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A guide to carbon footprints

What is a carbon footprint and where does this concept come from?

Footprint of a person in the woods

What is a carbon footprint?

Carbon footprints represent the amount of greenhouse gases that are generated by our actions, such as transportation, energy use, and consumption of goods and services. It is often measured in tons of CO₂e, which stands for carbon dioxide equivalent, a measurement unit that makes it possible to compare different types of greenhouse gases (GHGs). The measurement unit CO₂e is based on the GHGs' respective global warming potential (GWP) and converts them to the equivalent amount of CO₂ with the same GWP. Although buildings, companies, or even products can also be described as having a carbon footprint, the term most often refers to the emissions generated by a person.

Thinking about the impact that our actions have on the environment in terms of a carbon footprint can be useful because it makes the emissions that we generate every day – perhaps without being aware of them – more tangible. If you have never calculated your carbon footprint before, you might be surprised to see how your emissions add up. In addition, a carbon footprint puts our emissions into perspective. People who live in a highly industrialized country like the United States or Switzerland have much higher average carbon footprints than people who live in emerging economies like the Philippines or Guatemala. Thus, a carbon footprint gives you an estimate of how emission-intensive your lifestyle is compared to others, which you can use as a reference point for your climate actions.

There are many guides out there that offer tips on how to reduce your carbon footprint, for example by the EU Youth Portal. Five tips that are covered by almost any of these guides are: avoid traveling by plane, drive less, cut out animal products from your diet, make your home energy-efficient, and shop less and more sustainably. With Climeworks’ carbon dioxide removal service, you can add one more action to this list, namely removing part of your carbon footprint – permanently!

Where the concept originates

Although a carbon footprint is a convenient measure, the context in which it is placed matters greatly. Carbon footprints put a rather strong focus on individual responsibility for climate change while leaving out the structures such as political and economic systems that provide individuals with the choices they have. For example, someone who heats their home with fossil oil might have a large carbon footprint – but what if there is no low-carbon alternative available where they live?

This strong focus on carbon footprints on individual responsibility is not accidental. It was the oil and gas industry that first promoted the concept of the carbon footprint to shift the blame of ever-growing emissions away from itself (see here for more information on the role of the oil and gas industry in the popularization of the carbon footprint).

Calculating carbon footprints for easier climate action

While it is important to be aware of where the idea of the carbon footprint originates, this should not suggest that people’s efforts to reduce their emissions are not important, because they are. The effects of climate change are already clearly visible around the world and we need to take action. We globally need to reduce billions of tons of CO₂ to stop climate change, which is why every kilogram of CO₂ that is avoided matters, and a carbon footprint is a helpful metric to illustrate your impact and progress.

On top of emissions reductions, removing the CO₂ that has already been emitted is a key step to achieve net zero, and eventually negative emissions. Climeworks’ carbon dioxide removal service empowers everyone to take climate action and to remove part of their CO₂ emissions permanently. Our Climate Pioneers have frequently indicated that a carbon footprint calculator would help them to navigate our subscription offers, and we take this feedback seriously because our carbon dioxide removal service was built to provide easy and direct climate action.

Therefore, Climeworks has added a carbon footprint calculator for one-time carbon removal purchases. There are several carbon footprint calculators already out there, but with Climeworks’ calculator, you can directly order the permanent removal of part of your emissions. By becoming a Climate Pioneer, you can take one extra step to minimize your carbon footprint.

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