What does carbon footprint mean?

A Carbon footprint is the activities in our lives where we produce carbon dioxide (CO2) and its sent into the atmosphere. The average Aussie produces nearly 5,000 kilos of carbon a year.

Sam Bendat

May 23, 2023

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Carbon footprint refers to activities in our lives where carbon dioxide (CO2) is produced and sent into the atmosphere. These activities are calculated into a single total sum of the CO2 produced, which we can refer to as a carbon footprint.

But you might now be asking, which activities? How is the CO2 calculated? I'm just one person out of billions; why should I even care? 

Well, let's break down the carbon footprint into smaller components, and by the end of this article, you will understand the meaning of carbon footprint.

What is a carbon footprint?

A carbon footprint is the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) you produce in your day-to-day life from simply doing small things, like driving a car that uses petrol, or cooking on a gas stove. The total amount of CO2 you produce from all your daily activities adds up to one single carbon emissions number, which is called your carbon footprint.

The term footprint is used because, much like walking on the beach, you leave an imprint in your environment.

Why do we calculate our carbon footprint?

We calculate our carbon footprint to identify how much CO2 we personally output every day, week, month and year. Also, to identify which parts of our daily routine are responsible for the biggest share of our CO2 emissions. Once we have the data, we can attempt to lower our emissions one activity at a time.

The World Meteorological Organisation reported in January of 2023 that the last eight years had been the hottest years on human record. This warming of the planet is a direct result of more CO2 in the atmosphere.

Cutting down our carbon footprint is a small but important part of capping global warming and preventing the worse consequences of climate change. Reducing just your own carbon footprint is not the total solution, of course, but every little bit helps to fight the huge increases of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Fortunately, today, more people understand the meaning of carbon footprint and want to do something to help. This may explain why a study by Accenture reveals that 61% of consumers want to make more environmentally sustainable purchases

Carbon footprint examples

Australia has an average carbon footprint of 17 tonnes per person, one of the highest rates in the world – higher than the US at 15.52 tonnes, and China at 7.38 tonnes per person.

To calculate our carbon footprint, we have to evaluate our daily activities and their effects on the environment. Carbon footprint examples will include emissions from a range of our daily activities and choices.

The Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water say that Aussies emit most of their emissions from these six categories:

  1. Energy use: 35%

  2. Stationary Energy 20%

  3. Transportation: 19% 

  4. Agriculture: 15%

  5. Fugitives: 11%

  6. Waste: 3%

  7. Other 17%

Stationary emissions refer to the use of energy mostly in manufacturing, and fugitives are emissions released during the extraction and processing of fossil fuels. Energy use is the energy we use to power our homes, transportation is the cars we drive, and agriculture is the food we eat, but we will break this down more in just a second.

The point is that our energy use, transportation, and eating habits make up 69% of the total emissions in Australia. I am not saying we should run to work every day while chewing on a lettuce leaf, but we at least need to be a bit more conscious of our impact.

What is my carbon footprint?

Using the main categories before we can create a general outline of what your carbon footprint might look like in your day-to-day life. So let's break down the three easiest categories that most likely account for 70% of your daily carbon footprint.

Strap in because in the next few sections, I am about to review quite a few numbers and statistics, but also, don’t fret because I will sum them all up at the end.

Energy use carbon footprint

Energy use is a tricky one because we at SolvingZero have built a great tool to calculate the carbon emissions of every plan in Australia, so we know this one back to front. The problem is some energy providers emit far more CO2 than others, and some companies actively try and build renewable energy sources to minimise emissions.

But let's use the National Energy Market (NEM) of Australia's average, which is all of the eastern states, and South Australia averaged together. The NEM outputs 629.2 kilos of CO2 for every MWh of energy produced. To put this in perspective, a normal passenger car driving 11,000km a year, which is the Australian average, emits 1,626 kilos of CO2 per year.

