The latest popular phrase “carbon footprint” can help you pay attention to the most economical ways to use your power
A new idea to help save energy involves thinking of yourself as an invisible character in those cartoons you used to watch, where all you see of the person is a trail of footprints.
Many of today’s global climate change and energy-saving discussions include the term “carbon footprint.” But a carbon footprint is almost the exact opposite of what happens in cartoons. You can’t see your carbon footprint, yet it’s tracking along with everything you do.
In today’s world, it’s easy to forget that when we use energy. Whether it’s electricity for computers and lights and TVs, or fuel for our cars and farm machinery, we are taking part in the planet’s carbon cycle.
The phrase carbon footprint uses an easily understood image to make a point. Remember the last time you walked through a mud puddle and left smudges all across your kitchen floor? The folks who came up with the idea of a carbon footprint figure that if we could really see what happens when we use energy, we’d all pay more attention.
A carbon footprint measures the impact human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced, and is measured in units of carbon dioxide.
Figuring out just how much of each kind of greenhouse gas produced by any particular activity takes a lot of brainwork and computing power. The calculations are so complicated the task has been divided into two parts.
To begin, one must calculate the “primary footprint,” which measures the direct emission of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. For example, figure out how many greenhouse gases are released from burning a ton of coal to produce electricity, then subtract any gases that are trapped, reused, modified, or otherwise prevented from entering the atmosphere by equipment or procedures at the power plant.
A different example would be to figure out how much greenhouse gas is released when using a gallon of gasoline to drive a car.
Next, calculate the “secondary footprint” of an activity. These items are considered indirect emissions because they occur farther away from the activity or event being measured. In the case of burning coal to generate electricity, one must also consider the fossil fuels used to mine and transport the coal to the generating facility.
To make matters even more complicated, one must also consider that the utility company that maintains the distribution network that brings that electricity to homes, businesses, farms, and schools must also use fuel for its service vehicles.
Then one must consider what greenhouse gases were produced to manufacture the parts of the vehicle—after a while, the number of numbers gets astounding.
Don’t do the math
But you don’t have to do the math.
A popular pastime now, as more people discuss energy use, is to find out your own personal carbon footprint by using “carbon footprint calculators” widely available on the Internet. At least a dozen sites claim to give you accurate results. All you have to do is answer a few questions, including what state you live in, what kind of car you drive and how many miles you drive each year, what kind of heat you use in the winter, and so forth. Click on a button at the end of the survey and you have an estimate of how many pounds of carbon dioxide you contribute to the atmosphere each year.
Results from these carbon footprint sites vary. On average, one person going about his or her daily life in the United States is said to contribute 20 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
Knowing the estimated size of your carbon footprint is supposed to make you rethink some of the answers you gave as you completed the quick survey. And maybe spur you to take different actions. Suppose the car you have now gets 20 miles a gallon. If you traded it in for a car that gets 30 miles a gallon, how much smaller would your carbon footprint be?
The fun thing about these calculators is that you can fill out the survey questions differently each time and see how changing your energy habits affects your carbon footprint size.
As it turns out, focusing attention on a person’s carbon footprint is just another way to bring home the point of an even older popular slogan: reduce, recycle, reuse.
Every time you turn the light switch off when you leave a room, you are reducing your electricity use, and that can lower the size of your carbon footprint. Every time you turn in your empty aluminum cans and old newspapers for recycling, you reduce the size of your carbon footprint. Every time you reuse a plastic grocery bag, you’ve saved someone from manufacturing a new one and reduced your carbon footprint accordingly.
Sorting through the choices
The world of carbon footprints is producing some tangled paths. One newspaper article or Web site about reducing your carbon footprint may recommend that instead of driving a car powered exclusively by gasoline, you should drive a car that uses household electricity to charge up its special batteries. But the next thing you read might say that to reduce your carbon footprint you should use less electricity.
What if you’ve already tried to reduce your carbon footprint and it isn’t practical to make any more changes this year? There are services and Web sites that offer you a chance to buy yourself some carbon footprint credits, known as offsets. One airline offers a step in its ticket-buying process that converts your portion of the jet fuel for the length of the flight into a carbon footprint number, then tells you how to purchase an offset (such as a part of a forest that captures and stores carbon dioxide) for an added fee.
The various carbon footprint calculators available are free, but many of the solutions being proposed to reduce greenhouse gases could be expensive. Investing in new equipment, developing new technologies, offering incentives, imposing penalties—every idea being proposed to lower the size of our carbon footprints involves the potential for higher energy bills.
Every idea except one.
Tops on the list of a February 2007 report from the Electric Power Research Institute is the simplest, low-cost strategy—“increase the end-use energy efficiency in homes, building, and industry.”
You can start reducing the size of your carbon footprint right now by using less energy—becoming more energy efficient—today. It’s a step in the right direction.
CALCULATING YOUR CARBON FOOTPRINT
Here are two free carbon footprint calculator sites to try. This is the quickest version, with the fewest questions:
If you have time to answer a few more detailed questions, try this version:
QUICK STEPS TO A SMALLER CARBON FOOTPRINT
• Turn off the lights when you leave a room.
• Wait until you have a full load before running the dishwasher or washing machine.
• Unplug all the instant-on devices such as televisions when you leave for vacation.
• Visit the Web site of the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives at www.kaec.org, then click on the “Smart Energy Use” button for energy-efficiency tips.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: OFFSETTING CARBON CONTRIBUTIONS
Carbon offsets is a new idea in which people or organizations that produce larger amounts of greenhouse gases trade with those producing less. Find information on carbon offset Web sites.
Next month: An interview with the chair of Kentucky’s Public Service Commission