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What Is the Average Carbon Footprint In the U.S. & How To Reduce It?

The average American’s carbon footprint over their lifetime is 16 tons. But what does this really mean? How can we as individuals reduce our own footprints to help in the collective effort against climate change?
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The term “carbon footprint” has likely become part of your household vocabulary in the last couple of years. And for good reason. If you don’t know what a carbon footprint is, here is our quick definition.

A carbon footprint is a measure of the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and other greenhouse gasses emitted by an individual, group, or organization as a result of their actions and consumption of fossil fuels.

Even though many of us have heard the term and know the definition, few of us know what our actual carbon footprint is or how to calculate it. But we do know is that every individual has an important role to play in helping achieve the ambitious climate goals set in the Paris Climate Agreement. And for most of us, that starts with lowering our carbon footprint.

What is the average carbon footprint per person in the U.S.?

The average carbon footprint in the U.S. is 16 tons. That means, over the course of a year, the average American emits 16 tons of greenhouse gasses (mainly carbon dioxide and methane) into the atmosphere by directly and indirectly consuming fossil fuels. According to the EPA, that’s the equivalent amount of GHGs emitted by driving a car over 36,000 miles or consuming more than 33 barrels of oil. Common sources of these emissions are transportation, food, and electricity consumption.

Most studies show that carbon footprint averages vary from state to state and across income brackets. For example, the average carbon footprint in Louisiana is much higher than in California. This variation is likely due to things like electricity consumption, travel and transportation, access to clean energy, and population (averages are taken per capita). For example, households in Louisiana likely need to consume much more electricity to keep their homes cool in the summer than homes in California. Another factor that causes variation is opinion. A study from Yale found that cities with higher populations of people who don’t believe in climate change also have higher average carbon footprints.

Despite variation across the U.S. though, pretty much every state in America has a higher average carbon footprint than the rest of the world. The global average carbon footprint is 4 tons. And that global average has increased by 59% since 1990.

An airplane in the sky.

What are the main sources of your carbon footprint?

The Nature Conservancy estimates that in order to prevent global temperatures from rising beyond a critical point (2˚C higher than it is today), we need to drop the average global carbon footprints below 2 tons by the year 2050.

While this may seem like a daunting task, it’s also very doable, especially as clean energy and greener technology like electric cars become more prevalent.

The first step to lowering your carbon footprint is understanding what habits and actions are contributing to it.

Nearly everything we do from eating to charging our phones has some impact. So one strategy for lowering our carbon footprints is targeting the areas in our lives where we can make the biggest impact.

Here are the top contributors to GHG emissions.

Transportation: 29%

Transportation accounts for a significant portion of the average American’s carbon footprint. This includes any personal transportation in cars as well as travel in trains, busses, and planes. Planes have massive carbon emissions, and while we sometimes cannot avoid traveling on planes, it is worth noting that a large part of your transportation carbon emissions comes from air travel. One way to cut this down? Learn about how to travel sustainably to reduce your environmental impact.

Food: 10-30%

Your carbon food-print mostly derives from where you’re sourcing your food. Certain food industries, like the meat industry, have much higher carbon footprints than others. But other fruits and veggies, which typically do have lower carbon footprints associated with their production, can still produce a fair amount of GHGs due to storage and transportation.

Electricity and utilities: 25%

Your home electricity usage is a big source of carbon emissions. That’s because your home is where you shower, cook, wash your clothes and consume most of your electricity. Charging your phone, running your dishwasher, and watching tv can all start to add up. Check out our energy cost calculators to get an estimate on which appliances are using the most electricity and costing you the most on your electricity bill.

How to calculate your carbon footprint?

Calculating your carbon footprint accurately can be difficult. Most calculators use estimates based on your daily habits, diets, income, and other factors.

To calculate your annual footprint on your own, you have to first generate a list of things that you do that emit greenhouse gasses. Start with driving, electricity usage, eating, traveling, working, anything you can think of that consumes energy. Then use a calculator such as the EPA’s greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator to add up the emissions associated with those activities. It can take a while, but you can get a very accurate estimate with this strategy.

If you’re looking to save time and still get a solid estimate, we recommend using a carbon footprint calculator such as the Nature Conservancy's footprint calculator or this calculator from Carbon Footprint. Add in as much data from your utility bills and electricity bills for extra accuracy.

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Tips for lowering your carbon footprint

According to the Nature Conservancy, individuals need to collectively lower their carbon footprint below 2 tons by the year 2050. And while this may seem like a daunting task given that the current average is 16 tons, there have been a lot of improvements in both our green technology and our understanding of emissions over the years that lead most experts to believe this reduction is possible. Plus, we’re optimists at Perch and we believe that everyone can and will play a crucial role in saving our planet.

Here are some tips on how to lower your carbon footprint. We’ve grouped these recommendations into three categories that correlate with the three biggest sources that are likely contributing to your carbon footprint.

How to reduce your carbon emissions from transportation:

1. Walk when you can!

This one is simple. Walk more!

