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What is a ‘carbon footprint’ and how big is yours?


Like many words and expressions, ‘carbon footprint’ is a phrase widely used but not always fully understood, writes Domonic White, founder of Nature’s Racers.

So, what does it mean, and why is it so important?

Let’s start with carbon. 

fire | What is a 'carbon footprint' and how big is yours?

All living things on planet Earth contain carbon – yes, even you! In fact, about 18 per cent of what makes up humans is carbon, and for plants it’s closer to 50 per cent. This carbon is released when something dies and decomposes, or when it’s broken down in other ways such as burning it. As the carbon is released it can combine with oxygen in the air to form a gas called carbon dioxide (CO2).

Carbon dioxide is one of the gasses we often refer to as a ‘greenhouse gas’ because it contributes to something called the ‘greenhouse effect’. This is where things can get a little tricky but stay with me.

The greenhouse effect is essential for sustaining life on Earth – without it the temperature on the surface of our planet would drop to -18C (0F) which is too cold for anything living to survive. The greenhouse effect is the result of certain gasses in our atmosphere (mostly water vapour, carbon dioxide, and methane) trapping heat from the sun, and keeping everything at a good temperature. Where things begin to go wrong, is if greenhouse gas levels start to change significantly.

Increasingly humans are adding to the amount of greenhouse gasses that get released into the atmosphere. This results in ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’. 

Child's illustration of a carbon footprint
Esme, a member of Nature’s Racers eco-club, made this picture to explain a ‘carbon footprint’.

Even seemingly small increases in average global temperatures are devastating for thousands of people around the globe, which has knock-on implications for us all. If the temperature increases continue to grow, then the impact on everyone will become more direct. Furthermore, it is entirely possible our ability to influence, halt or reverse the warming effect could soon be lost forever.  

We have to act now.

The good news is that if we work together to stop increasing the amount of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere, we should be able to prevent reaching the point of no return. 

This brings us neatly on to footprints. Think about walking along a sandy beach with no one else around. Glance back over your shoulder and you’ll see plenty of evidence of where you’ve been, and what you’ve been up to. Our footprints are what we leave behind and it’s almost impossible not to leave them. 

Footprints | What is a 'carbon footprint' and how big is yours?

Our ‘carbon footprint’ therefore, is simply the unavoidable trails we leave behind (in terms of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses) when we do anything…. anything at all.

Of course, some of life’s pursuits result in larger carbon footprints than others, and there are a number of ways to help interested parties calculate how big their own footprint(s) may be. The World Wildlife Fund’s online questionnaire is a good starting point https://footprint.wwf.org.uk/

There’s also support and information available locally. For example, local Climate Action Network groups can help you not only understand what your carbon footprint is, but they can also suggest easy ways to help reduce it.

During a recent meeting with some of the Minchinhampton CAN team, co-founder Dmytro Bojaniwskyj stressed their #aThousandActions campaign is aimed at getting everyone to do something, whatever it is they can most easily do.

Dmytro explained: “There’s this out-of-season punnet of strawberries you’re looking at in the supermarket – its footprint includes the fuel used in growing it, in transporting it thousands of miles, in keeping it cool, and after all that, they still taste a bit meh. By choosing not to buy them, choosing a lush local apple instead, is you shrinking your footprint.”

One small decision, and everyone can make similar decisions in all parts of their life.

Nobody saves the planet on their own, but together, stacking our little changes up, adding together the millions of things the thousands of people around Stroud could do – that’s progress, that’s change, that’s a real difference. Together we can do it.

Natures racers logo | What is a 'carbon footprint' and how big is yours?

At Nature’s Racers we encourage people to simply consider doing less – fly less, buy less, waste less (especially food), and burn less. In our haste for a return to ‘normal’ let’s also explore ‘better’. Let’s support our local businesses, protect our beautiful surroundings, and most of all inspire future generations to NOT walk in our footsteps….

You can find out more about Minchinhampton CAN and other Climate Action groups online:

•            https://minchcan.org/

•            https://www.nailsworthcan.org/

•            http://gloscan.org/

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