Your Weight In Carbon
by
Wing Sze Tang
Feb 3
What Is a Carbon Footprint, and How Can It Help Fight Climate Change?

Carbon footprint” is a term you’ve probably been hearing a lot of lately. But if you’re not 100 percent sure what it means, you’re in good company.

Recent polls suggest that while most Americans know that climate change is one of the most important issues of our time (some might say the most important), many of us are still a bit fuzzy on the specifics—especially when it comes to what we can do on an individual level.

We hear what scientists are saying. Rising levels of human-created greenhouse gases (we’ll call them GHGs, starting now) are trapping heat in the atmosphere and causing global warming and other aspects of climate change, like severe wildfires and flooding.

The whole thing is rather daunting, but there really are solutions. And it needs to be a collective effort. The first step? Measuring how big our impact is to start with—aka our carbon footprints.

In This Article:

Chapter 1: What are carbon footprints and how do you measure them?

Chapter 2: How do countries rank by total carbon emissions and carbon footprint per capita?

Chapter 3: What contributes the most to carbon emissions in the United States?

Chapter 4: What are companies doing to measure and reduce their carbon emissions?

Chapter 5: What can I do to reduce my own carbon footprint?

A carbon footprint being symbolized by footprints in the sand on a beach.
Photo by AbdolAzim Mollaie - Unsplash
Chapter 1

What are carbon footprints and how do you measure them?

Ever been in a performance review at work? Then you’ve probably heard the term SMART goals. (*Insert audible sigh*, but stay with us.)

The basic concept is that any objective is easier to reach when we make it SMART, aka specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.

Cliché? Definitely. But the thing is, SMART goals work. That’s why understanding how to calculate your carbon footprint is the first step in translating a massive global challenge into smaller, more achievable changes that we can make right now.

It’s true that climate change is a global crisis, and achieving a low-carbon future will take monumental changes from everyone everywhere. But finding ways to take personal action can feel empowering, and the changes you make might influence others around you, too. That “no good deed is too small” inspirational poster you might have seen in script font on Pinterest? It perfectly captures what it means to take individual climate action.

It takes only about 3.5 percent of a population engaging in action to spark real political change.

Don’t underestimate the ripple effect our small actions can cause: According to political scientist Erica Chenoweth, known for her research on peaceful protest, it takes only about 3.5 percent of a population engaging in action to spark real social change. This theory is known colloquially as the “3.5 percent rule,” and we kind of want to embroider it on a sweatshirt. 

If you think regulations are taking too long to enact, and you want to do your part for the cause, understanding how to calculate your carbon footprint—and then working to lower it—is a step in the right direction.

Climate change protest with sign reading "fight for a better tomorrow".
Photo by Markus Spiske - Pexels

What is a carbon footprint?

The term “carbon footprint” is a metaphor for the impact our actions have when it comes to global warming.

Basically, a carbon footprint is a way of calculating the GHGs created on behalf of a person, place or thing. You can calculate a carbon footprint for virtually anything: an individual, company, industry or country, for example, or a product, action or lifestyle. The final number reflects all the GHGs that something or someone is responsible for.

Just as an elephant walking down a sandy beach leaves a bigger footprint than the mouse strolling alongside it, someone whose daily activities depend on a lot of energy use will leave a bigger carbon footprint than someone who uses fewer resources. The bigger the footprint, the bigger the contribution to global warming and climate change.

Calculating your own carbon footprint is the first step on the journey from Dumbo to Mickey.

What is an ecological footprint?

Well, as any good middle manager knows, you can’t get anywhere without a solid set of KPIs. To size up human impact on the planet, ecological footprint and carbon footprint are two common (and overlapping) measurements.

Your ecological footprint includes not only your carbon footprint, but other factors too, like how quickly you consume natural resources.

An ecological footprint adds up our impact in global hectares (gha), reflecting how much land you would need to support a certain way of living. (One hectare is 10,000 square meters, equivalent to 2.47 acres.)

Your ecological footprint includes not only your carbon footprint, but other factors too, like how quickly you consume natural resources like plant crops, animal foods and water. If a population’s demands exceed supply (aka the region’s “biocapacity”), that means its ecological footprint is beyond its means. 