One way you can do this is by cutting down on your short car rides. While these short rides may seem inconsequential, reducing them can actually make a huge difference! There are over 10 billion car rides per year where the passengers travel less than one mile. The EPA estimates that cutting that number by just half would result in an estimated 2 million tons of carbon emissions being avoided--the equivalent of taking 400,000 cars off the road every year.

2. Use public transportation if possible

Similar to walking, using public transportation can also help reduce carbon emissions from cars. Plus, public transportation is a great way to explore your hometown. And public transportation is getting even greener these days, especially as electric busses become more widespread! So try taking the bus or train to work when you can.

3. Buy carbon offsets when you travel by air

Traveling by air is one of the most carbon-intensive activities that we do. But we know sometimes it’s unavoidable as there aren’t many efficient alternatives to flying. That doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to reduce the footprint of flying though. One popular strategy is to buy carbon offsets to offset the carbon that you’ve released into the atmosphere. Make sure the carbon offsets you’re purchasing are legitimate though. Organizations like Verra are helping create standards and authenticate legitimate offset programs. You can find browse Verra's approved carbon offset project here.

How to reduce your carbon footprint from food (AKA your carbon "foodprint"):

1. Eat local, eat seasonal

The common advice when it comes to food is to eat locally grown produce because locally grown fruits and vegetables don’t have to be flown miles and miles in order to be sold at your grocery store. But sometimes the energy cost of storing local produce in refrigerators and temperature-controlled warehouses for off-season consumption can actually use more energy than it would take to fly those same vegetables across the country. So in addition to looking for seasonal food, we also recommend trying to eat food that’s in season. The combination of local and seasonal ensures that the food you eat has the lowest footprint possible.

2. Try to limit meat in your diet

We understand that if meat is a common part of your diet, it can be difficult to completely cut it out. But the meat industry is responsible for more than half of the emissions caused by food. There is a ton of research out there that demonstrates how bad the meat industry is for the environment. So if you’re looking to reduce your carbon food-print, cutting out meat is a good step. You can try just cutting it out on certain days of the week to start. In other words, don’t go full cold turkey. Start with meatless Mondays and slowly work your way up to a more environmentally friendly diet!

3. Choose foods with minimal footprints

Here are a few foods with the lowest footprints:

  • Lentils. The legume family is known for being very environmentally friendly—and lentils are no exception. Lentils are the ultimate sustainable food. Lentils are easy to grow, require very little water, contain a lot of fiber and protein, have a low cost associated with their production, and can even improve soil health. AKA lentils are the ultimate sustainable food. What more could you ask for?
  • Mussels. Mussels are both delicious and good for the environment. Not only do they have a small environmental footprint, but they also filter carbon when they make their shells.
  • Locally grown vegetables. I'm sure you could have guessed that veggies would make an appearance on this list. But the key here is locally grown veggies. They're nutritious, and when they're grown in your hometown, they have a much smaller environmental impact. So eat those greens!

How to lower your carbon footprint from electricity and utilities

1. Limit your electricity usage

The first step when it comes to reducing your footprint from electricity is to, well, stop using as much electricity. It might sound obvious, but taking measurable actions that make a difference can be difficult. We’ve created a guide to help you reduce your electricity usage (and save on your electricity bill while you’re at it).

2. Choose clean energy

If you can’t find easy ways to stop using as much electricity, then another option is to green your electricity supply. One of the most effective (but expensive) options is to install solar panels on your home. If your roof is eligible and you can afford it, you can look into solar as an option to help you save on your electricity costs and also reduce the carbon emissions of your electricity usage.

What if you can’t install your own solar panels? Consider community solar. Community solar is great for both homeowners and renters alike as it lets you benefit from the cheaper costs of solar energy without having to install your own solar panels.

First, check if there are any community solar programs in your area. If there are, you can sign up to subscribe to a local solar farm. In exchange for your support, you get discounts on your electricity bill. Your utility company stays the same, but you receive solar credits on your bill that lower your annual electricity costs! While you aren’t receiving solar energy directly to your home, you’re supporting the addition of more solar to the overall energy mix in your state!

Lastly, if you live in a deregulated energy state, you can look into switching your electricity provider to a cleaner third-party supplier so that your home is receiving energy from renewable sources.

3. Conduct an energy audit on your home

Most homes use more energy than they need. Especially if you live in an older house, we recommend conducting an energy audit to see if there are ways to make your home more efficient by improving insulation or updating your lighting. Most states have programs that offer energy audits for free. There are also third-party audit providers that will send energy experts to your house to evaluate the energy efficiency of your home. You’ll get a list of recommendations on how to green your home which will help lower your carbon footprint and save you money on your electricity usage. You could also do a DIY home energy audit using our handy checklist.

4. Let Perch Energy help you save

Perch is here to make it easy for you to save on your electricity costs. If you live in a state with a deregulated energy market, then you may be missing out on chances to save on your electricity. When you sign up for Perch, you first set your energy preferences. Then our automated platform monitors the energy market and switches you to the plan that is most aligned with your preferences, helping you to lock in savings without having to do any of the heavy lifting yourself.

Get matched to a local solar farm and save on your electricity costs.