Carbon footprints are calculations of direct and indirect carbon emissions, and can be calculated on an individual, population, national or corporation level. The calculations are based on carbon emitting activities such as travel, resource consumption, heating and electricity. Average carbon footprints for individuals and businesses are often used to guide the direction of policies to minimize climate change.
For individuals, there are general trends in who is responsible for larger carbon footprints. A 2013 study found that the global upper class of top 10% consuming households contributed for 40-51% of global fossil fuel emissions. This seems intuitive, because they would have the most access to resources, travel, and power. Similar trends can be seen for national averages, where richer economies such as the US have drastically larger carbon footprints on average.
According to the Warwick University carbon calculator, the average UK person’s carbon footprint in 2005 was 10 tonnes. Air travel is responsible for most of this, followed by gas consumption, car travel, and electricity use. It should be noted that this figure contains emission from British industry, so the actual average per individual based on only direct emissions is likely to be lower.
A good illustration of the difference in carbon footprint based on household income can be seen in China. In 2012, the rich urban citizens had carbon footprints of 6.4 tonnes compared to the rural citizens and the poor urban citizens who had footprints of 0.5-1.6 tonnes of carbon. With China’s growing economy and the associated growing consumption by the urban middle class and upper class, the total carbon footprint from households increased by 19% between 2007 and 2012. The relationship between socioeconomic class and environmental responsibility is viewed as close, with many encouraging specific policy interventions aimed at both improving living standards and encouraging sustainable consumption.
Measuring the carbon footprint of businesses can be a sensitive topic. For example, not all companies contribute to carbon disclosure projects and environmental guidelines. In addition, carbon footprints can differ widely by industry and operational scope. The calculations for what should be included in a business’s carbon footprint is subject to debate, such as indirect electricity-caused greenhouse gas emissions. For example, when indirect electricity emissions are included in addition to direct emissions, the efficiency scores of industries change. This must be kept in mind when considering business’ claims of environmental efficiency to accurately assess their whole environmental impact.
A report from 2017 on large corporations have found that only 100 companies are responsible for 71% of emissions, therefore heavily skewing the carbon footprints caused by businesses. These companies are mainly led or owned by oil and gas companies, including Aramco, Exxon Mobil, and Royal Dutch Shell. Between 1988 to 2016, they have produced 923 billion tonnes of carbon emissions. In comparisons, finance companies in the 2010 Fortune 500 list had a carbon footprint of on average 736 113 tonnes in one year, which would equate to 20.6 million tonnes over the same 28 year period.
Several different methods exist for estimating carbon footprints of businesses. Some methods estimate that as much as 75% of the carbon footprint produced by a business are due to indirect greenhouse gas emissions, not including electricity, mainly due to end use by the consumer. Other estimates claim this is as high as 90%. Indirect greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for most of the carbon footprint in industries such as finance, health care, energy, IT, and utilities. This is not the case in the telecommunications and industrial sectors.
With data on sources of emissions contributing to the footprint, its possible to identify areas of inefficiency to help businesses optimize operations. Most inefficiency stems from direct emissions, which should encourage businesses to develop greener methods to reduce emissions.
- Unequal household carbon footprints in China - Wiedenhofer D., et al. Nature Climate Change. 2017. https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate3165
- Carbon Calculator – UK National Averages - https://www.carboncalculator.co.uk/averages.php
- Incorporating the carbon footprint to measure industry context and energy consumption effect on environmental performance of business operations. Chang D.S., et al. Clean Technologies and Environmental Policy. 2014. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10098-014-0785-9
- The carbon majors database - https://www.cdp.net/en/articles/media/new-report-shows-just-100-companies-are-source-of-over-70-of-emissions