Shrinking your ecological imprint

Calculate your carbon footprint to see how environmentally friendly your lifestyle is

Nuno da Silva encourages individuals to use generic carbon calculators to reduce their carbon footprints.
Image by: Tyler Ball
Nuno da Silva encourages individuals to use generic carbon calculators to reduce their carbon footprints.

What do driving a car, turning on a light and bananas have in common? These actions contribute to your carbon dioxide output—one measure of your impact on the environment.

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that, while important in order to maintain Earth’s temperature, contributes to global warming when emitted in excess.

Cars emit different amounts of carbon depending on their make and size. The energy used to turn on a light is produced in a power plant, burns fuel and emits carbon dioxide in order to create electricity. And your favourite yellow fruit was imported from overseas in carbon-emitting transportation.

Director Nuno da Silva of PE Americas said products’ relationships with carbon aren’t always visible on the surface. PE Americas and companies like them gather carbon data and measure carbon’s impact, or footprint, on the environment.

PE Americas, based in Boston, employs more than 80 sustainability experts who help companies calculate their carbon output and move towards sustainable development.

Da Silva said the company focuses primarily on measuring products’ and companies’ carbon footprints.

“You can measure the carbon footprint of a product, of a service, of a material, a building, product packaging, a corporation,” he said. “It’s all based on the same principle, which is to evaluate the amount of carbon that’s associated with the entity.”

Da Silva said companies use different ways to calculate carbon footprints. One method PE Americas uses is calculating the carbon content of substances.

This method measures the carbon content of a substance before and after a chemical process, where the difference is the excess that’s released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

By measuring the excess carbon dioxide created by all of people’s activities, the company is able to calculate their impact on the environment.

“It’s all about reducing the amount of energy one consumes.”

—Nuno da Silva, Director of PE Americas

Another method is to convert other greenhouse gases’ emissions into carbon dioxide equivalents and add them together for a bigger picture of greenhouse gases’ effects on global warming.

“What we do there is, we use [carbon] dioxide as the reference point,” da Silva said.

Calculating custom footprints for large companies normally takes a few months, he said. Companies purchase software packages and work with PE Americas’ analysts to interpret their results.

PE Americas can also calculate individuals’ footprints but it can cost up to $50,000 and take months to complete. He said companies often request custom calculations so they can determine how to make large-scale changes towards environmental sustainability.

“If I’m looking at a product that’s produced in millions of units [and] if I manage to reduce its carbon output by one per cent in each unit, it will have reduced tonnes and tonnes of carbon,” he said. “If I reduce it for an individual and it’s one per cent then I’m not reducing that many carbon emissions overall.”

Da Silva said he encourages individuals to use generic carbon calculators available on various websites rather than having professional assessments done.

Generic carbon calculators rely more on estimates; for example, the carbon output of a car may simply be divided amongst the passengers in the car to reach a figure for each passenger’s carbon footprint. A custom calculation would require more specifics before an estimate is made, da Silva said.

The results from a generic calculator can be interpreted in similar ways to a custom calculation, he said.

“It’s all about reducing the amount of energy one consumes,” he said. “It can be from simple things like using energy-saving lamps … or public transportation instead of cars, smaller cars instead of bigger cars.”

Another way to combat negative results is carbon offset programs, which focus on helping an individual become carbon-neutral. One common way the program works is to plant trees to offset an individual’s carbon dioxide emissions.

Da Silva said he has seen an increase in the number of companies requesting custom footprints in the past few years.

“It’s very simple,” he said. “At the moment, global warming … is the single most pressing environmental issue that we’ve come across.”

To calculate your carbon footprint, click here to fill out a personalized carbon calculator.

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