Carbon Footprints, Emissions, and Offsets

Today, it’s very common to encounter a variety of terms that include the word “carbon” in the news, in magazines, and in books. Words like “carbon footprint,” “carbon offsets” and “carbon emissions” – but it’s not often these terms are actually explained or defined.

What is Carbon?

Carbon itself is a chemical element. It’s represented on the Periodic Table of Elements as the letter C and has the atomic number of 6. Carbon can take several forms including graphite, diamond and amorphous carbon. Carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the universe by mass after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen.

What is a Carbon Footprint?

According to carbon footprint reduction, a carbon footprint is a “measure of the impact human activities have on the environment in terms of the number of greenhouse gases produced, measured in units of carbon dioxide.” The goal of the carbon footprint measurement is to help individuals and organizations better understand, conceptualize, and visualize their contribution to global warming.

A carbon footprint can been considered a subset of the earlier concept of ecological footprints.

What are Carbon Offsets?

Carbon offsetting is the act of mitigating (or “offsetting”) greenhouse gas emissions or carbon dioxide emissions. A common example of carbon offsetting or the use of carbon offsets is the purchase of “carbon offsets” in an attempt to compensate for the carbon dioxide production caused by personal air travel.

The underlying idea based on the concept of emissions trading. Someone who over pollutes pays someone who under pollutes to compensate. While emissions trading is regulated by a strict formal and legal framework, carbon offsets are generally arranged by commercial or not-for-profit carbon-offset providers. It is only today that formal standards and certifications for voluntary carbon offsets are starting to emerge.

What are Carbon Emissions?

Carbon emissions are a form of greenhouse gas. Greenhouse gases are, in the simplest terms, the components of the atmosphere that contribute to the greenhouse effect. It’s these dangerous elements that are causing global warming. To give you an idea how carbon dioxide fits into the bigger picture, carbon dioxide is the second most abundant of all the greenhouse gases.

So what can the average consumer do?

While three R’s – Reduce, Re-use and Recycle should be a part of everyones life strategy in today’s ever changing world climate – it’s often hard to apply these techniques in our busy everyday lives. That’s why I strongly support energy efficiency. Improving the energy efficiency of the devices we already use that are major contributors of carbon dioxide emissions can drastically reduce your carbon footprint, carbon emissions – not to mention your bills.

Here is an example: 1/7th of all electricity generated in the US is used to cool buildings. Obviously, this is an area that can benefit from the principal’s energy efficiency. SEER is a government rating for AC units that empowers consumers to identify the efficiency level of any new AC unit.