Understanding Your Personal Carbon Footprint

The path to a net-zero carbon world does not need to be politicized or require massive sacrifices backward in technology.

In fact, over the course of becoming a Clean Energy Lifer, you’ll discover that achieving a net-zero world–I like to call the zero world–offers massive technological and wellness benefits that enrich our lives and push our standard of living forward.

The first step toward a cleaner world is for individuals to understand where their carbon emissions come from and what their carbon footprint is.

For change to happen at scale, people need to understand the source of their carbon emissions and why they can negatively affect the path toward a cleaner future.

What Is a Carbon Footprint?

Your personal carbon footprint represents the amount of carbon emissions you emit through each action you take. 

While many people can visualize some of the impacts of their decisions, such as driving a gas-guzzling vehicle, other decisions, such as shopping and eating, also emit harmful greenhouse gasses.

According to the latest data by Statista, the average American emits ~14 metric tons of carbon yearly. While this number has improved, there is still significant room for improvement.

When discussing the definition of “carbon footprint,” scientists like to segment carbon footprints into three categories:

Understanding the environmental impact of your decisions on a personal level and considering the known emissions from Corporate and National sources will allow you to make better decisions that are cleaner for the environment and your health.

The Importance of Your Carbon Footprint

There are many reasons why your personal carbon footprint is important, many of which offer direct personal and collective benefits, such as within these areas of The Clean Energy Life:

While there is some debate about the importance of carbon emissions as it relates to climate change, it should be noted that beliefs in climate change tend to correlate with emissions.

The chart below from Yale shows that areas where climate change belief is lower, tend to correlate with higher emissions.

Achieving a net-zero world is not just about climate change; it provides all-around benefits to individuals and businesses.

The first step to helping the environment and reaping the benefits of the Clean Energy Life is understanding where our emissions come from.

Largest Sources of Carbon Emissions

In terms of overall carbon emissions, the following economic sectors share the largest share of ongoing emissions in the US. All data from the EPA: 2020.

The Our World in Data CO2 and Greenhouse Gas Emissions database also has a neat visualization to show where most of our emissions arise globally by emission source.

Accordingly, energy use and production are the number one source of emissions globally.

As a result, adopting the Clean Energy Life will have the biggest impact in sharply reducing emissions across the globe.

What Makes Up Your Carbon Footprint?

Now it’s time to discuss where individuals can measure and understand their carbon footprint

There are generally five areas where we can segment our carbon usage and use this data to make more informed decisions.


According to the EPA, the average passenger car emits about 4.6 tons of carbon dioxide annually.

Going carless could slash that number entirely. However, more practical alternatives may include upgrading to an EV or taking more public transportation.

Flying, too, can be a small but significant source of carbon emissions. The aviation industry accounts for 2.1% of all carbon emissions and 12% of all transportation-related emissions.


Unfortunately, the EPA calculates that nearly 67% of all electricity production comes from fossil fuel sources. 

Home energy use is typically neck-and-neck with transportation emissions, meaning that reducing electricity consumption will have the best impact currently. Upgrading to EnergyStar appliances and adopting energy-efficient building practices are great first steps and ways to upgrade your home. 


The average household emits nearly 8.1 metric tons of GHGs from food consumption alone. Of that number, meat and dairy account for nearly 75% of those emissions.

Much of these emissions arise from natural methane emissions from livestock, as well as the cost of transporting food to grocery stores and markets. 

Furthermore, food waste in landfills is also a massive source of emissions. 


Like diet, general shopping and consumption also have a huge carbon price tag. In addition, manufacturing various textiles and fabrics requires industrial production and transportation, which can be a massive source of greenhouse emissions. 

Be wary of what you shop for and where products originate, choosing to purchase more local goods when convenient.


Finally, waste from food scraps, timber, and general garbage can contribute to greenhouse emissions in landfills and elsewhere. 

Furthermore, wasted products increase production, which contributes to the cycle of industrial production, transportation, and waste we’ve discussed.  

Composting and recycling are positive steps, but reducing your waste by purchasing less or wasting less can have a much larger impact.

So now that you know how to spot carbon emissions and what your carbon footprint is made up of, the question is: how do we quantity all these variables and specifically pinpoint where your biggest areas of waste arise? Read on to the next section to Calculate Your Carbon Footprint so that you can uncover strategies that help you reduce your emissions. 

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