Every environmentalist must calculate their personal carbon footprint

If the biggest issue we have is climate change, then we must start by understanding how we individually contribute to that issue, before we can ask others to make changes and reduce their impact. Most of you might be aware of carbon footprint reports that many corporations and municipalities generate. However, to the general public, it is not well understood.

If you are not aware, carbon footprint reporting is a way to calculate the total carbon emission equivalents from various greenhouse gases, and combine them into one number. The larger the number, the more you are contributing to climate change.

Do you know what your personal carbon footprint looks like? Most people do not, even those that consider themselves strong environmentalists. Without a personal report, how do we know that we are taking action on the biggest opportunities to reduce climate change? I might be walking to work to reduce carbon emissions, but maybe I should be more focused on my electricity usage, or reducing my airline flights.

When I first started to look at my carbon footprint, I realized that I was part of the problem, despite my best intentions. Until my carbon footprint is zero, how can I honestly tell others to reduce their impact? I’ve been tracking my impact since February 2009, and I’m making progress, but I’m still not where I want to be. The chart below shows my footprint (taking out some early data from before a move, and high and low outliers on heavy travel months and large carbon offset purchases), so the larger trend can be seen. Some of the biggest carbon drivers in my usage was driving to work and electricity usage.

Personal improvement on carbon footprint

As you can see, the green line represents “carbon neutral” and I’ve had some recent months going below that amount. My goal is to be consistently below zero. There are four major improvements I’ve made to get closer to zero:

1) Traded 20 MPG car for Toyota Prius with 48 MPG (April 2010)
2) Installed 6.8 kW solar panels (Nov 2012)
3) Moved to a milder climate, which reduced my natural gas bill for heating (July 2013)
4) Increased number of work at home days at my job (July 2013)

If I hadn’t generated a personal report of my carbon impact, I honestly don’t think I would have traded in my car as quickly as I did, or installed the solar panels. I felt like a hypocrite telling others to reduce their impact, when my numbers were nowhere near zero. Even though I still have a ways to go, I have made tremendous progress over the years.

A personal carbon footprint summary helps reduce carbon emissions by:

  1. Making it personal, using your own data. Real data drives accountability and allows us to track progress. Other carbon calculators make it hard to show progress, because there are many estimates. They may be more accurate, but I think they are less effective at making individuals change behaviors.
  2. Focusing on the biggest opportunities, not what is easiest to solve, or ends up making little difference. As we’ve talked about earlier, the Pareto principle is very important, and we must spend our limited time and resources working on the most meaningful actions, not the easiest or quickest.
  3. Provides a story to share with others. Ultimately, we relate to people, not numbers. If I hear a story about how someone else reduced their footprint, it will be more meaningful than all the best scientific data showing reasons why to reduce, or what the best technical solutions are available.

There are two options we offer for calculating your personal carbon footprint:

1) Online tracking on HelpSaveEarth.org – Sign up for a free account on the HelpSaveEarth.org website, and start entering your utility data and fuel usage each month. Report is based on actual data, not estimated numbers. Breakdown the reports by different utilities, and offset your usage. Click the image below to see a sample report.

Carbon footprint reports charts graphs

2) Manual calculation with Personal Carbon Footprint Booklet – Feel free to download our booklet, and teach others how to calculate their impact using their utility bills and driving/flying mileage. We use a classroom setting for 1-2 hours, where attendees bring their last 12 months of utility bills. Start by filling it out for yourself, before you teach it to others. We would be happy to teach it to your company green team, organization or networking group either online or in person. Simply contact us for more information.

 

Once you get people used to the idea of a carbon footprint report, then you can get more refined and generate more specific carbon footprint models, such as Carbon Advice Group.

Remember, your personal experiences with calculating your own footprint, and the actions you took to make a difference, will help encourage others to do the same.

If you haven’t “walked the talk” how do you expect others to follow?