Many of our daily activities affect the environment, from our consumption of natural resources to our disposal of household waste. One of the most important is our generation of carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas that is a significant contributor to climate change. Since the beginning of industrial times, there has been a marked increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, mainly as a result of human activities. For example, the burning of fossil fuels for home heating, transportation, and electricity production generates a large percentage of our personal carbon dioxide emissions.
It’s not difficult to lower your emissions, but first you need to know how much you’re producingyour carbon "footprint." This figure represents both the amount of carbon dioxide you generate each year and the lifestyle choices that contribute the most to your total. The average American’s carbon footprint is 20 tons. To put this in perspective, this is approximately the same amount of carbon dioxide emitted each year by three new cars. With nearly 300 million people living in the United States, these numbers quickly add up.
There are several interactive calculators available online to help you estimate your carbon footprint. Each takes home energy use and transportation into account, since a significant portion of our annual carbon dioxide emissions is derived from these two activities. Some calculators factor in additional items such as waste generation and water consumption, and others consider footprint-shrinking actions you may already be taking, such as recycling or purchasing "green" power (electricity generated from renewable sources including wind and solar). While your total carbon footprint will actually be larger than what these calculators compute, they will help give you a sense of just how significant your impact on the environment can be.
Many carbon calculators also describe ways in which you can reduce your footprint, and compute how many tons of carbon dioxide you will save. These actions range from small lifestyle changes (e.g., turning off lights when you're not using them, turning down your thermostat a few degrees, increasing the percentage of waste you recycle) to major purchases such as fuel-efficient or hybrid vehicles and Energy Star-rated appliances. You can also invest in zero-emission (green power) or negative-emission (reforestation) projects to reduce your footprint even further.
An added bonus of reducing your carbon footprint is saving money. Energy conservation and energy efficiency result in lower heating and electricity bills, and fuel-efficient vehicles can save hundreds of dollars at the gas pump every year.
Ultimately, by combining conservation and energy efficiency with carbon-offset projects, you can become "climate-neutral": releasing a net total of zero carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Now that's a step in the right direction!