15 Facts About People & Business’s Carbon Footprint

on August 1, 2017

Greenhouse gases don’t only come from direct emissions. In addition to factories and industrial processes, people and businesses contribute indirect emissions. In fact, those from residential and commercial sources increased six percent from 1990 to 2015, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Here are 15 facts about the increasing carbon footprint from both of these sources, and some of their implications and possible solutions.

Energy Use at Home

1. Electricity production: The EPA revealed that indirect emissions related to electricity use rose by 19 percent over the same 1990-2015 time period. Electricity used at home contributes to indirect emissions because fossil fuels are burned by power plants to produce the power.

2. Heating and cooling: Air conditioners and heaters not only use electricity, cooling systems also include refrigerants that contain hydrochlorofluorocarbons that act as greenhouse gases and ozone depleting agents. Refrigeration has been a major source of these in the past, although recent advancements are reducing emissions.

3. Appliances: Refrigerators, clothes dryers, and computers are known energy guzzlers. Even when an appliance is turned off, it can still use power when plugged in. Unplugging devices can help reduce CO2 emissions, but Energy Star products are notable for consuming less power and therefore reducing one’s carbon footprint.

4. Food consumption: Food production accounts for 83 percent of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, or 8.1 metric tons each year, according to a study published in Environmental Science & Technology. Transporting food accounts for 11 percent of emissions. Businesses that produce food contribute to carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide emissions, including the methane released by animals such as sheep, cattle, and goats. By eating locally grown food, the equivalent of driving 1,000 miles can be saved in a year.

Transportation and Carbon Footprint

5. Use of auto fuel: Burning automotive fuel contributes to emissions, but the exact amount depends on the fuel type. A UK gallon of petrol contributes 10.4 kilograms of CO2 per unit, while a USA gallon of gasoline contributes 8.7 kilograms. In the U.S., a gallon of diesel fuel yields 9.95 kilograms, and a gallon of heating oil, 11.26 kilograms of CO2  per unit.

6. Traveling by bike or foot emits a fraction the CO2 of a car: By driving two miles, 0.88 kilograms of carbon dioxide is released into the air, but walking the same distance only releases 0.039 kilograms and riding a bicycle just 0.017 kilograms of carbon dioxide.

7. Improving fuel economy reduces one’s carbon footprint: Driving at the speed limit can improve fuel economy by 7 to 14 percent. Not only does driving faster contribute to higher amounts of burned fuel and emissions released. At a speed over 50 miles per hour, every five mile-per-hour increase in fuel is equal to a cost value of $0.15 to $0.30 extra for each gallon burned.

8. People emit more carbon dioxide than volcanoes: According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, humans emit about 40 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, based on 2015 numbers. Emitting CO2 via eruptions and underground magma (through vents, soils, porous rocks, and water), volcanoes emit up to 0.15 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, or around 90 times less than people do.


9. Buildings emit 39 percent of the CO2 released in the U.S.: Lighting, heating, and cooling buildings contribute to emissions, as do the electrical appliances and equipment used by building occupants. Consuming 70 percent of the nation’s electricity, structures account for more emissions than the industrial or transportation sectors, according to the U.S. Green Building Council.

10. About 21 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions came directly from industrial processes in 2015: Businesses that produce goods from raw materials burn fossil fuels directly from the energy they use. The chemical reactions that occur during production contribute to greenhouse emissions as well. By comparison, commercial and residential activities accounted for 12 percent of emissions that year.

11. Companies can measure emissions using the Greenhouse Gas Protocol: The World Resources Institute created this tool along with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Standards created by the protocol offer companies help with identifying components of a value chain to reduce emissions (Corporate Value Chain Standard). These can also aid the development of low-carbon product lines for identifying climate-related risks during production or provide a competitive edge (Product Life Cycle Standard).

12. Employees contribute to carbon footprint: Workers who keep refrigerator doors open, use more electricity and don’t recycle contribute more in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. Ways to be more efficient include making bicycle use more accessible and encouraging employees to work at home.

13. Business travel contributes to emissions: Company vehicle fleets and air-travel can contribute to emissions and older, less efficient cars can increase an organization’s carbon footprint. Planning trips in advance, using public transportation, and using telephone and video conferencing communications instead of traveling from point A to point B can reduce it.

14. Office IT operations in emerging economies are increasing carbon emissions: Worldwatch Institute recently reported that, in 2016, China accounted for 23 percent of greenhouse gas emissions associated with information technology. Increased emissions from this area are also expected from Brazil, India, and Indonesia; the Institute predicts these will increase 9 percent annually through 2020. More advanced cooling systems for data centers, server consolidation, and energy-reducing server software can help improve the carbon footprint from IT.

15. A commercial CO2 capture plant now exists: A Switzerland-based company, Climeworks, has developed a system that can remove carbon dioxide from the air. The company’s plans for the technology include compressing the gas and converting it into a greenhouse crop fertilizer. Carbon dioxide collectors are powered by excess incinerator heat, while filters capture it as ambient air is drawn in from fans. It’s expected to yield 900 metric tons of carbon each year, which can be used to grow crops and support other processes such as manufacturing carbonated soft drinks and transportation fuel, somewhat offsetting the carbon released by such processes.