Carbon Footprint Idea Applies to Communities Too

footprint in the sand

The carbon footprint tool is a measure of your impact, or that of your household or community, on the environment. Usually this is expressed as the amount of carbon dioxide released into the air from all activities in a given amount of time, usually a year.

Yes, carbon is a natural element and the stuff of life, so sometimes neighborhood groups object when I talk with them about the importance of reducing their carbon footprint. 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, which impacts all communities to some degree.

The footprint idea especially implicates environmental damage resulting from the use of fossil fuels, such as petroleum or coal, to global climate. Around 80% of the world's current energy use stems from fossil fuels. That includes gasoline, other petroleum products, and coal used in  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.

Of course an increase in the percentage of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to air pollution, which isn't good for human and animal health. 

While at first it may seem that carbon footprint is more of a wonky individual concern, once you think about it, it's obvious that communities are very involved in decisions that determine how much fossil fuel is used for transportation and energy generation. Neighborhoods and communities also have a vested interest in air pollution, health, and climate-related impacts on communities.

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.

This is happening worldwide too. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, ratified by most advanced countries, set forth goals and timetables for reducing these greenhouse gases. A United Nations organization convened both the Kyoto meeting and the Copenhagen COP15 talks, which produced a very weak agreement, but one that starts to involve China in climate change action. The Paris Climate Accord followed; it represented quite a step forward from earlier efforts at international cooperation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that result from burning of fossil fuels. With the withdrawal of the U.S., the future of that accord looks a bit shakier.

But What Does Carbon Footprint Mean at the Community Level?

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.

The term carbon offset was devised to denote the somewhat deceptive idea that you can "offset" your personal or business contribution to too much carbon in the atmosphere by taking a compensating action.

So maybe your city would elect to 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. When you buy a plane ticket, you might choose a small investment in renewable energy. But often it’s a little like recycling something you shouldn't have purchased in the first place.

Your neighborhood or HOA 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-hogging street lights.

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 taking the following actions.

1. Communities and individuals can reduce the number and length of trips that are necessary for everyday life. In practice, individual households need to support their community's work in 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, shared bicycles and electric scooters, car sharing, bicycle sharing, and demand-based transportation.

Practice electrical, gasoline, 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 reliance on your old power plant.

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 municipal sustainability 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.

Neighborhoods, cities, and their citizens should check into your local building codes and any codes that impact building renovation to make sure they are as solar or wind friendly as you’d like. If your community has not adopted an energy conservation code, check out the International Code Council code that could be modified if needed to fit your needs.  If your building and rehabilitation codes are not as friendly to reducing the community's carbon footprint as you would like, remember that you can call for local customization of the standardized codes that almost all municipalities use.

5. Simply raise awareness by focusing on the local government's own carbon footprint. This topic also ties in neatly with any climate action or resilience planning you may be doing.  And we find reducing the carbon emissions to be a worthwhile topic for inclusion in a comprehensive plan.

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. Use municipal leadership to try to recruit high-profile businesses to the community effort as well, as many of them already are pursuing better energy policies simply to benefit their bottom line. Then actively recruit the most visible and effective neighborhood associations to follow suit.  

The goal of a reduced carbon footprint is well worth pursuing, even at the neighborhood level.

Related Pages

  1. Community Development
  2.  >
  3. Sustainable Development Practices
  4.  >
  5. Carbon Footprint

Subscribe to our monthly e-mail newsletter, called USEFUL COMMUNITY PLUS, which provides you with short features or tips about timely topics for neighborhoods, towns and cities, community organizations, rural environments, and our international friends. Unsubscribe any time. Give it a try.