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carbon footprint

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

A carbon footprint is a gauge of the measured output units of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) for a particular individual, product, practice or organization as it applies to environmental impact. Carbon footprint is most commonly expressed in metric tons per year. Historically, carbon footprint was an intended measure of all emissions but in its expression, it is converted to CO2.

A carbon footprint is an important measure of the environmental impact of carbon dioxide and methane’s contributing factors to man-made climate change in the form of greenhouse gases, also known as global warming.

A carbon footprint is composed of two parts, a primary and secondary footprint. The primary footprint is the sum of the direct carbon dioxide emissions of burning of fossil fuels, such as the domestic energy consumption by furnaces and waters heaters, and transportation, such as automobiles and airplane travel. The secondary footprint is the sum of indirect emissions associated with the manufacture and breakdown of all products, services and food an individual or business consumes.

Carbon footprint can be reduced through the use of carbon-neutral or carbon negative alternatives in materials or fuels. Some methods of building, lifestyle or power generation might end up locking away as much carbon as is produced in its processes, effectively making them carbon neutral. Going further, when more carbon is locked away into a material or in a process than is emitted, then it is carbon negative. Another option to reduce carbon footprint is the buying of carbon offsets, a credit purchased to negate a carbon footprint. Often, the funds from purchased offsets are used to invest in green energy projects, such as green computing technologies.

Several countries worldwide have set targets for reductions in emissions – carbon reduction commitments (CRC) – in international meetings with agreements like the Paris Agreement and the Copenhagen and Kyoto Accords.

This was last updated in September 2018

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