What Is a Carbon Footprint and What Are the Main Statistics of the World?

We produce carbon dioxide emissions – a form of greenhouse gas (GHG) – every day of our lives. All it takes is for you to drive your car to work, or turn on your light in the kitchen. The total of these emissions, estimated over the course of a year, makes up your carbon footprint, which contributes to climate change. But what is a carbon footprint exactly? And what does it mean to you as an eco-friendly citizen of this world? Today we find out how to calculate a carbon footprint and how to reduce it. Simple changes in our daily activities can make all the difference.

What Is a Carbon Footprint?

Strangely, the phrase carbon footprint is so abused in the media that many people are confused about what it means. Let’s spell it out exactly so we can start to understand better. In the context of climate change, footprint is a metaphor for the total impact of something on the environment. Carbon is a shorthand used to represent all the different greenhouse gases that contribute to and accelerate global warming.

Therefore, the term carbon footprint is a shorthand that refers to the best estimate we can get of the full climate change impact of something. It could be anything, from an activity or an item, to a company, a lifestyle, or a country. Estimates can also be drawn for the impact of the entire world on the planet we live on.

What Is CO2’s Contribution to GHG?

Man-made climate change – also known as global warming – is caused by certain types of gas being released into the atmosphere. The predominant greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide (CO2). This ends up in the atmosphere each time we burn fossil fuels in our homes, factories and power plants. Another important greenhouse gas is methane (CH4), which is emitted mainly by landfill sites and agriculture.

Even though it is around 25 times more potent per kilogram than CO2, methane is not even the worst greenhouse gas. Nitrous oxide (N2O) is about 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, but it is released in smaller quantities. Also important are refrigerant gases, which are usually several thousand times more potent than CO2.

A single item or activity can emit multiple different greenhouse gases, each in various quantities. Covering all that to estimate an object’s carbon footprint would get rather confusing. Therefore, the convention to avoid it is to express a carbon footprint in terms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). It measures the total climate change impact of all the greenhouse gases caused by an item or activity – rolled into one and referred to in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide that would have the same environmental impact.


Calculating Carbon Footprints Accurately

The phrase carbon footprint is abused because many omit a lot of the emissions caused by an item, whatever the item is. For instance, you could try to find out the carbon footprint of your household with the help of an online carbon calculator website. However, it will calculate your carbon footprint based only on your home energy and personal travel habits, while ignoring altogether the goods and services you purchase.

To erase the confusion, we should make the distinction between ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ greenhouse emissions. The true carbon footprint of a plastic toy, for instance, is more than the direct emissions resulting from the manufacturing process and the transportation of the toy. There is a plethora of indirect emissions involved, such as those caused by the extraction and processing of the oil used to make the plastic in the first place.

Tracing back all the things that have to happen to manufacture that toy leads to an infinite number of pathways, most of which are so small we can’t even calculate them. The carbon footprint of a plastic toy includes even the paperwork used by the office employees of the factory. Therefore, working it out accurately is no easy task.


The Essential But Impossible Measure

According to the aforementioned definition, the overall carbon footprint is the climate change metric we should be looking at. The consequent dilemma, however, is that we often find it impossible to pin it down accurately. There is no chance to understand the exact impact of our bananas in comparison to the impact of the things we might buy instead. That is, unless we discover a method of taking into account the farming, the transport, the storage and the processes that contribute to each of those stages.

So what should be our response in this impossibly complex situation? The common reaction is to give up measuring the carbon footprint and try to estimate something easier. In most cases, that means losing most of the GHG you’re interested in calculating. However, this can happen by accident, too. Settling for a toe-print (just a part of the overall emissions), you’re more likely to have your attention misdirected from the big deals.

However, there is an alternative response to the dilemma. It primarily has to do with doing the best you can to understand the whole picture. Making the most realistic estimates despite the difficulties will often require honesty about the uncertainty. That includes the “uncalculable” – all of the GHG emissions we do not know the impact of.

Main Statistics of the World

Now we know what the carbon footprint refers to. Did you have a look at the picture of the top emitters around the world? As you will see in the graphs presented, the tops differ depending on the way emissions are assessed. Regardless of how we analyze it, we cannot reach an international climate agreement without the help of the countries at the top of the emitters. As leaders in the amount of emitted GHG, they should also take the responsibility of leading the fight against them. It is an opportunity for these countries to move forward with meaningful emissions-reduction plans.


What is your take on the carbon footprint concept? Do you think we should try and find a better way to calculate our impact on this planet? Talk to us in the comments below. 

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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