Spoiler alert: for the average American right now, it is.

What types of greenhouse gases contribute to your carbon footprint?

There are lots of greenhouse gases. But carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most common one, so people use it as a kind of shorthand to talk about all the different gases that can absorb heat energy and trap it in the atmosphere. These are the heavy hitters:

1. Carbon dioxide (CO2)

Which makes up about 76 percent of global GHG emissions

2. Methane (CH4)

Which accounts for 16 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

3. Nitrous oxide (N2O)

Which contributes 6 percent of emissions (but is still no slouch).

What unit of measurement do you use for carbon footprints?

Simple, right? Not quite. Figuring out the total combined impact of these gases isn’t as easy as just adding them up, though, since they differ dramatically in how skilled they are at heating up the planet. This phenomenon is referred to as their global warming potential.

Since we can’t compare apples to oranges, a carbon footprint calculator does the hard work for us, transforming all other greenhouse gases into their carbon dioxide equivalent, or CO2e. That’s the amount of CO2 that would create the same warming.

If you jotted it down, the equation would look like this: [amount of a greenhouse gas] x [the gas’s GWP] = CO2e. Amounts are generally calculated in metric tons, so you’ll see a t there out front: tCO2e. (One metric ton is about 2,204.6 pounds.) If you see a footprint measurement without a time frame or other limitation attached, assume it’s for a year.

Using this formula, we can calculate that one metric ton of methane = 25 tCO2e, and one metric ton of nitrous oxide = 298 tCO2e. Which is pretty astonishing. And also, yeah, we’re thankful for the ease of carbon footprint calculators, too.

Calculating carbon footprints symbolized by an old financial calculator.
Photo by StellrWeb - Unsplash

How do I calculate my own carbon footprint?

Don’t worry, there’s a handy tool. 

The quickest way is to use a carbon footprint calculator, literally designed just for this purpose. A quick Google search will find you countless other options too. They usually start with some easy questions about your lifestyle, like where you live, how much you travel, how much energy you use at home, what you eat and how you shop.

It doesn’t matter what carbon footprint calculator you use. Just make sure it covers your habits thoroughly. Otherwise, you might get an incomplete measure of your carbon emissions. (A “toe print”, if you will.)

Think about this. A calculator that estimates transportation-related CO2 based only on your car usage, without factoring in the flights you take to visit your mom every holiday, wouldn’t be giving you the whole picture. And when it comes to the environment, we probably shouldn’t be cutting corners.

What's the difference between direct and indirect carbon emissions?

A complete carbon footprint includes both direct and indirect emissions, and the distinction can be confusing. Let’s dig in, shall we?

If you’re measuring the impact of a product, activity or lifestyle, the direct emissions are the ones immediately connected to it, while indirect emissions are one or more steps removed.

When you’re calculating household energy use, like cooking your famous carbonara on the gas stove, that counts toward direct emissions—you’re burning the gas right there in your kitchen.

Try this example on. When you’re calculating household energy use, like cooking your famous carbonara on the gas stove, that counts toward direct emissions—you’re burning the gas right there in your kitchen. But the electricity powering your shiny, retro-inspired fridge involves indirect emissions, as it was likely made by burning fossil fuel at a power plant.

Both of these should count toward your personal carbon footprint. But not all carbon calculators take this into account, so be vigilant. And when in doubt, do a little reference check on our list of approved calculators.

How much do we need to reduce our carbon footprints by?

Let’s start at the end. The ultimate goal is a carbon-neutral planet. That means we balance out our GHG emissions by removing the same amount from the atmosphere, ending up with a net-zero carbon footprint. (Being carbon-negative takes this idea a step further: removing more emissions than we produce.)

Until we get there (cut to the global cheerleading team), the Paris Agreement set the target that nearly the entire world is now striving to reach: cutting emissions enough to ensure that the planet doesn’t get 2°C (3.6°F) hotter than pre-industrial levels. The experts call this a critical threshold.

In fact, the Paris Agreement uses hedging language on this. Climate scientists don’t actually want us to hit that two-degree mark. They would prefer the temperature increase to max out at “well below 2 degrees, maybe even 1.5.”