The real kicker here is most of us use at least 4 MWh of energy a year. You can figure out your energy use by looking at your energy bill, finding the “average kWh per day” number and then multiplying that by 365 days.

So, the average Australian home that uses 4000kWh (4MWh) a year outputs roughly 2,517 kilos of CO2 annually. Or about the equal of 1.5 passenger cars on the road for a full year.

Transportation carbon footprint

An Australian passenger that drives the standard 11,000km a year, which outputs the standard 146.5 grams of CO2 per kilometre, will emit 1,626.15 kilograms of CO2 per year by driving their car.

It's a pretty frightening statistic once you think about the volume of CO2 being pumped out into the atmosphere on every major freeway in Australia.

The other mode of transportation we need to take into account is flying. A standard 737 airliner emits roughly 115 grams of CO2 per kilometre per passenger. One return flight between the most popular route in Australia, Sydney to Melbourne, is around 708 kilometres, so would that return ticket would emit 179.4 kilos of CO2 per passenger. Considering that this assumes a nearly full flight, but if you’re flying private, congrats, and also, your emissions are diabolically high.

Agriculture carbon footprint

The animals we eat have to grow, eat, burp, and fart, and it's just how god made us. However, nurturing and raising animals causes a significant amount of emissions in the process. Overall, grazing beef, sheep and dairy cows make up 92% of the Agriculture emissions in Australia.

In a study published by the CSIRO, they state that one kilo of lamb emits 19.4 kilos of CO2, and one kilo of beef emits 25.2 kilos of CO2.

Now only you know how much red meat you eat a year, but on average, the University of Sydney says Australians eat around 89.7 kilos of meat per year, with beef at 20 kilos and lamb at around 5 kilos. That alone is responsible for 601 kilos of CO2 emitted per year.

If we consider chicken consumption which emits a much lower 2.9 kilos of CO2 per kilo of meat but is consumed at 42 kilos of meat per person a year, we add another 122 kilos of CO2 to the total. Meaning the carbon footprint for the average Aussie meat consumption is at least 720 kilos of CO2 per year.

Our carbon footprint average in Australia

Now that we understand the primary components of our carbon footprint let's add these together to get a general idea of the average carbon footprint for an Australian.

  • The average home in Australia emits 2,417 kilos of CO2

  • Transport emissions, between driving and flying, we emit 1,806 kilos of CO2 

  • Our diet of around 89.7 kilos of red meat a year for at least 720 kilos of CO2 

Adding all of these together and we have a general idea of our yearly carbon footprint. 

4,943 kilos of CO2 are pumped into the atmosphere annually for the average Aussie, or roughly three extra cars on the road per year. It’s important to note that if you live with people in your home, your home emissions would be divided up, but for this exercise, let's say you live alone and emit the national average.

How to reduce my carbon footprint

The best option to reduce your carbon footprint is to choose a cleaner energy provider that doesn’t own and operate coal energy plants. Moving from the most polluting provider in Australia, AGL, to the cleanest, Diamond Energy makes the difference of several thousand kilos of CO2.

The other well-known option is to try and reduce your driving time. This could mean walking or riding a bike to and from locations if practical, taking public transport when available, or buying an electric vehicle instead of driving a petrol car. These options will either chip away at your transport carbon footprint or eliminate it entirely.

Finally, reducing your meat consumption, especially beef, could have an outsized impact on your carbon footprint. Cows are such large creators of methane and greenhouse gas emissions that reducing your beef intake to only a few red meat meals a year could reduce your carbon footprint by hundreds of kilos of CO2.

Understanding the meaning of carbon footprint

At this point, you should understand the meaning of a carbon footprint. Furthermore, you now know the main components of your carbon footprint and the actions you can take to reduce that footprint.

If each of us takes action to reduce our carbon footprint, it has a compounding effect on the environment and our daily lives. By focusing on reducing our energy footprint, transport footprint and the footprint from our diet, significant headway can be made to limit the effects of climate change.


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