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Understanding carbon footprints


We know roughly what a carbon footprint is. We know that carbon footprints are bad. But what does carbon footprint actually mean?

This is a question that is can be confusing and quite difficult to answer. There are often a lot of numbers, weights, science and other jargon thrown about that can really muddy the water when trying to answer this question. Further from this a lot of the examples we found are not really easy to relate to or apply to everyday life.

Showing the carbon emissions from a number of different sources, with a ship in the foreground and a factory in the background
What is a carbon footprint?

A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases, that are generated by our actions. Greenhouse gasses are composed of Carbon Dioxide, Methane, Nitrous Oxide, and a group of synthetic substances called fluorinated gases. The main greenhouse gas is Carbon Dioxide or CO2 and this makes up the majority of an everyday persons carbon footprint. So much so that the other gases are equated to CO2 when discussing overall emissions. Put in practical terms everything you do releases some amount of carbon into the atmosphere, although often not directly. You can increase or decrease this release with your everyday choices, such as eating a vegan meal instead of a steak, or buying sustainable fashion over fast fashion.

Measuring carbon emissions

The average person globally is responsible for on average 4.6 tonnes of carbon per year. It is however important to remember that this is an average, there are very large inequalities in emissions per capital across the world and there is a strong relationship between income and CO2 emissions per capita.

Great, but why is it in tonnes? First thing to remember is that when it comes to carbon, a tonne is a metric tonne or 1000kg. We measure CO2 in tonnes because gas can be compressed, meaning there is little point measuring gas in volume, as a gasses volume can be affected by temperature, pressure and altitude amongst other things.

Understanding carbon footprint

Okay but what does a tonne of carbon mean... is it a 2-hour drive or a 24-hour flight? Let's get into it with some straight forward examples to help get your head around it:

  • The average passenger vehicle emits about 404 grams of CO2 per mile.
  • Charging 127,000 smartphones would produce around 1 tonne of CO2.
  • Filling up an SUV 46 times would produce around 5 tonnes of CO2
  • A return passenger flight from London (UK) to Boston (USA) emits around 1 tonne of CO2 per passenger.

Easier to understand now?

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