Carbon Footprint: Meaning and Explanation

Carbon Footprint. Those two words get thrown around a lot, whether it’s the government talking about the UK’s carbon footprint, an app telling you to measure your carbon footprint or a company advertising their low carbon footprint. The phrase is everywhere.

But, what is a carbon footprint? Which countries have the highest carbon footprints? Which industries have the highest? How do you measure your carbon footprint? How do you then reduce it?

In this article we will attempt to answer all of these questions and more.

What is a Carbon Footprint?

Just because companies and governments start using these words doesn’t mean people fully understand what is meant by a carbon footprint.

According to Wikipedia:

“A carbon footprint is the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by an individual, event, organisation, service, place or product, expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent.”

So essentially, everything that you do in your life from breathing to cooking to driving will produce greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In the name of simplicity, these greenhouse gases are converted into carbon dioxide equivalent as some GHGs will have a stronger global warming potential then carbon dioxide.

Global warming potential (GWP) is a measure of how much energy the emissions of 1 ton of a gas will absorb over a given period of time, relative to the emissions of 1 ton of carbon dioxide (CO2).

GWP provides the common unit of measure used to work out the CO2 equivalent of greenhouse gases.

For example, the GWP of carbon dioxide will always be 1 regardless of time period used because it is the reference. However, the GWP for Methane has been estimated to be 28-36 over 100 years. Therefore, in a 100 year time period methane will absorb 28-36 times more energy per ton of methane than the energy absorbed by 1 ton of carbon dioxide.

This GWP is then used to convert of the GHGs into CO2 equivalent, or the abbreviated version, CO2-eq, which is the carbon footprint of an activity.

Which Countries Have the Highest Footprint?

Looking at total carbon emissions, China has the largest footprint by far at 10.06 billion metric tons in 2018 (28% of global emissions). China’s high footprint comes primarily from coal burning which provides about 58% of their energy.

Carbon Footprint per Country
Source: Union of Concerned Scientists

Second, with almost half the emissions of China is the US, with approximately 5.41 billion metric tons in 2018 (15% of global emissions). Their largest sources of emissions come from power generation, transportation and industry.

Third is India with 2.65 billion metric tons (7% of global emissions). India is a developing country, and their path to urbanisation has caused the consumption of solid fuels, such as coal, to skyrocket.

The fourth biggest polluter is the Russian Federation with 1.71 billion metric tons (5% of global emissions). Russia has one of the largest natural gas deposits in the world, a primary source of energy for the country.

The fifth largest emitter is Japan who produce 1.16 billion metric tons (3% of global emissions). This is due to the country being heavily reliant on natural gas and coal for electricity.

However, if you look at the emissions per capita (per person per country), the results are different.

Carbon dioxide emissions per capita

Per capita, the largest offenders are the major oil producing countries with low populations. Most of these are in the Middle East. In 2017 the highest emissions were produced by Qatar at 49 tons per person, followed by Trinidad and Tobago (30t), Kuwait (25t), United Arab Emirates (25t), Brunei (24t), Bahrain (23t) and Saudi Arabia (19t).

Behind the Middle East, high emitters per capita in 2017 include: Australia (16.88t), the United States (16.16t), Luxembourg (15.63t), Canada (15.59t) and South Korea (12.15t).

Despite being the third largest emitter of total emissions, when considering emissions per capita, India ranks below the world average (4.73t) at 1.84t per capita.

Which Industries Have the Highest?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the energy sector, including electricity, heat and transport, has the highest footprint producing 73.2% of emissions.

Carbon Footprint Per Sector

As you can see from the chart this then breaks down to energy use in industry (24.2%), transport (16.2%) and energy use in buildings (17.5%).

Second is the agriculture, forestry & land use sector which accounts for 18.4% of global GHG emissions. Moreover, the biggest sector within agriculture, forestry & land use is livestock & manure, which accounts for 5.8%.

When looking at this chart it is clear that changes need to be made across sectors, especially because some changes are in the consumer’s hands and some are in those of governments and large corporations.

From a governments’ point of view, cutting emissions in the energy and transport sector by moving to renewables and electric respectively, could make massive strides towards lowering their country’s carbon footprint.

Furthermore, total food production and waste combined account for 32% of global GHG emissions. This makes it clear that massive change is needed both in the food industry but also in how we as individuals consume food. Our diets need to become more plant-based and we need to stop throwing so much food to landfill.

How Do You Measure Your Carbon Footprint?

