Carbon footprint

We all have a way of life, and while some of us can afford to put solar panels on our houses, there are still emissions produced from everything we do every day, from the production of the clothes you wear, to the furniture you sit on, and from the food you eat, to the services you consume. Besides, we don’t all want to drive a hybrid car and become vegetarians. So what can we do?

What is Carbon Trading?

Carbon trading, or carbon offsetting, is a way to balance or compensate for carbon emissions in one geographical place, with a reduction in emissions in another. Since it doesn’t matter where Greenhouse Gases (GHG) are emitted, as their effect on climate change is global, reducing emissions in Brazil or Italy is as effective as doing so locally. ‘Carbon emissions’ refers to carbon dioxide (CO²), and are a form of GHG, as is methane and nitrous oxide, but for most of us it is easier to think in terms of carbon emissions.

It’s completely voluntary, but in 2011 it will become compulsory for some industries. While we do need to reduce our personal carbon emissions and stop being wasteful, some emissions are currently unavoidable, so carbon offsetting is the way to compensate for those emissions we cannot stop.

Little things, when done by millions of people, can make a big difference, and carbon offsetting reduces emissions with a minimum of effort and cost. Offsetting means paying someone else to reduce CO² in the atmosphere on your behalf. In that way we pay for the damage we are causing and the money stimulates the development of green technologies that we desperately.

What is a Carbon Credit?

Carbon reduction projects throughout the world create a tradable ‘carbon credit’ for every tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO²-e) that is stopped from entering our atmosphere. When you buy a credit, it is then ‘retired’ so it can’t be sold again – the credit will be recorded against your name, meaning that you have stopped one tonne of CO²-e that otherwise would have entered the atmosphere.

There are many different kinds of carbon credits. Certified carbon credits are created by government approved abatement projects. These include projects such as harnessing landfill gas, reforestation and sequestration, and electricity consumption reduction.

Beware: because there are plenty of people claiming to produce carbon credits, but they are in fact not accredited, nor are they even measured properly. You might be paying someone for nothing.

And how much does it cost? Generally, a carbon credit is $20, though this will probably rise. The Government will be setting a cap on its carbon credits at $40. So, currently, if an average Australian household emitting 20 tonnes of CO² wants to go ‘carbon neutral’, it would cost $400 per annum. The equivalent would be to plant about 80 trees.

What is a Footprint?

A carbon footprint is a measure of the impact that our activities have on the environment, and in particular, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. It relates to the amount of greenhouse gases produced in our day-to-day activities through burning fossil fuels for electricity, heating and transportation, etc.

An alternative definition of the carbon footprint is the total amount of carbon dioxide attributable to the actions of an individual or an entity (which includes emissions through their own energy use, but also from unforeseen emissions as well) over a period of one year.

So the aim is to work out your footprint, reduce your footprint, and then offset the remaining emissions. It’s much cheaper than buying solar panels, which still won’t eliminate your emissions, though it helps.

What does Carbon Neutral mean?

Being ‘carbon neutral’ means that you have calculated your carbon footprint, and then eliminated the Greenhouse Gas you produce by purchasing carbon credits to offset your emissions.

But being ‘carbon neutral’ takes a little more responsibility than just offsetting. To become carbon neutral, especially for businesses, you need to reduce your carbon footprint first, and commit to continue reducing your emissions.

Beware of businesses claiming to be carbon neutral. Check their accreditation, where they get their carbon credits from, and whether they truly are ‘green’.

By Jacqui Brauman, Director of the Australian Institute for Carbon Trading,

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