Carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide emitted by something during a given period. In layman terms, “carbon footprint” is a measure of the amount of natural resources required to manufacture, distribute and dispose of a product. This includes raw materials and fuels required to manufacture the product, the amount of carbon-type product contained in the finished product, the fuel required to transport the product and any maintenance costs associated with the final product.
The carbon footprint can also be applied to business operations to reflect the total amount of resources such as utilities, office paper, raw materials, etc., required to conduct facility operations. By using ecofriendly products and cleaner, alternative and renewable energy sources in its processes, a facility can substantially reduce its carbon footprint and overall effect on the environment.
Some greenhouse gases, or GHG, such as industrial halocarbons, are made only by humans. Their presence in the atmosphere can be explained only by human activity. Although GHG such as carbon dioxide, or CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide occur naturally, several independent sources of evidence make it increasingly evident that they are increasing because of human activities. Their concentrations were stable for thousands of years. They began to swiftly rise about 200 years ago, about the same time that humans began to engage in large-scale agricultural and industrial enterprises.
People produce a great deal of CO2 from many different sources. Most of this ends up in the atmosphere. As of 2002, for example, there were 531 million cars worldwide. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, each of those cars, on average, produces 20 pounds of carbon dioxide for every gallon of gas it consumes.
A great deal of our electricity is generated by coal-fired power plants. They are some of the worst polluters. When you factor in other sources of CO2, such as cow manure and cleared forests, the DOE estimates that humans are responsible each year for emitting nearly 6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.
In addition to our cars and coal plants, it is worth noting that CO2 is released in natural ways. There is a natural carbon cycle found in the animal and plant kingdoms as well as in the oceans. These processes create natural greenhouse gases. However, according to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey, on average, human activities put out in just three to five days the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide that volcanoes produce globally each year.
When we consume energy derived from fossil fuels, the generation of the energy – whether using gasoline in cars, heating our houses with natural gas, or lighting our houses with electricity – produces greenhouse gases. In 2003, the average household produced 12.4 tons of carbon dioxide from its household operations and about 11.7 tons from its automotive uses.
By combining the direct emissions and the indirect allocations for each functional consumer activity, they found that about 12 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions (or 14,160 pounds of carbon dioxide per household) result from just growing, preparing and shipping our food. So “Buy Local” has become a mantra for many hoping to rely upon local food products and lower the environmental effects of their food chain.
And 6 percent of emissions (or about 7,080 pounds of carbon dioxide per household) derive from the delivery of medical services to consumers. So it’s everywhere, even in the ways we try to stay healthy, ironically.
Roth, a former Oklahoma corporation commissioner, is an attorney with Phillips Murrah P.C. in Oklahoma City, where his practice focuses on clean, green energy for Oklahoma.