Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Carbon Footprints Work

Carbon footprints measure the amount of CO2 you produce in your daily life.
Carbon footprints measure the amount of CO2 you produce in your daily life.
© Photographer: Pokerman | Agency: Dreamstime

Footprints offer clues about where we came from and where we're headed. Their impressions tell us something about the animals that leave them. But while actual footprints offer details on size, weight and speed, carbon footprints measure how much carbon dioxide (CO2) we produce just by going about our daily lives. A drive to work, a flip of a light switch and a flight out of town all rely on the combustion of fossil fuels like oil, coal and gas. When fossil fuels burn, they emit greenhouse gases like CO2 that contribute to global warming. Ninety-eight percent of atmospheric CO2 comes from the combustion of fossil fuels [source: Energy Information Administration].

People concerned with the environment and global warming usually try to reduce their carbon output by increasing their home's energy efficiency and driving less. Some start by calculating their carbon footprint to set a benchmark -- like a weigh-in before a diet. A carbon footprint is simply a figure -- usually a monthly or annual total of CO2 output measured in tons. Web sites with carbon calculators turn easy-to-supply information like annual mileage and monthly power usage into a measurable tonnage of carbon. Most people try to reduce their carbon footprint, but others aim to erase it completely. When people attempt carbon neutrality, they cut their emissions as much as possible and offset the rest. Carbon offsets let you pay to reduce the global greenhouse gas total instead of making radical reductions of your own. When you buy an offset, you fund projects that reduce emissions by restoring forests, updating power plants and factories or increasing the energy efficiency of buildings and transportation.

Some companies have started to include footprints on their labeling. Carbon labels appeal to consumers who understand and monitor their own carbon footprints and want to support products that do the same. The labels estimate the emissions created by producing, packaging, transporting and disposing of a product. The concept is similar to life cycle analyses, the more intricate forerunner of carbon footprints. Life cycle analyses or assessments evaluate all of the potential environmental impacts that a product can have during its existence -- they're a more focused version of a carbon footprint.

But life cycle analyses require teams of researchers who plot and compile data from every aspect of production, transportation and disposal. Personal carbon footprints are less precise but still give a quick, general idea of CO2 output. Best of all, they take about five minutes to calculate.

In this article, we'll learn how carbon calculators come up with your personal total, what it means and how to reduce your carbon footprint.

Calculating Carbon Footprints

Carbon calculators convert your annual electric bill into a quantifiable amount of CO2.
Carbon calculators convert your annual electric bill into a quantifiable amount of CO2.
© Photographer: Aberenyi | Agency: Dreamstime

To remain as accessible as possible, most carbon calculators ask very simple questions about consumption. They accept estimates of annual electricity usage or mileage instead of exact and difficult-to-provide totals.

Carbon calculators usually start by asking for your location. Regardless of your personal consumption, your carbon footprint is partly determined by the state you live in. Some states rely more on dirtier sources of power like coal; others use larger percentages of renewable sources that produce less CO2.

Most calculators also ask for the size of your household. The calculator can then differentiate between your personal carbon footprint and that of the house as a whole.

To determine the amount of CO2 produced by home electricity, the calculator divides the estimated or exact usage by the price of power in the area. The calculator then multiplies this number by the state's emissions factor, a figure that relates to the type of energy the state uses. Calculators also factor in natural gas, heating oil and propane use.

Most calculators account for the lower emissions of green power subscribers. Some power companies allow customers the option to pay a bit more on their monthly bill to receive a certain percentage of power from renewable sources. This reduces the state's production of fossil-fueled power and helps develop a green market.

Carbon footprints also include the CO2 produced by transportation. Most people don't know their annual fuel usage, so calculators usually ask for an estimated annual mileage and the car's make, model and year. The calculator divides mileage by the car's fuel efficiency to determine annual fuel usage. This figure is then multiplied by the emissions factor of gasoline or diesel fuel, which converts it to pounds of CO2.

For air travel, some carbon calculators ask for an annual estimate of mileage. Other calculators account for increased emissions during takeoff and ask for the number of short, medium, long or extended flights.

After compiling all the figures, the calculator produces a total CO2 output in tons -- a carbon footprint. Some calculators even put footprints in context by comparing them with the national or global averages. If you have the data ready, the whole process takes the calculator about 30 seconds.

But what do you do after figuring out how much CO2­ you produce? In the next section, we'll learn how to knock down your footprint a few sizes.­

Reducing Carbon Footprints

Carbon footprints help people keep track of changes. Because footprints quantify an amount of carbon that increases or decreases based on energy use, they let people know that a new hybrid car or home insulation really does help lower emissions.

­­Transportation accounts for 33 percent of CO2 emissions in the United States, so many people try to lower their mileage [source: EIA]. Some walk or bike whenever possible; others carpool, take public transport or invest in fuel-efficient cars.

Home energy use accounts for 21 percent of U.S. CO2 emissions, so it helps to have an efficient home. [source: EIA] Setting the thermostat at a moderate temperature and installing good insulation and double-paned windows lowers energy costs while keeping your house comfortable. Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), energy-efficient appliances and green power sources also help lower consumption.

Of course, individual efforts to reduce emissions can go only so far. Cutting CO2 and other greenhouse gases down to safer levels requires significant government regulation. Lessening carbon footprints does, however, let people see where they are and how they can change. Those who think government regulation moves too slowly or who want to accept personal responsibility for their emissions can track their own reductions and alter their individual habits.

To learn more about carbon footprints, global warming and other related topics, please check out the links on the next page.

Related Articles

More Great Links


  • "Al Gore's 'Inconvenient Truth'?-A $30,000 Utility Bill." ABC News. Aug. 15, 2007.
  • "Defining Life Cycle Assessments."
  • "Do as I say-or as I do?" The Economist. Feb. 15, 2007. story_id=8703017
  • "Ecological Footprint: Overview." Global Footprint Network.
  • "Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States 2005." Energy Information Administration. November, 2006.
  • "How Green is the Material Girl?" BBC News. carbon_footprint_feature.shtml
  • "How was your personal impact calculated?" Climate Crisis. howitwascalculated.html
  • Narang, Sonia. "Carbon with that Latte?" Forbes. July 3, 2007. biz-cz_sn_0703green_carbon.html
  • "Not on the Label." The Economist. May 17, 2007.
  • "The Private Jet Set." Guardian Unlimited. Jan. 24, 2007. travelsenvironmentalimpact.carbonfootprints
  • Sandell, Clayton. "Reducing Your Carbon Footprint." ABC News. June 7, 2006.