To reach this 2-degree hard limit, the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project says the target for all countries should be to cap energy-related CO2 emissions at 1.7 tCO2e per person, as a global average, by 2050. (This target zeroes in on emissions related to energy production and consumption, since those make up the bulk of all GHGs.)

Making the necessary changes requires everyone, from individuals to governments, to do the work.

The bad news is, that’s no easy feat. Even in Sweden, which is considered the leader in climate protection efforts, energy-related CO2 emissions were about 3.8 metric tons per person in 2016, more than double the target. And in the U.S.? The average American carbon footprint related to the energy sector is around 16 metric tons a year. And if you look at total GHGs for all sectors? That number’s closer to 18 tCO2e per American. Ruh roh.

Making the necessary changes requires everyone, from individuals to governments, to do the work. And one super-easy step we can take right now (like seriously, click here and do it right now) is to figure out our own carbon emissions so we can start making choices to cut back.

Some of the most impactful things the average American can do to reduce their carbon footprint are cutting back on the bacon cheeseburgers, decreasing household energy use (dryers are out, clotheslines are in!) and reducing—or, if you’ve got the chutzpah, eliminating—travel by car and plane.

So think hard: Do you really need to follow Lizzo to Vegas and NYC? 

Earth's atmosphere from space which is affected by greenhouse gas emissions.
Photo by NASA - Unsplash
Chapter 2

How do countries rank by total carbon emissions and carbon footprint per capita?

Unsurprisingly, calculating a country’s carbon footprint is pretty complicated. And the results can be both controversial and morally suspect, so the whole thing is a tricky issue to discuss.

But the data definitively shows that we are creating way more greenhouse gases than we should be.

But the data definitively shows that we are creating way more greenhouse gases than we should be. (And here in the U.S., sad to say, we’re ranking high when we should be aiming low.)

How is a country's carbon footprint calculated?

With a lot of very complex spreadsheets.

The experts have come up with a number of ways to measure carbon emissions by country, so governments, NGOs, journalists and random data geeks can crunch the numbers and spot trends over time. Here are three commonly used metrics:

1. Annual greenhouse gas emissions

Total greenhouse gases emitted per year.

2. Cumulative greenhouse gas emissions

Total historical levels of emissions by country.

3. Per capita greenhouse gas emissions

Total greenhouse gases emitted per year, divided by total population.

What countries have the largest amount of carbon emissions (by annual output)?

So you want to know what country emits the most greenhouse gases? Like many global rankings, the US is at or near the top in every category, except this one doesn’t make us beam with pride.

1. China (27%)

2. The U.S. (15%)

3. The E.U.*: (10%)

4. India: (7%)

5. Russia: (5%)

*The E.U.’s 28 countries are often grouped together since they set environmental targets as one body.

What countries have the largest amount of carbon emissions (by cumulative output)?

1. The U.S. (25%)

The biggest contributor by far—it’s responsible for 25 percent of total historical CO2 emissions (from 1751–2017).

2. China (13%)

China takes second place at 12.7 percent, thanks to its rapid industrialization, propelled by manufacturing—and, of course, the fact that more than a billion people live there.

Between 1995 and 2015 alone, CO2 emissions from its manufacturing industry went up by 221 percent.

The planet earth being viewed from space, where the effects of climate change are evident.
Photo by The New York Public Library - Unsplash

Which countries have the highest carbon emissions per capita?

In 2017, the biggest CO2 emitters per capita were, in order: Qatar, Trinidad and Tobago, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

Out of the top emitters by total output above, the highest on the per capita list is the good ol’ U S of A. Our emissions in 2017 were more than 16 metric tons per person. Compare that with China at 6.86, the E.U. at 7.04, India at 1.84 and Russia at 11.31.

It’s important to note that this metric ranks country emissions on the basis of production (which would include fuel and other products for export), because this is the standard accounting method.

But an alternative is calculating based on a country’s consumption, which would better reflect the population’s lifestyle and policy choices.

Total per capita CO2 emissions in the U.S. in 2018, for example, were 16.58 tCO2e for production, and 17.63 tCO2e for consumption. For China, on the other hand, production is higher than consumption: 6.97 tCO2e vs. 6.28 tCO2e.

