What the Heck is a Carbon Footprint and Why Should I Care?


You might have heard of this phrase before: “Carbon Footprint.” Maybe you haven’t heard of it, and this is a brand new phrase to you. Either way, you might be asking yourself: what the hell it is, and why the hell it even matters.

You’re in luck! Today I’m not only going to tell you what a “Carbon Footprint” is, but I’ll also tell you how to calculate yours (hint: it’s really, really easy).


(Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash)

What the Heck is a “Carbon Footprint,” Anyway?

Your carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases (but in particular CO2 or carbon) that we generate due to our actions on the planet. It’s the “footprint” your activities leave behind. It is a handy tool for individuals to have when considering their impact on the Earth.

There are other greenhouse gases besides carbon (like methane and even water vapor). To calculate all of your greenhouse gases, you would need a Greenhouse Gas Report (GHG). Most individuals don’t generate a Greenhouse Gas Report, but businesses do.

Measuring your carbon, in particular, is crucial because it is so prevalent in our daily actions. Producing plastics makes carbon. Driving a car produces carbon. Even getting your food produces carbon.

When we measure all of this and add it up, we get an idea of our lifestyle's overall environmental impact.

How Can I Calculate My Carbon Footprint?

When I calculated the first-ever Greenhouse Gas Inventory for the Southwestern Illinois College, I had to do that stuff by hand. It took me eight months.

But my dudes: you can use a carbon calculator to estimate your footprint in about 10 minutes. This will give you a good idea of where in your life you can reduce your consumption. There are many to be found floating around the internet. I have one on my blog here. You can also find a cool one here, courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Most carbon footprint calculators are straightforward to use. Punch in a few numbers and your habits and get a result. By-hand calculations, it is not.

Why Should I Care How Big of a Footprint I Have?

Individuals often think that their actions don’t have consequences because, after all, what’s just one person in a big world? If the Lord of the Rings didn’t teach you anything, let me break the news, Frodo: even small players can have a profound impact.

Even the most conservative, zero-waste, vegan revolutionary Environmentalist-Puritans in the United States emit double the amount of CO2 than the global average. Double. If every American attempted to limit their carbon footprint, the world would be better off.

Remember that when we say “carbon allotment,” we mean that the amount of carbon you can use a year before your actions take up more Earth than we have. If everyone on Earth lived the way you do, how long would it take to use up our natural resources, including our fresh air?

If you don’t believe in anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, I hate to break it to you: if 7 billion people dump carbon into the atmosphere, something is bound to happen. Build a greenhouse and empty your car exhaust into it, and you’ll see what I mean.

I can’t force you to care about the environment. However, we are not separate beings from the planet: what you do to it (and for it) matters.

How Can I Reduce My Carbon Footprint?

The truth is: there’s no easy one-way answer. Not everyone can stop driving their car and take a 2-hour bus ride to work every day. Very few people can afford an all-electric vehicle (for now). Not to mention that it’s hard to put solar panels on your roof if you don’t own your home.

Some basic reduction techniques that anyone can do include:

  • Avoiding Single-Use Plastics
  • Walking when possible, rather than driving. Taking public transportation
  • Buying locally when possible and reducing your meat consumption
  • Turning off the lights when not in use
  • Unplugging appliances when not in use to avoid “Vampire Energy.”

This list is by no means exhaustive. Of course, if you can afford it, you should absolutely consider solar (the return on your investment alone is usually worth it). However, even little changes add up to a big impact.

Is There a Way to Reduce My Carbon Footprint While I Travel?!

Heck yes, buddy, I got you. There are a lot of travel-specific simple ways to reduce your carbon footprint. You can take longer, direct flights. Pack lighter bags and avoid checking a bag. Stay on vacation longer (tell your boss it’s “for the environment”). Becoming a digital nomad or a slow nomad are great ways to reduce your carbon footprint while traveling.

Keep in mind, the slower you travel, the better for the environment your travel will be. If you are jet setting off to a new city every few days, that’s more carbon in the atmosphere via transportation. Even if you don’t “believe” in global warming, the particulates in car exhaust alone make for a higher risk of asthma and a host of other issues. Slow traveling and spending more time on a bike or foot can do a world of good. Plus, are you taking a relaxing vacation if you are moving cities every few days? Not really.

Also, the less plastic you generate, the better the planet will be, which applies to travel and home! Think about switching to, say, a shampoo bar rather than stocking up on those mini TSA-friendly bottles. The same goes for water: bring your reusable bottle to the airport, and refill it at your destination. Unless you go somewhere that doesn’t have potable water, you are OK to bring your bottle.

If none of those options work, try carbon offsets! A carbon offset is you paying someone else to plant trees or otherwise sequester carbon on your behalf.

If you’re planning a trip, you can find plenty of offset options on the internet. Remember that offsets should be your last resort. If you’ve exhausted other forms of reducing your carbon consumption, then an offset could be a good idea for you.

So What is a Carbon Footprint and Why Should You Care?

Your carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases that you generate due to your actions on the planet. Learning how to calculate yours is now an effortless thing to do, thanks to the power of the internet.

It is important to calculate your carbon footprint because if you don’t know where your life is leaking carbon and what parts of your life are the most carbon-heavy, you can’t hope to change them. Once we learn where we are “spending” most of our yearly carbon allotment, we can start making changes.

There are ways to live a carbon-neutral life, and there are ways to get close to that threshold. With a little planning and innovation, we can reduce our carbon footprints to almost nothing!

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I am a travel writer and sustainable lifestyle blogger. As a world traveler, I love giving others tips on budget travel, new cultures, and how to see the planet in a sustainable, ethical way. I also write on being a digital nomad, hiking and outdoor activities, as well as living an adventurous lifestyle.

Santa Fe, NM

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