DIY sustainability – count your carbon footprint

Understanding your carbon footprint can help you to reduce your personal emissions. But it’s important to understand what is and isn’t counted.

Count your carbon footprint in 5 steps

Counting your carbon footprint usually takes just 5 – 10 minutes using an online calculator. 

Our steps will help you prepare for some of the questions you may be asked, but if you don’t have all the information, you can always try estimating just to get a rough idea.

  1. Dig out your past 2 or 3 energy bills. The first thing many online carbon calculators will ask you about is your household energy consumption in kilowatt hours (kWh).
  2. Think about your transport use. Work out how many trips / how much time you spend on trains/buses/trams and so on. If you drive, a calculator might ask you for your mileage (annually, monthly or other), so take a look at that too.
  3. Consider your food. Calculators typically ask you about your meat intake, but many also ask questions around locally sourced food and food waste.
  4. Review your other purchases. Some calculators will ask for details about your major consumption items like electronic devices, household goods, fashion and more.
  5. Identify an online calculator and read a little bit about its methodology, so you can understand your results. As with any online tool that requires data input, you should also look at how your data will be stored and used before you enter personal information. Brisbane City Council is supporting residents to reduce their household carbon emissions and save on bills through the Brisbane Carbon Challenge’s online footprint calculator. This calculator was specifically created for Brisbane,  using Brisbane data. Other calculators include the United Nations carbon offset platform's personal carbon footprint calculator and the World Wildlife Fund questionnaire.

These tips are compiled using information from the following sources: National Geographic,  United Nations carbon offset platform, World Wildlife Fund UK.

Understanding the problem

A carbon footprint calculates impact on global warming through greenhouse gas emissions. 

Both businesses and individuals can calculate their carbon footprint. Larger organisations are required to calculate and report their footprint to demonstrate how they are working to reduce their emissions. Organisations may also calculate more granular footprints – for instance, a flight, a festival, a product and so on.

Calculations for businesses require comprehensive inputs and extend across entire supply chains. You may see the terms ‘scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions’ in corporate reporting; these categorise how directly an entity produces its emissions . The Australian Government Clean Energy Regulator goes into a lot of detail to define emissions.

The term ‘carbon footprint’ has a chequered history. Its popularity is widely considered to have been nurtured by the oil industry to focus people’s attention on individual versus corporate responsibilities for climate change. 

Furthermore, many environmental advocates urge the importance of understanding a ‘carbon footprint’ vs an ‘ecological (or environmental) footprint’. An ecological footprint is broadly defined as measuring how humans consume natural capital or tracking the “demand on and supply of nature” (Global Footprint Network). 

Its applications and methodologies are even less standardised than carbon footprints, and they are not usually regulated by national governments, but the concept of incorporating land and water use into impact assessments is regularly explored in scientific research. 

Nonetheless, as National Geographic explains it, the value of calculating a carbon footprint is in gaining a detailed understanding of emissions output to then reduce impact. Results can be imperfect, and methodologies vary, but government arounds the world increasingly require corporations to conduct some form of annual carbon accounting.

Understanding your impact

Similarly to companies, individuals may benefit from understanding their carbon footprint to guide them to reduce their personal emissions.

People often misunderstand where their own actions can have the greatest environmental impact, as this research explains, and a carbon footprint can help clarify. 

Although, as the same research states, it’s important to understand that a carbon footprint does not capture all individual environmental impact either. For instance, littering is not part of a carbon footprint.

An individual carbon footprint typically comprises four categories: household energy use, transport, food and ‘everything else’, which mostly means the products we buy (National Geographic).

As with many sustainability measures, the impact of individual actions is not uniform. Emissions generated can depend on the country in which the action occurs, as well as the population density and infrastructure of the area, among several other factors.

And as with calculating emissions for meat consumption, it’s difficult to be completely accurate or to know where to stop in the production chain.

All of this means that most of the free calculators you find online can only deliver a ‘best guess’ of your carbon emissions. However, if they assist with awareness and help motivate you to make changes in your daily life, they can still serve a positive sustainability purpose.

Where to next?

This is part of our DIY sustainability series, created for UQ Sustainability Week and beyond. The series offers simple suggestions and fun activities for students, staff and members of the public who would like to increase sustainability-related actions in their daily lives.

Find more DIY sustainability ideas.