How to reduce your carbon footprint and why it is important
Global warming due to human activities is causing long-lasting and likely permanent changes to weather patterns, biodiversity, and soil health and resilience. This has led to a global climate crisis that threatens both human and animal populations with extreme weather events, shrinking natural resources, and declining crop yields — the consequences of which include increased food insecurity, population displacements, worsening health, and species and habitat loss.
Given the urgency of the climate crisis, it is vital that each of us does whatever we can to reduce our impact on the environment. This includes being aware of how one’s activities may generate greenhouse gases (GHGs), which accumulate in the Earth’s atmosphere and trap heat that subsequently raises the planet’s temperature. Many daily choices contribute to GHG emissions, like eating a hamburger, flying on a plane, and driving a car.
A carbon footprint is important because it provides an estimate of how much GHG emissions are generated by a person, organization, or industry. The more choices individuals, groups, or industries can make to reduce their carbon footprints, the less GHG emissions will be released into the atmosphere to contribute to global warming
What is a carbon footprint?
A carbon footprint is the total amount of GHGs created by a person’s activities. Businesses, industries, countries, and products can also have carbon footprints. The carbon footprint calculates the quantity of GHGs — carbon dioxide, methane, fluorinated gases, and nitrous oxide — that are released by a given activity. Although several GHGs are included in a carbon footprint, measurements are expressed in carbon dioxide equivalency so that they can easily be compared between activities and industries.
An individual’s carbon footprint depends on multiple factors, like how often they drive a car or fly, whether they eat meat or not, what kind of clothes they buy, and how much they throw away. Knowing one’s carbon footprint can help an individual identify areas where they can reduce the emissions they generate and lessen their contribution to climate change.
Carbon footprints vary considerably around the world and within national populations, and higher carbon footprints have been shown to be associated with areas of higher income. Cities, in particular, have higher carbon footprints than rural areas and contribute around 68% of the global carbon footprint. The carbon footprints of cities are driven up by both population density and per capita carbon footprints. Some cities with high GHG emissions are located in countries that have overall low emissions, in which case the relative affluence of city-dwellers accounts for the difference.
Some of the cities with the highest carbon footprints, according to a 2018 study, include:
The individual countries with the largest carbon footprints overall are:
Almost 70% of global GHG emissions come from around nine countries plus the EU, with many other parts of the world contributing much lower levels. However, per capita carbon footprints — the average quantity of GHG emissions generated by an individual living in a country — are highest in the United States, Russia, South Korea, Iran, and Japan, according to 2018 calculations.
According to World Bank data from 2019, the countries with the smallest carbon footprints include Ghana, Malawi, Honduras, Burundi, Chad, and Eritrea, among others. With some exceptions, most countries with small carbon footprints are located in the Global South.
Why is it important to reduce your carbon footprint?
The 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has identified an urgent need to implement mitigation strategies that reduce emissions and prevent global warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius in the next few decades. According to the IPCC, if global warming is permitted to continue at its current rate, an increase in adverse effects can be expected, including:
Heavy precipitation and flooding
Human and animal populations unable to recover or adapt
Reduced food security and drinking water availability
Strained or collapsed infrastructure
Destruction of marine ecosystems and wildlife extinction
Dire changes to the planet are already occurring and will only get worse if no action is taken. Reducing global GHG emissions is crucial to preventing planetary temperature increases that are incompatible with life as it currently exists, and requires concerted international efforts and cooperation between countries.
However, individuals can help to reduce GHG emissions by making lifestyle choices to decrease their carbon footprints. Two industries are responsible for generating the most GHGs worldwide and driving climate change — the agricultural sector and the energy sector.
Animal agriculture alone is responsible for at least 16.5% of global GHG emissions and contributes to global warming via other pathways like deforestation as well as causing other forms of environmental damage such as water pollution. Additionally, estimates suggest that between 8% and 10% of GHG emissions are caused by food that is never eaten.
The energy sector includes the use of fossil fuels in transportation like cars and airplanes, electricity, and heat. Emissions generated by energy use account for over 75% of global emissions since 2009.
Lifestyle changes, like adopting a plant-based diet and reducing daily energy usage, will decrease your carbon footprint and help slow the progression of global warming. The first step is to determine what your current carbon footprint is, and then identify ways to reduce it.
How do I know what my carbon footprint is?
There are online calculators available that can calculate your carbon footprint by asking you several questions about your daily habits, diet, and travel. Here are some you can try out:
United Nations Carbon Footprint Calculator
Carbon Footprint Ltd. Carbon Footprint Calculator
How to reduce your carbon footprint in 5 steps
Shrinking your impact on global warming first involves looking at the areas where you can reduce your GHG emissions. If you make more environmentally friendly choices consistently on a daily basis, you can lessen your carbon footprint.
