About Carbon Footprints

How to figure out your impact on the environment, plus ways to minimize it

When you spend a few hours hiking through the woods, you leave footprints; evidence that you were there. Footprints are unintentional marks we leave on our world as we wander through it. And hopefully, if you're taking a walk, footprints are the only things you leave behind in those woods.

But, regardless of your good intentions, when you spend 80 years or so on a planet (for most of us, that's Earth), unfortunately, you leave behind a little bit more than prints in the dirt — you leave what is called a "carbon footprint."

What is a carbon footprint?

Every day, you use energy and you contribute to the production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and the amount of these gases you release into the atmosphere is your carbon footprint. The burning of coal, oil and other fossil fuels contributes to the production of carbon emissions and, in turn, to climate change.

But I don't burn coal or oil!

Now, you might be thinking, "I don't ever burn fossil fuels. I use electricity to cool and heat my home." While this may be true, the two main sources used to generate electricity in our country are still coal and petroleum, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. So, the more electricity you use to heat or cool your home, the more fossil fuels get burned to supply that electric energy.

Other ways you contribute to carbon emissions

Most Americans drive cars to commute to work or school every day. The exhaust from your car contributes to carbon emissions. Every time you fly in an airplane, hundreds of gallons of jet fuel are burned. The food you eat is grown, processed, packaged and delivered to the store before you buy it, all of which requires energy. You might not be the one using the energy to process and package the food, but unless all the food you eat comes from your very own garden, you're a consumer whose demand causes food suppliers to use more energy.

How to measure your carbon footprint

If you do an Internet search of "Carbon Footprint Calculator," you will find dozens of sites with built-in programs that will help you figure out how "big" your carbon footprint is. These carbon footprint tests show you the size of your footprint in relation to other Americans — and to the people in the rest of the world. Before you start calculating, it is useful to know facts like your car's gas mileage, how far you drive your car every day, how often you fly and an estimate of your average electric bill.

How to make your footprint smaller

Recycle. It's easy and cheap to take your plastic, aluminum and glass clippings to a recycling center if there's not already a recycling program in your community. Packaging made from recycled materials uses less energy than packaging made from scratch. Walk, bike or take public transportation. Buy a more fuel-efficient automobile. The daily commute contributes a huge percentage of greenhouse emissions. Buy Energy Star appliances and electronics. Buy energy-efficient lights. Replace your old water heater with one that consumes less power.

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