EarthLabs > Climate and the Carbon Cycle: Unit Overview > Lab 3: Carbon in the Atmosphere > 3C: What's My Carbon Footprint?

Carbon In the Atmosphere - My Life as a Greenhouse Gas

Part C: What's My Carbon Footprint?

In Part B, you observed that the amount of carbon dioxide has been increasing in the atmosphere and that this increase corresponds with a rise in global temperature. The graph on the right tells us that fossil fuel emissions have also been increasing since the Industrial Revolution began, indicating that the burning of the hydrocarbons in fossil fuels is releasing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Furthermore, fossil fuel usage is expected to increase as the world's population continues to increase. So, what can individuals, organizations or governments do to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere? Find out what a very large organization is doing - the U.S. Military! Watch Khaki Goes Green

As you watch, make note of the solutions they are developing to reduce their use of fossil fuels. Use your notes in the following discussion.


1. Why is the U.S. Military trying to use alternative energy?

2. What solutions are they developing that will help them to do this?

3. How will the U.S. Military's efforts to reduce their use of fossil fuels impact the rise of CO2 going into atmosphere?

4. Think of as many ways you produce CO2 emissions on a daily basis and over the year. Share your list with your classmates. Do you think your list is complete? Why or why not?

Because the U.S. Military is a large organization, their strategy to reduce carbon fossil fuel emissions could have a sizable impact. What about usindividuals and families? Can we make a difference? Watch Carbon Footprints-You Can Make a Difference to get some ideas then answer the Checking In questions below.

Checking In

  1. If you use just one one compact fluorescent bulb, you could reduce your carbon footprint by

What's My Carbon Footprint?

In order to reduce carbon emissions, we first need to understand how much carbon we are creating. Carbon footprints can help us do that. What exactly is a carbon footprint and what does it tell us?
A comprehensive carbon footprint is made up of two parts.

Now, it's your turn to determine your family's carbon footprint. There are many carbon footprint calculators available on-line, so you may have already determined your carbon footprint in another class or perhaps with your family. Today, you will use a carbon footprint calculator developed by The Nature Conservancy. This carbon footprint allows you to compare your carbon footprint with the footprints of average families in the United States and the World.

  1. Access the Carbon Footprint Calculator.
  2. In the "Get Started" section, input the number of people in your household and click on "calculate family." Make sure you read the information in this section.
  3. Click on "more info" and read what it tells you about how the carbon footprint is calculated.
  4. Click "continue" to go to the Home Energy section. Input your "Home Energy" information to the best of your knowledge. As you input your information, notice how figures in the right-hand column of the Home Energy page changes. The first number that comes up is your estimated impact on the atmosphere in terms of how many tons of CO2 equivalencies you are releasing. Notice that as you input more information in the section below, you either reduce your impact or add to it. At the bottom of the page, two bar graphs tell you how you compare to the average U.S. household. At the end of the carbon footprint calculator, information in these bar graphs will be combined into two pie graphs. How do your "Home Energy" emissions compare to the U.S. average?
  5. Click "continue" and input your "Driving and Flying" information. How do your "Driving and Flying" emissions compare to the U.S. average?
  6. Click "continue" and input your "Food and Diet" information. How do your your "Food and Diet" emissions compare to the U.S. average?
  7. Click "continue" and input your "Recycling and Waste" information. How do your "Recycling and Waste" emissions compare to the U.S. average?
  8. Click "continue" to "Results." Review your results and answer the Checking In questions below.

Checking In

  • How do your GHG emissions (Tons of CO2 eq/year) compare with the United States average and the World average? (answers will vary)
  • Which behavior is responsible for contributing the most GHG emissions? .... the least? (answers will vary)


Compare your carbon footprint with others. How do they compare? Were you surprised by your results? Why or why not?

Share two ways you can reduce your carbon footprint with your classmates. Do some types of changes seem easier than others? Why?

Stop and Think

What if the United States could reduce its carbon footprint by 50%? Describe at least two ways the carbon cycle might respond to this 50% reduction? If you need to, use a Connection Circle or some other diagram to help you explain your answer.

Optional Extension

The amount of greenhouse gases we put into the air each year is difficult to visualize. Explore the Carbon Visuals and The Hestia Project websites to see how graphic artists and scientists are working together to develop visualizations of carbon emissions. Take some time to explore these visualizations. Which visualization helps you understand the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions best? Why?

Note: In your carbon footprint activity, results were reported in short tons (US) whereas the visualizations at this link are reported in metric tonnes. One short ton (US) = 0.90718474 metric tons (tonnes); one metric ton = 1.10231131 short tons (US)

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