Expert Insights

How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Dave Nichols
July 11, 2023
By reducing your own carbon footprint, you not only reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but you also become part of a ripple effect resulting in a more sustainable way of living for all. Here are some tips.
a happy person waving out the car window

Understanding Your Carbon Footprint

You hear a lot these days about reducing your carbon footprint. But what does that really mean? A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases caused by an individual expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent. Carbon-containing gases such as carbon dioxide and methane are emitted through the use of fossil fuels, land clearance, the production of food, manufactured goods and other services.

The term “carbon footprint” was coined by the oil and gas company British Petroleum (BP) in 2004 as part of a $250 million advertising campaign in an attempt to move the public’s attention away from restricting the activities of fossil fuel companies and onto consumers. In other words, much like the efforts of plastics companies to shift focus away from plastic production, to place the control and eradication of such products squarely on the shoulders of consumers with “recycling campaigns”, BP sought to make you think that you are the real problem when it comes to controlling their oil and gas products.

Basically, your carbon footprint is a representation of the total amount of climate-changing greenhouse gases you produce as you make your way through life. In America, the average carbon footprint is 16 tons per person each year – one of the highest rates in the world. Globally, the average is closer to four tons per year. In order to avoid a 3.6-degree (1.5 Celsius) increase in global temperatures, the average global footprint must be reduced to two tons per year. That means we all have a lot of work to do in order to reduce our carbon footprint.

A smokestack emitting pollution

How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

The good news is that there is a lot being done and so much we can each do to shrink the size of our big carbon feet! Small changes make a big difference if we all pitch in together. The 2016 Paris Agreement is an international pact to find climate change solutions worldwide to limit the rise in global temperatures by 2030. By reducing your own carbon footprint, you not only reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but you also become part of a ripple effect resulting in a more sustainable way of living for all.

a person pulling vegetables out of a reusable bag

Watch What You Eat

According to a study by the university of Oxford, our food supply chain is responsible for a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. This chain begins with the turning of soil, and ends with the bag of potato chips being shipped to your local store and then driven to your home.

Consider the land use for farming and the deforestation that takes place to make way for more farmland. Think about the energy used in harvesting, processing and transporting the food you eat. Of the 26 percent of global greenhouse gases that come from our food, more than half of that comes from animal products. Cutting down on the amount of red meat and dairy products you consume will not only do wonders for your health, but will lower your carbon footprint. Livestock uses twice as much land as growing vegetables and animals also produce a whole lot of methane gas (which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide). Try going meatless two days a week.

It’s also important to understand that food flown in from other areas of the world has a bigger carbon footprint than foods driven in by truck. Imported foods produce six times the carbon emissions per mile. The best option is to buy food that is sourced from local farms whenever possible. It not only reduces your carbon footprint, but also helps businesses in your community.

woman reaching into the fridge

Manage Food Waste

Buying and eating the food is just the beginning. Americans waste about 40 percent of the food they buy, throwing out over 1.3 billion tons of food per year. So, take a look in your fridge and your pantry. You can help reduce waste by not buying multiples. Shop more often and buy less. Plan out your meals to reduce your pantry. Freeze leftovers to cut down on food spoiling.

Organic waste in landfills generates methane gas. Composting reduces these emissions and turns food waste into stable soil carbon. Each year, Americans recover over 27 million tons of wasted food through composting, averaging 165 pounds per person. A backyard composting bin helps to reduce your carbon footprint and makes great fertilizer for your garden.

a collection of potted plants and sprouts

Grow Your Own Food

This leads us to growing your own veggies. By using a small space to grow vegetables, herbs and fruit, you’ll eat better and help the planet. By buying less preprocessed foods, you will also reduce the overall carbon footprint of your diet. If you do not have space to grow your own vegetables, spend a few minutes researching where the local community gardens are in your area.

a man opening the curtains and getting some sunlight

Monitor Home Energy Use

In order to meet Paris Agreement targets, we need to reduce the amount of energy we use in our homes by 30 percent before 2030. Your home’s size, how it was built and the energy and water you use, all contributes to your carbon footprint. While this may sound like a lofty goal, it is totally doable.

Living in a smaller home or choosing an apartment or condo helps in a number of ways. You’ll use less energy for heating and cooling, and people who live in smaller spaces buy fewer things and generate less garbage. The average American home uses 25 percent of its energy on heating, 13 percent on heating water, and 11 percent on cooling.

