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April 2011
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What exactly is a carbon footprint?

We hear a lot about “carbon footprints” these days, but no one seems to explain just what this green buzzword really means. We know we should try to decrease ours, but where do we begin? Here is an introduction to this hotly debated topic.
According to The Carbon Trust, a not-for-profit, eco-friendly company that helps private and public organizations reduce their carbon emissions and “commercialize low carbon technologies,” a carbon footprint is "the total set of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by an organization, event, product or person.” “Greenhouse gases” include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, hydroflurocarbons and others. Human activity has generated an enormous increase in carbon dioxide emissions over the last 200 years. Reducing these emissions is what lowering carbon footprints is all about.
When looking to decrease carbon footprints, the most crucial factors to address are population, economic output and energy and carbon intensity in a given economy. By decreasing either the total energy necessary for production or our personal dependence on CO2-emitting fuels (or, ideally, both), we have our greatest chance at decreasing our carbon emissions and therefore, decreasing our carbon footprints.
Each footprint can be looked at as the sum of two parts – the primary footprint and the secondary footprint. The primary footprint is about 46 percent of our total emissions and is wholly controlled by our own actions. Our secondary footprint, responsible for approximately 54 percent of total CO2 emissions, is the result of actions made on our behalf.   
The primary footprint measures your direct emissions of CO2. These come from the usage of fossil fuels to heat our homes, power our vehicles (cars, planes, trains, etc.) and keep our lights on. These are the emissions over which we possess individual control. According to Carbon Footprint Ltd, the primary footprint for most individuals can be broken down as follows:
·        Home, gas, oil & coal – 15 percent
·        Home electricity – 12 percent
·        Private transportation – 10 percent
·        Public transportation – 3 percent
·        Vacation flights – 6 percent
The secondary footprint measures your indirect emissions, the ones associated with the production and breakdown of goods and services from which you benefit. This includes:
·        Recreation and leisure – 14 percent
·        Share of public services – 12 percent
·        House (buildings and furnishings) – 9 percent
·        Car manufacture and delivery – 7 percent
·        Food and drink – 5 percent
·        Clothes and personal effects – 4 percent
·        Financial services – 3 percent
What can be done to improve our own carbon footprints without detracting from our quality of life? The answer is “carbon offsets.” According to the Collins English Dictionary, a carbon offset is “a compensatory measure made by an individual or company for carbon emissions, usually through sponsoring activities or projects which increase carbon dioxide absorption, such as tree planting.”
While simple behavior modifications are encouraged such as using public transportation, unplugging household items when they are not in use and cutting back on unnecessary energy consumption, another simple way to improve your carbon footprint is by planting trees and supporting reforestation work efforts such as American Forests’ Global ReLeaf and Reduced carbon emissions aren’t the only benefit of these efforts; reforestation and carbon offset projects also create jobs, preserve wildlife habitats, protect biodiversity and improve local environmental quality. It’s a win-win for you and your environment.
To determine your personal carbon footprint and find out how you can help with the reforestation effort, visit


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