Which countries have the smallest carbon footprint?

Since it takes a certain amount of money to produce GHGs, it will come as no surprise that the individuals and countries with the lowest carbon footprint are those who have the least.

In many less affluent countries such as Chad, Niger and the Central African Republic, the average footprint is less than 0.1 tCO2e per year. That’s well under that 1.7 tCO2e target that we’re reaching for, though let’s keep in mind that we shouldn’t be relying on the world’s poorest to keep the averages down.

Among more developed and industrialized countries, the lowest on the list are Sweden and Switzerland, with 4.27 and 4.52 tCO2e per capita.

City in a developing country, where carbon footprints are smaller on average.
Photo by Wong Zihoo - Unsplash

Why do greenhouse gas emissions by country vary so much?

There are a lot of reasons, but it boils down to a combination of having money to burn—and deciding whether to burn it. There’s also a bit of luck involved, like the climate you live in and the natural resources you’re surrounded by.

Economic inequality is a big factor. The richer the country and the higher its standard of living, the more energy it tends to burn through and the more stuff people tend to buy (and discard).

Think about the way we live in the U.S.: we drive more, fly more, shop more and air-condition our buildings more than people in most other places. (Plus, those homes and cars tend to be a lot bigger than elsewhere.) Similarly, the more populous the country, the greater the potential for CO2 emissions.

The richer the country, the more energy it tends to burn through and the more stuff people tend to buy.

On the flip side, some countries are able to keep carbon emissions lower—or reduce them—by enacting climate-friendly policies.

Example? Sweden, recognized as an early adopter of climate protection measures, instituted a carbon tax way back in 1991, or when Will Smith was still sitting on his throne as the Prince of Bel-Air. As a result, carbon emissions decreased and the tax contributed revenue for Sweden’s general budgets, which they were able to use to fund other climate-related initiatives.

Some countries are lucky enough to reap the benefits of endemic natural energy sources that limit their reliance on fossil fuels. Take Iceland, the world’s largest green energy producer per capita.

As you may have seen on Zac Efron’s Netflix series “Down to Earth with Zac Efron,” nearly all of the island’s electricity comes from hydropower and geothermal power.

And then there’s the realities of winter. It would be a challenge worthy of reality TV to live out the cold months in Alaska (or, for that matter, Sweden) without using some kind of energy to stay warm.

The northern lights over the arctic
Photo by Nicolas J Leclercq - Unsplash

What is an acceptable carbon footprint per person in each country?

As we previously touched on, 189 countries have signed the Paris Agreement. That means they’ve committed to take action—i.e., not just talk—to keep temperatures from hitting that 2-degree average increase.

Most countries are taking the agreement seriously, at least from the public image POV. China, for example, has pledged that it will reach carbon neutrality by 2060, and that its overall emissions will start going down before 2030.

Unfortunately, some experts, like the ones behind the Climate Action Tracker, believe the environmental commitments set by most countries aren’t yet enough to block the literal floodgates of global warming.

Does everyone have to reduce their carbon footprint?

These are thorny issues. As is the question of which countries should shoulder the biggest burden of cleaning up the environment, cutting consumption and investing in new and upgraded infrastructure.

Should this be the nation responsible for the most emissions historically (the U.S.), the current top emitter (China) or the ones cranking out the most CO2 per capita (oil-producing countries)?

While the world’s poorest countries have contributed the least to the climate crisis, they are especially vulnerable to the fallout.

You can’t answer this question without bringing up climate justice, a concept that positions climate change as an ethical and political issue as much as an environmental one.

The absolutely unfair fact is that while the world’s poorest countries have contributed the least to the climate crisis, they are especially vulnerable to the fallout, which includes everything from land degradation and devastating food shortages to escalating infectious diseases.

This also goes for the poorest members of more-affluent countries, who tend to live in areas that are already plagued with pollution and that are at greatest risk of being negatively affected by climate change. In the U.S., this group disproportionately includes people of color, an issue termed environmental racism.

The less money you have, the less you’re able to escape disasters like flooding and fires or to be able to pay for air-conditioning and other things that make life in a hot climate more bearable. Climate change solutions need to take this growing inequality into account. 

