The carbon footprint tool is a measure of your impact (or that of your household or community) on the environment. Your neighborhood could create what's called a "carbon offset" to compensate for your energy use by planting trees, sharing cars, trading baby furniture, organizing a bicycle club, or replacing older energy-hog street lights.
The footprint idea especially implies environmental damage resulting from the use of fossil fuels, such as petroleum or coal, to global climate. About 85% of the world's current energy use stems from fossil fuels. That includes both gasoline and use of coal for industry and electricity generation.
Burning these fuels produces what is called greenhouse gases (also commonly abbreviated as GHG). Chief among these is carbon dioxide. Many scientists think too much carbon emission leads to global warming.
Yes, carbon is a natural element and the stuff of life.
But the problem is that right now we are producing about twice as much carbon dioxide as natural systems can absorb, so we're increasing the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere all the time. It's this change that is thought to be a contributor to global climate change, thought by a majority of scientists to be global warming, as far as we can see.
While the term first became popular as applied to individuals, now companies and communities are considering their own carbon footprint. Ecological footprint is a broader term, and an older one as far as we know, but the carbon footprint idea is the one that seems to resonate right now.
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, ratified by most advanced countries except the U.S., set forth goals and timetables for reducing these greenhouse gases. A United Nations organization convened both the Kyoto meeting and the recent Copenhagen COP15 talks, which produced a very weak agreement, but one that starts to involve China in at least some climate change action.
The term carbon offset was devised to denote the somewhat deceptive idea that you can "offset" your bads by doing a good.
So maybe you offset your coal-fired electric plant by planting lots of trees, or doing something else that will take up and isolate the carbon emissions from the atmosphere. But it’s a little like recycling something you shouldn't have purchased in the first place.
Since this is a community development website, let's consider what a community together might do to reduce its carbon footprint, or ecological footprint in general.
Since transportation and electricity generation are the major culprits in greenhouse gas emissions, it's not as silly as it first seems to speak of a municipal government or a neighborhood working to reduce its carbon footprint.
If your community is ready to do its part in addressing a global problem, the steps you need to take are fairly obvious. You can reduce the fossil fuels used in transportation or electricity generation by:
1. Reducing the number and length of trips that are necessary for everyday life. In practice, this means reducing sprawl, which means the expansion of the urbanized area without corresponding expansion of the population. Promoting mixed-use development also is a good way to reduce the length of trips needed to purchase frequently used items.
2. Transportation mode shifts, which may be encouraged by providing more transit and more facilities for bicycle transportation and walking, are also necessary. A walkable community is an incredibly attractive one, providing it is reasonably safe.
An efficient and effective transit system that is accepted by the population is incredibly important. If you have one, make sure to implement incentives or requirements for transit-oriented development.
If you have a clunky old bus system that doesn't even go where people want to go, try to promote carpooling, vanpooling, newer and smaller buses, car sharing, bicycle sharing, and demand-based transportation.
Practice electrical and every other kind of energy conservation as a neighborhood or community. If you're a municipal government and you own a fossil fuel-burning power plant, you're in a particularly strong position to reduce your carbon footprint if you can figure out how to move to green technologies, such as wind and solar, to reduce your power plant's output.
Your citizens are receptive to ideas about private energy reduction, since energy is becoming more expensive. So educate them without being preachy, but make sure that all sectors of your community are pulling together. Your city manager can’t be looking to sell more electricity to balance the budget, if the environment committee is saying reduce greenhouse gases.
4. Encourage, where possible, the use of non-fossil fuels, which include hydroelectric (harnessing the power of large quantities of water to make electricity), geothermal energy, wind power, solar power, biomass (burning wood, corn shucks, or what have you as fuel), active bicycle or walking transportation, and nuclear power. Nuclear presents problems of its own, such as why you would want to rely on a power generation process that produces a dangerous waste product that you can't yet figure out how to dispose of. And biomass often creates pollution problems unless you install a sophisticated industrial scrubber. So perhaps it's best to concentrate on the first four.
At the level of the private business or homeowner, check into your building codes to make sure they are as solar or wind friendly as you’d like. And that geothermal heating and cooling actually would be accepted in new construction in your jurisdiction.
5. Simply raise awareness by focusing on the local government's own carbon footprint.
If a city joins an organization called ICLEI (originally International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, now simply using the acronym ICLEI and a tagline "Local Governments for Sustainability"), the city can receive a free municipal carbon footprint assessment tool and perhaps use a college intern or even a dedicated volunteer to assemble the information. After this baseline is established, perhaps the tool could be updated at regular intervals to track progress.
We aren't as convinced as some people that citizens will automatically follow the lead of their local government in a practice such as energy usage. But local governments themselves can be large consumers, so it's worth a try.
If you're in the U.S., the U.S. Conference of Mayors provides some excellent assistance as well through its Cool Cities program.