Homeowner’s Guide: What Is Carbon Footprint?

Updated: Dec. 08, 2023

How we live, what we buy and how we get around contribute to our carbon footprint. Here's how to calculate yours and shrink it for you and your home.

There must be something I can do. That’s my constant thought when I read about people and animals suffering from climate change.

And it turns out, yes, there is something I can do — something we all can do. It starts with understanding the carbon footprint we and our homes create. A bonus: The more we take action, the less helpless we feel, and the better our chances of staving off the worst of climate change.

Here’s what to know about you and your home’s carbon footprint and ecological footprint.

What Is a Carbon Footprint?

A carbon footprint measures how many greenhouse gases, like CO2 and methane, we produce through activities like driving a car, planting or cutting a tree, eating certain foods or making a product.

“It’s a useful concept because once you start to dive into it and understand what contributes to an individual’s impact on the climate, from there you can figure out what to do about it,” says Austin Whitman, CEO of Climate Neutral.

What Is the History of Carbon Footprint?

“Ironically, the idea of measuring an individual’s carbon footprint was first popularized by a 2003 advertising campaign for oil and gas company BP,” says Michelle Passero, director of climate change and nature-based solutions for The Nature Conservancy in California.

Today, that ad campaign and similar ones are widely recognized as marketing attempts to divert attention from the ills of the fossil fuel industry. The ads try to convince individuals that our choices and actions are solely to blame for greenhouse gas emissions.

“BP and other major oil and gas corporations create these types of large-scale public relations campaigns to obscure the facts, mislead people and policymakers, evade responsibility for their role in driving the climate crisis, and keep all of us locked into a dangerous, highly polluting energy system,” says Kathryn Mulvey, campaign manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists‘ Fossil Fuel Accountability campaign.

Consequently, the success of those campaigns postponed many infrastructure changes we need to fight global warming.

Regardless of its dubious origins, today the concept of a carbon footprint is also regarded as a helpful tool for individuals and companies to find ways to reduce carbon emissions.

Types of Carbon Footprints

Just about anything associated with people has a carbon footprint, from our daily habits and the products we use to industries and economic sectors.

Personal carbon footprints

Air pollution from vehicle exhaust pipe on roadToa55/Getty Images

  • Energy use at home, including heating and cooling;
  • Energy efficiency and square footage of our homes;
  • Transportation, especially driving a car or flying on a plane;
  • Gas-powered lawn equipment;
  • The foods we eat;
  • How much stuff we buy, especially plastics. “Plastics are made of oil and have a massive carbon footprint across the entire plastic lifecycle from production to disposal,” says Eleanor Pierel, Ocean Conservancy‘s manager of Climate Science.

For those of us living in the United States, our average carbon footprint per person is about 17.6 tons per year. That’s one of the highest in the world, compared with the European Union at 7.0 and India at 2.5.

Product and company carbon footprints

Small stand of trees on the brow of a hill, surrounded by extensive cleared woodland in a national forest.Mint Images/Getty Images

  • Energy used in the extraction of raw materials;
  • The damage to the land from extracting materials, like cutting down trees;
  • Energy used in manufacturing and packaging;
  • Transporting materials and finished goods;
  • Energy used in office buildings and manufacturing plants.

Food carbon footprints

Aerial view of double crop soybean planting over wheat stubble on the eastern shore of Maryland USAEdwin Remsberg/Getty Images

  • Manufacturing and transporting fertilizers, pesticides and livestock feed;
  • Tilling and other agriculture processes that damage the soil’s ability to store carbon;
  • Creating food packaging;
  • Refrigerating and transporting food;
  • Disposing of food in landfills, which creates greenhouse gases.

Country carbon footprints

Countries also have carbon footprints, largely based off their economies, industry and infrastructure, like renewable energy use and access to public transportation. Again, the U.S. has one of the highest, with yearly total CO2 emissions second only to China.

Industry and economic sector carbon footprints

detail of white smoke polluted skykodda/Getty Images

Significant carbon emissions come from:

  • Energy made from fossil fuels, including gasoline, oil, diesel, natural gas and coal;
  • Building materials, especially concrete and steel;
  • Transportation, especially airplanes, semi-trucks and ocean shipping;
  • Agriculture and land use, especially cattle, industrial farming and feed crops and deforestation.

How To Calculate Your Carbon Footprint

Many websites offer free carbon footprint calculators, including The Nature Conservancy, CoolClimate and the Commons app. Most calculators also offer solutions for reducing your carbon footprint.

Another helpful tool is the ecological footprint calculator, associated with Earth Overshoot Day, or the day each year when we’ve consumed more than the Earth can generate. In 2023, Earth Overshoot Day is Aug. 2, meaning we’re currently consuming as many ecological resources as if we lived on 1.75 Earths.

How To Minimize Your Carbon Footprint

  • Walk, ride your bicycle or take public transportation whenever possible;
  • Buy less stuff, especially single-use plastics;
  • Weatherize your home and install energy-efficient appliances and LED light bulbs;
  • Try not to waste food;
  • Cut down on meat and dairy, which are particularly carbon intensive;
  • Switch to an electric vehicle or a smaller, more fuel-efficient one;
  • Avoid air travel when possible and skip cruise ship vacations, since cruise ships are eight times more carbon-intensive than land-based vacations;
  • Install solar panels on your home, if your property gets enough sunlight to make it feasible.

Although reducing carbon emissions is urgent, it’s also important to remember some parts of our footprints are outside of our control. Things like whether our electricity comes from renewable sources, or whether our tomatoes are packaged in plastic.

Reducing your carbon footprint can feel like a difficult task, especially in places without public transportation or easy access to locally grown or made goods,” says Pierel.

“But minimizing your carbon footprint can be a DIY opportunity to reduce emissions through your buying and voting power, by urging [politicians and companies] to embrace the large-scale policy, infrastructure, and technology change that is necessary to help us all make low-carbon lifestyle choices.”