A youth climate change protest taking over the streets.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao - Unsplash

What are countries doing to lower their greenhouse gas emissions?

Well, let’s just say there’s room for improvement. But because it’s important to celebrate the small victories, here are a few noteworthy measures being rolled out.

1. Morocco

Morocco is one of few countries on track to reach Paris Agreement goals. It’s achieving this by generating more of its electricity from renewable sources. One example? It’s home to the world’s largest concentrated solar farm, the Noor-Ouarzazate complex, which creates enough electricity to cover the needs of one million Moroccans.

2. India

India wants to generate 40 percent of its power through renewables like solar by 2030, and it’s well on its way to earlier-than-planned success. In the past decade, the government has also doubled its coal tax (a de facto carbon tax) three times, putting that money toward clean energy projects.

3. Costa Rica

Costa Rica already gets 98 percent of its electricity from renewables, chiefly hydropower. It wants to hit 100 percent by 2021. The country is also turning its attention to reducing emissions from fossil fuels used for transportation. For example, government policy encourages people to choose electric vehicles: not just with financial incentives like tax breaks, but also other attractive perks like better parking.

Sloth hanging from tree on beach
Chapter 3

What contributes the most to carbon emissions in the United States?

Close to 80 percent of all U.S. emissions are thought to be directly or indirectly related to household consumption. That includes things like your electricity usage and the gas in your car, plus things you buy like appliances, furniture, gadgets and food.

Close to 80% of U.S. emissions are directly or indirectly related to household consumption.

What you do, use and buy can also generate emissions outside your country. Clothing as a category, for example, accounts for more than 12 percent of U.S. household emissions overseas, even though it has no significant domestic footprint. (In other words, if your shirt was manufactured, say, in Bangladesh, its carbon footprint is mostly attributed to that country. Which seems kind of unfair, since demand is coming from elsewhere.

How much does each industry contribute to U.S. carbon emissions?

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (or, to their friends, the EPA) has been crunching the numbers on national GHGs from all human-made sources since 1990. The findings are published every year in the Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, which we’re pretty sure would be a great pick for your bedside table if you’re prone to insomnia.

To browse numbers by sector, and see trends over time, you can use the EPA’s interactive tool, the Greenhouse Gas Inventory Data Explorer. For the CliffsNotes, have a look below for a breakdown of greenhouse gas emissions by sector in the U.S., according to EPA data from 2018.

The information and communications industry could account for up to 21% of global electricity demand by 2030.

1. Transportation (28%)

More than 90 percent of the fuel we use to get around—by car, truck, plane or diesel-powered train is still petroleum-based. The largest sources of these emissions are passenger cars and light-duty trucks, including SUVs and minivans.

2. Electricity (27%)

Around 63 percent of U.S. electricity comes from fossil fuels, mostly coal and natural gas; these release GHGs as they burn. In American homes, the biggest electricity hog is making things cooler and heating them up: that means the hot water tank, the furnace and AC, and the fridge, freezer and stove. 

And then there’s all our power-sucking gadgets and the systems they’re connected to. The information and communications technology industry could account for up to 21 percent of global electricity demand by 2030.

3. Industry (22%)

When it comes to the industrial production of goods, burning fossil fuels for power or heat is one of the biggest sources of GHG emissions. And sometimes the production process itself involves emissions, like when petroleum is used to manufacture plastic. (As for the impact of plastic, that’s a story for another day.)

4. Commercial and residential (12%)

In this sector, many of the emissions in the U.S. are related to heating and cooking. Burning natural gas is responsible for the majority of GHGs directly emitted, since most of us don’t burn any other fuels right in our homes anymore. 
Other sources of GHG emissions include organic waste, wastewater and leaky air conditioning and refrigeration systems.

5. Agriculture (10%)

Livestock, especially cattle, produce and release methane—enough to make up more than 25 percent of agriculture-related emissions in the U.S. Certain farming practices, like using fertilizers, can lead to emissions of nitrous oxide.

6. Land use and forestry

Since trees and plant matter absorb and store carbon, that category is a “net sink” in the U.S. In fact, this sector offset around 12 percent of GHG emissions in 2018. Score one for the trees!

