun or not living your best life, it’s about getting more. Switching to electric vehicles and appliances are hands-down better experiences. As you shop and spend time with friends and family, consider sustainable alternatives. Furniture can be created from FSC wood and laundry detergent can have less harmful chemicals. Seeking out and trying out these types of products can be fun and less overwhelming if you get your friends and family involved! Take pride in using your Atmos debit card to build a better future for all.
Whatever your path, contributing to a more livable planet for generations to come is a responsibility and opportunity we can not overlook.