Agriculture, and animal agriculture in particular, is not only a major contributor to climate change, it also causes intense suffering in billions of animals worldwide and is responsible for significant human rights violations. According to the United Nations, one of the best ways to decrease your carbon footprint is to consume a plant-rich diet. Eating plant-based means you no longer support the environmentally harmful practices of the animal agriculture industry. The 2022 IPCC Report also identifies switching to plant-based diets as a key mitigation strategy for reducing global warming.
In addition to reducing GHG emissions, there are many positive reasons for adopting a plant-based diet. Currently, food that could be used to combat global food insecurity is instead used to feed animals for consumption. This highly inefficient system is destroying the environment, exploiting workers, and using vital resources that could instead address world hunger and malnutrition.
In 2019, an estimated 931 million tons of food waste was produced worldwide, much of which was thrown out in landfills and decomposed, generating GHGs. Every year, food waste contributes a significant portion of GHG emissions, and around 17% of global food production goes to waste. Households are responsible for 61% of this waste, with food services making up 26% of waste and retail contributing 13%.
You can reduce food waste by purchasing only what you need and not letting food spoil. Planning meals, cooking in batches and freezing excess servings, and composting organic waste all prevent food from ending up in the trash.
Eating a plant-based diet can also decrease food waste. When meat is thrown away, because of its large carbon footprint and extensive land use, it exacts a high environmental cost. Of course, the best strategy to address food waste is to purchase only what you are able to eat and consume, freeze, or otherwise preserve food before it spoils.
The fast fashion industry produces low-cost clothing often made by underpaid workers in the Global South to be sold to consumers in the Global North. Because fast fashion is sold at such low prices, the industry depends on consumers buying frequently and using clothing products for only a short time — thus ensuring continued profitability from a population that views clothing as expendable and replaceable on a whim.
The fast fashion industry produces 92 million tons of waste annually and uses 79 trillion liters of water for products that may be discarded within months of being purchased and worn. Due to its long supply chains (clothes are often made in countries like Bangladesh to be sold in the Global North) and intensive energy use, the fashion industry generates between 2% and 8% of global emissions.
You can reduce your carbon footprint by making sustainable choices about the clothes you wear, including recycling and repairing clothing rather than throwing it out, donating clothes you are no longer using, and purchasing only clothing that you need.
You can also buy higher quality clothing less frequently, and only purchase from companies with sustainable practices that do not exploit their workers. Acquiring clothes secondhand and holding clothing exchanges with friends are other ways of reducing your carbon footprint from clothing.
Transport, including travel by car and airplane, contributes significantly to GHG emissions and is responsible for 17% of emissions produced by the energy sector. In Latin America and the Caribbean, transport produces 35% of fossil fuel emissions.
Choosing transport options that generate fewer emissions can help to reduce your carbon footprint. For example, when traveling by car to run errands, combining trips and traveling the most efficient routes possible helps to reduce emissions.
Take public transit when possible, and if the option is available, choose electric transit rather than diesel-fueled transportation. Walking and biking are also more environmentally friendly and lower your impact on the environment.
Energy used for heat and electricity makes up more than 31% of GHG emissions from the energy sector. Access to heating and cooling is necessary, particularly in parts of the world that are experiencing an increase in the severity and frequency of extreme weather events. Global energy use is unevenly distributed, with countries in the Global North exceeding what is needed, and millions of people in the Global South still lacking access to energy resources like electricity.
While the inequitable distribution of energy requires a just transition and reducing emissions in the Global North while increasing access in the Global South, there are also actions that you as an individual can take to reduce your personal energy carbon footprint.
These actions include turning off lights when not in use, switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, washing clothes in cold water and hanging them outside to dry, and lowering the air conditioning and heat in your home as much as possible. Taking advantage of solar power, as well as installing good home insulation, can also reduce your energy use.
It is imperative that we take immediate action to slow the progression of global warming. Failure to do so will result in greater human and animal suffering worldwide, as extreme weather events, habitat loss and extinction, and food insecurity increase. While meaningful action on climate change requires that nations, cities, and communities cooperate on mitigation strategies, you can also take useful actions as an individual to reduce your own carbon footprint.
One of the most important actions you can take is to start eating a plant-based diet. This one simple step has been identified by the IPCC as a key way individuals can make a difference in their GHG emissions. And if we don’t take these crucial actions to address global warming right away, we may not have a world left for future generations.