Tress and fauna in the desert, which act as natural carbon sinks.
Photo by Owen Rupp - Unsplash
Chapter 4

What are companies doing to measure and reduce their carbon footprints?

A country’s carbon footprint is the sum of the actions of a lot of individuals—and that includes individual companies. The good news? For a number of reasons, more and more businesses are motivated to care about their carbon footprint.

To start with, consumers increasingly value and expect sustainable business practices. Next, extreme weather caused by climate change is putting companies and their supply chains at risk. And no smart CEO likes that kind of risk.

Plus, businesses are realizing that a carbon-conscious future isn’t just about making sacrifices. In fact, it holds huge opportunities for growth and leadership.

Which companies are responsible for the most carbon emissions?

You’re not going to fall out of your seat for this one.

According to research from the Climate Accountability Institute, 20 fossil fuel companies—producers of oil, natural gas and coal—are responsible for 35 percent of all carbon and methane emissions since 1965. Read that again and let it sink in for a moment.

The grand total? A whopping 480 billion metric tons of CO2e. 

Why are companies tracking their corporate carbon footprint?

Sometimes they just have to: The biggest GHG emitters in the U.S. must report their data annually to the EPA. Other times, companies track their corporate carbon footprint so they can give the details to non-profit organizations such as CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project), or because they have their own reasons for trying to do better.

CDP shares data on carbon emissions with potential investors. Since sustainability is increasingly crucial, a firm’s carbon footprint—assuming it’s relatively good—can be seen as a competitive edge.

What are corporations doing with their carbon footprint score?

Just like age, a carbon footprint is, well, just a number. But if companies want their upcoming annual reports to include truly impressive graphs, they have to have a plan. And great news: There are plenty of companies making huge efforts to reduce their carbon footprints.

Luckily, there are lots of options available. They can work toward reducing emissions, or buy offsets to counteract their carbon footprint. They can set internal carbon pricing (more on this concept later). And they can also push their business partners, such as suppliers, to do their own carbon accounting and set emissions targets.

Reducing emissions begins with spotting opportunities. There is plenty of inspiration, if you know where to look.

How can companies lower their corporate carbon emissions?

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions begins with spotting the opportunities. And there is plenty of inspiration, if you know where to look. Like these potential measures:

1. Cut overall energy consumption

One simple first step is to upgrade to energy-efficient lighting and HVAC equipment. Companies can also consider extensive building overhauls, known as “deep retrofits,” which are estimated to save up to 60 percent in energy costs.

2. Reduce unnecessary business travel

Transitioning to a remote workforce, for instance, would cut down on car commuting, a significant source of emissions. If one good thing has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic—at least when it comes to climate change—it’s that we’ve been abruptly thrust into a world where video conferencing is normal. (But seriously, Rob, don’t forget you’re on camera.)

3. Use renewable energy

Corporations can commit to getting more electricity from renewable sources like wind or solar power. Apple, for instance, uses 100 percent renewable energy for its operations. It’s now working on transitioning its products—including its full supply chain—away from fossil fuels.

4. Buy carbon offsets

Both companies and individuals can put money toward greenhouse gas reduction measures by buying carbon offsets (think tree planting, energy efficiency projects and methane recovery).

Which companies are taking climate action and reducing their carbon footprint?

While no company has a perfect track record, there are lots of examples of positive corporate change when it comes to climate issues. Here are a few highlights.

Microsoft

Microsoft intends to be carbon-negative by 2030. Even more ambitiously, by 2050 it aims to remove all the carbon it has emitted since the company was founded.

To get this done, the company plans to slash its carbon emissions by more than half by 2030, and will launch a $1-billion fund for climate innovation, aiming to accelerate technology for carbon reduction, capture and removal. Woohoo!

Unilever

The consumer goods giant plans to achieve net-zero emissions for all products by 2039. It will set up a system to improve supply-chain transparency, with each supplier invoice declaring the carbon footprint of goods and services provided.

Unilever will also invest €1 billion in a climate fund, expected to support projects like reforestation, carbon sequestration and water preservation.

Amazon

Amazon wants to be carbon-neutral by 2040, and it co-founded The Climate Pledge to get other companies to hit that same deadline.