The easiest way to measure your carbon footprint is through an app or an online site. The interface on most is very user-friendly and they will tend to ask you about some or all of the below topics:


  • Your diet
  • How often you eat out/ get takeaways
  • How much food you throw away
  • Whether you buy your food locally


  • Your main mode of transport
  • How many hours you spend a week on the train/bus
  • The number of return flights you take to different distances per year
  • How many of your flights you offset


  • What type of home you live in
  • The number of bedrooms in your house
  • How many people live in your house
  • How you heat your home
  • Whether your electricity is on a green tariff
  • How regularly you turn things off
  • How warm you keep your home in the winter
  • Any home energy efficiency improvements
  • What you recycle/compost


  • Large electrical items you’ve bought recently
  • Amount of money you spend on: clothes and shoes, pets and pet food (if you have one), and health and beauty products.
  • Spend on phone, internet and TV contracts
  • At the end you will be given a number in metric tons. Some apps/sites will compare you to the rest of your country and the world. Some will also split your footprint up into percentages, so you can see where in your life you can save the most carbon emissions to reduce your overall footprint.

How Do I Reduce My Footprint? 21 Steps to Start Reducing Your Footprint

This is a very big question to answer as you can keep changing all aspects of your life to reduce your footprint. Nevertheless, here are 21 steps to get you going:

  1. Start eating more plant-based meals. This can look different for everyone. Whether you don’t eat meat until dinner or only eat meat on weekends. Set yourself a realistic goal and once you’ve done that for a few weeks or months, maybe try reducing even further!
  2. Eat seasonally. As well as eating plant-based, eating produce that’s in season is really beneficial for the environment. It negates the need for food to be grown in greenhouses.
  3. Eat local. In addition to buying seasonal produce, shopping local avoids travel emissions and supports local businesses.
  4. Reduce as much as you can! Start spending less and shopping more consciously. Consider how much you really need an item before you buy it. Indeed, the most sustainable item is the one you already own.
  5. Reuse wherever possible. Whether it’s reusing jam-jars or upcycling furniture, don’t throw it away if it can be reused.
  6. Make sure you’re recycling. Unfortunately, all councils have different regulations and often packaging uses different symbols to signal the recyclability of a product. You can read some more about common waste symbols and commonly confusing packaging here.
  7. Start composting! If you have the space in your home, composting is an amazing way to reduce your footprint and make some natural fertiliser for your plants. If space is limited there are innovative electric composters beginning to appear on crowdfunding sites. Read more about electric composters, how they work and what’s available here.
  8. Get a reusable water bottle. Avoid contributing to the building plastic problem by not using single-use plastic water bottles.
  9. Get a reusable coffee cup. These are a perfect way to enjoy your morning coffee without having to feel guilty about the waste at the end!
  10. Turn things off. Leaving lights on and appliances on stand-by mode uses a lot more energy than you may think, turn them off!
  11. Buy energy efficient appliances. If you’re replacing any of your household appliances try to buy those with the highest energy efficiency rating.
  12. Stop buying fast fashion. The fashion industry was responsible for at least 4% of GHG emissions in 2018 and has serious issues with overproduction and waste. Try to instead shop at charity shops or Depop, and if you can’t get it second hand consider more sustainable clothing brands.
  13. Switch up your travel. Consider where you could walk or cycle and if it’s too far, could you use public transport instead of driving?
  14. Offset your flights. Flying can be a huge part of a person’s footprint, so choose your airline carefully, opting for one which will either allow you to offset the emissions from your flight or, even better, will foot the cost themselves.
  15. Insulate your home. Insulation and draft proofing your home is one of the most cost-effective measures households can take to reduce fuel consumption. Read more about how you can do it yourself and where you might need professional help here.
  16. Swap to an electric car. If you cannot go without a car, make your new one electric. Alternatively, consider an electric scooter which costs about 1p per mile to drive.
  17. Change to a green energy tariff. Read more about where green energy comes from and whether some green tariffs are greener than others here.
  18. Make sure you have a smart meter installed. These will help you keep track of how much energy you’re using. Additionally, you could install smart heating to remotely control your heating and gain even more control over your energy consumption.
  19. Consider installing solar panels. If you have the right roof for it, solar panels can be a great way to reduce your carbon footprint in the short-term, and will pay for themselves in the long-term.
  20. Get a heat pump. These can attain more than 400% efficiency, meaning they will pay back their cost through the reduction in bills.
  21. Collect rainwater to use in your garden or consider a grey water system to reduce your water usage by as much as 40%.

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