A home energy audit will show you ways to improve your energy use around the house. One easy way to reduce the energy you use is to replace your HVAC filters every three months. Closing your blinds in summer will keep the inside temperature cooler. Make sure you are using energy-efficient appliances. Install a smart thermostat to regulate temperatures and check your settings: a few degrees warmer in summer and a little cooler in winter will save energy and money. Buy LED lighting and you’ll save 75 percent of energy use over conventional light bulbs.

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Buy Clean Energy

Contact your local utility company and ask how they source the electricity they supply. You may be able to opt for “Green Pricing” in order to get your electricity through the use of alternative clean energy sources.

someone turning off the the sink

Use Less Water

Did you know that 75 percent of the energy used in doing laundry is used in heating the water? Switching to cold-water wash will get your clothes just as clean and reduce your carbon footprint too. Also consider drying your clothes on a clothes line.

You can conserve water use by showering. According to the EPA, a full bathtub uses 70 gallons of water while a shower only uses 25 gallons. A low-flow showerhead also increases efficiency. If you have a garden, try installing a rain barrel to save water. While we’re on the subject, consider replacing your lawn with drought-tolerant plants. You can reduce your water consumption by 75 percent!

someone refilling their water bottle from an outside water source

Use Less Plastic

Greenhouse gases like ethane are created in the production of all the plastic items we use. Used plastic goods in landfills and in our oceans release greenhouses gases such as methane and ethylene when sunlight hits them. Plus, single-use plastic such as water bottles have created a huge problem in our oceans and don’t biodegrade, meaning they will be an ongoing problem for hundreds of years. Every year, 10 million metric tons of plastic winds up in our oceans.

Avoid using plastic cutlery, plastic shopping bags, plastic drinking bottles, coffee cups and packaging around food produce and products. Instead, bring reusable bags when shopping, buy loose fruit and vegetables, and drink from a reusable water bottle.

a woman picking out which of her white shirts to wear

Buy Less Stuff

This one is easy to understand. Everything you buy has to be manufactured, processed, packaged and shipped to you or a store. Every step of the process emits greenhouse gases. The time has come for each of us to think about who we are, what we really need in our life, and what brings us joy. Think about what you buy, where it comes from, how long you’ll use the product and where it will end up when you are done with it.

Since everything we buy has a carbon footprint of its own, buying less is a good thing. If you need a tool that you’ll seldom really use, consider renting it when you need it. Since most of the items we buy are shipped to us, think about buying local, from clothing to furniture, buying from local artists and manufactures also helps the local economy.

If you are shopping online, opt for slower shipping. The faster an item has to get to you, the greater its carbon footprint. Expedited shipping leads to less efficiency, using airplanes that increase the use of fossil fuels, delivery trucks going out half-empty and more packaging waste.

a mother and daughter charging their electric car

Reduce Use of Fossil Fuels

Our personal transportation produces nearly 30 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The biggest impact we can each make to reduce our carbon footprint is to reduce the amount of fossil fuel we use. There are several ways to do this. The first is to travel less. Fly less and drive less. Use Zoom for business meetings, carpool when possible, ride a bicycle or walk when you can, take public transportation, buy a hybrid, or better yet, drive an electric car.

If you are still attached to your gas-guzzling auto for the time being, drive less. You can reduce your commuting footprint by 20 percent by working from home one day a week. Combine errands to make fewer trips. Anything you can do to drive less is a good thing. You can save on gasoline by accelerating and braking gradually. You’ll also get better gas mileage if you keep your car serviced regularly to keep it running efficiently.

Cars alone account for about half of the carbon footprint of the average American. Today, the auto industry is making big changes to reduce the number of gasoline-powered vehicles on our roads. Many automakers will stop the production of fossil fueled cars by 2030, converting entirely to all-electric vehicles. So, the greatest impact you can have to reduce your carbon footprint is to drive an electric car.

a happy person waving out the car window

Ways to Drive Change

As you make changes in your own life, discuss what you’ve learned with family and friends to raise awareness. You might inspire others to do what they can to reduce their own carbon footprints. Join green communities at work and in your town. Volunteer with local environmental organizations. Support green initiatives to counteract carbon emissions. Reach out to government officials and legislators to shift policies toward a carbon-neutral future.

Woman plugging in her EV vehicle to charge

How GreenCars Can Help

If you are thinking about buying a hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or all-electric car, GreenCars is here to help you learn about the different transportation options and get you on the road to a greener future for us all. Explore more resources using our Learning Center or you can start shopping today on our GreenCars Marketplace powered by Driveway.com