It’s reducing emissions related to customer shipments by developing more environmentally friendly packaging and delivering packages via zero-emission transportation such as electric trucks. And it intends to power its operations entirely with renewable energy by 2030.

Ford Motor Company

Ford aims to be carbon-neutral globally by 2050. The car maker plans to run all its manufacturing plants worldwide on 100 percent locally sourced renewable energy by 2035.

It will also be launching electric/no-emission versions of some of its most popular vehicles.

Apple

Apple has pledged to become carbon neutral for both its supply chain and its products by 2030. (The company’s global corporate operations are already carbon neutral.)

The plan includes low-carbon product design, increased energy efficiency, renewable energy, carbon removal (aka offsetting) and other innovations, like the development of a new, lower-carbon process for smelting aluminum. And also, because we’re talking about the future, a smart recycling robot called Dave. No joke.

Microsoft sign on office building

Why are corporations starting to use internal carbon pricing?

It’s widely expected that one day, emitting GHGs will come with a cost to corporations, like a government-imposed carbon tax. (This kind of system already exists in some countries.)

To prepare for this future, some companies are setting their own internal carbon pricing. This can be a real fee that’s collected, or a “shadow” amount that’s strictly theoretical, like Monopoly money.

Here are two examples, along with the business benefits.

  • Microsoft has an internal carbon fee of $5–$10 per metric ton. They funnel the funds into sustainability projects, like the purchase of renewable energy.
  • BHP set a shadow price on its carbon of $24–$80 per metric ton. They’ve factored this cost into their budgets to help them manage risks and make decisions, including ways to mitigate current emissions.

How can I tell the difference between greenwashing and legitimately sustainable companies?

It’s not always easy to tell if claims are just fluff, greenwashing—a marketing tactic designed to create the illusion that a company is more environmentally friendly than it truly is— but there are some questions to ask while you’re digging.

How does the company define “sustainable,” “carbon-neutral” or “climate-positive,” and what’s the specific plan to get there? Will it slash corporate carbon emissions by switching to renewable energy, buying carbon offsets, or both?

How will progress be measured and documented? Those companies that are making real change are easily able to explain how they’re doing it. Companies making real change should be able to say exactly how they’re doing it.

Luckily, you don’t (always) need to casually comb through 70-page annual reports to figure this out. There are tools available to help you research just how sustainable a company really is. Good On You is a guide to the clothing industry, for example, and HowGood gives insight into food brands.

Womans hands planting a crop
Photo by Karolina Grabowska - Pexels
It’s not easy to reduce your carbon footprint when our society is built for consumption.
Chapter 5

What can I do to reduce my own carbon footprint?

Real talk: it’s not always easy, and our society is built for consumption, not reduction. But no matter the size of your personal carbon footprint, you really can make mindful changes to lower it. Here are just a few ideas to start.

1. Considering going vegan or vegetarian

One study estimates that eliminating meat and dairy would reduce our footprints from food by two-thirds. We know, steak is tasty, and cheese is delicious. So don’t think it’s a question of all or nothing.

Even eating less red meat (especially beef and lamb) and more plants will still make a difference. Meatless Monday is a really delicious challenge to take on. Honest.

2. Avoid cars and planes where possible

Instead, travel in a more sustainable way by trading car rides for bikes, buses, trains or your own two feet.

Additionally, the next time you’re in the market for a vehicle, consider if an electric or hybrid might be your next ride.

3. Reduce your overall home energy use.

Make sure the heat or AC isn’t cranked too high, improve insulation and switch to energy-efficient appliances when the time comes for replacements. (And listen to your thrifty grandfather: turn the lights off when you’re not in the room!)

4. Be more considerate about your purchases.

Buying less, shopping vintage or secondhand and choosing quality things we’ll want to keep for years are all steps in the right direction.

Up for more? You got it. Head on over to our guide to reducing your carbon footprint for 27 ways to get started today.

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This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.

Wing Sze Tang
Written By
Wing Sze Tang

Wing Sze Tang is a freelance journalist, with bylines in many lifestyle publications, including FASHION, FLARE, The Kit and enRoute. When not writing, she likes running long distances—her preferred form of carbon-free travel.

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