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Carbon footprint

Some of our actions, particularly those involving the use of energy, can lead to the emissions of one or more of the ‘greenhouse’ gases which congregate in the upper atmosphere (stratosphere) and result in global warming. As the principal greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, the term carbon footprint is used to describe this impact which is related to the amount of gas(es) emitted by any use of energy. The greater the emissions, the larger is the footprint and so this concept enables us to determine which activities have a high impact and to identify alternatives which will have a lower footprint.

Our carbon footprint comprises two parts – one part is associated primarily with our own use of energy and the other part which is associated with the food that we eat, the products we use or the clothes that we buy; this is called the ‘embedded’ part. The embedded part arises from the energy used with growing crops or extracting raw materials, processing and/or manufacture and the transport associated from point of manufacture to place of use. It is much more difficult to calculate as it requires knowledge of the energy usage and other inputs along the supply chain from growing or extracting raw materials to purchasing a product. Buying products produced locally will certainly reduce the emissions associated with transport. Some calculations show that these two parts are roughly similar in size for those living in Europe.

Greenhouse gases

The production of carbon dioxide is primarily linked to our use of fossil fuel which results as a by-product of the combustion of oil, gas or coal which is used in activities like transport, heating our homes or generating electricity. Like the other greenhouse gases, it has the ability to trap some of the Earth’s radiation which would otherwise be transmitted to outer space. While one reason for the existence of life on earth is the presence of some greenhouse gases which raises the average earth temperature from -18 C to +12 C, the present concern is about the rate of increase in this average temperature and what impacts this can induce. In terms of contribution to global warming, carbon dioxide accounts for about 75% of total human activity on the climate.

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