The Paradox in Measuring Our Nation’s Carbon Footprint

A carbon footprint can be described as the total amount of greenhouse gases that are produced to support human activities. When measuring a carbon footprint for an individual or community, it’s usually expressed as the number of “Earths” that would be needed to sustain our existence on the planet if each individual lived like that person or community. When I was 18, and before I had much environmental education, my carbon footprint was a whopping 7.2 Earths. This means that if everyone on the planet, including those in third-world countries, lived like I did we’d require 7.2 Earths to sustain such a lifestyle. The term “carrying capacity” can be used to describe the maximum number of individuals of a given species that an area’s resources can sustain without fully depleting those resources. In my case, 7.2 earths would have been needed to support people like me to meet the carry capacity of the planet. Now, 21 years old and an environmental student, my carbon footprint is 4.7 Earths. However, though I have improved my lifestyle through education, why does my particular lifestyle require more Earths than what is available?

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Through taking a simple online quiz to calculate my carbon footprint, I noticed that during the beginning of the test, participants state where they are from. Of course, I chose the United States and then began my test. I selected answers based on “services”, “mobility”, “food”, “shelter”, and “goods” based on my transportation routine, meat consumption, local food consumption, technology and entertainment consumption, size of home, type of energy utilized in said home, amount of waste recycled, and other factors that relate to my everyday lifestyle that determine my carbon footprint. Ten minutes later, the results told me 4.7 Earths were required for my lifestyle. I was shocked, mostly because I think I have a “greener” lifestyle than my peers. So I decided to test the system. I started the quiz over and selected the country Kenya to express where I reside. I then selected the exact same answers as I did before when I stated I lived in the US. After the quiz, the program told me that my carbon footprint was now 2.6 Earths. Wow. The only variable that was different from the first time I took it that day from the second time was the location I claimed to reside in. What does this mean? After thinking about it and manipulating the data, I realized that even if I claimed to be a vegan, not own a car, basically live in a cardboard box on the street, and only own one shirt, my carbon footprint in the United States was about 1.9 Earths. How could living so plainly still produce a lifestyle that requires more “Earths” than one?

It’s the system we live in. Just by living in the United States, an individual’s carbon footprint is still greater than what the carrying capacity can sustain. That means that no matter how green, and no matter how sustainable communities attempt to become, we as United States citizens, will never truly be “sustainable” until the system which we live within changes.

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The annual carbon footprint calculations of the average American household. Image via University of California, Berkeley.

What’s the “system” I am referring to? Our system can be referred to the many sectors that are comprised within it, such as how our economy runs, our waste collecting methods, our trade methods, our education systems, our agriculture and food production, our national electricity consumption on the grid, our national thirst for foreign oil, our lack of progressive environmental reform that would lower our nation’s average carbon footprint, and everything that composes our society. Because our system does not focus on environmental matters, our system overuses natural resources beyond what is available to us. For just simply living in Switzerland, an individual’s territorial carbon emissions per capita is 8.0 compared to America’s 13.0. This can be understood by assessing Europe’s energy consumption, the types of energy they consume, and how much they conserve. European countries are well-known for investing in greener, renewable forms of energy such as solar, wind, and geothermal. Their energy dependence does not lie on foreign nations where they declare war to drain other nations’ natural resources. Instead, they invest in renewables, resulting in job creation that promotes innovation and new technologies to boost their economies and lower their annual emission rates.

It’s sad to think that individuals and communities actually have little to do with our national carbon footprint. Of course, individual and community stride to become sustainable is still important, but the answer for sustainability rests on our government, our policies, and our national choices. No matter how green we try to be in the United States, our carbon footprint can only be lowered by so much. At this rate, our country’s needs will never be at or below the earth’s carrying capacity, for our consumption will always be in excess. The solution is up to our nation, not just our communities. We must all be on the same page to be on board with sustainability.

About The Author

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Katelyn is an undergraduate student at the University of New Hampshire studying Environmental Conservation & Sustainability and Community Planning. Her passions are green urban design and planning, sustainable energy, green real estate, ecotourism, and environmental policy. She hopes to obtain a Masters degree in Urban and Regional Planning.