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What is carbon footprint and why is everyone talking about it?

written by
Sortin Team

November 6, 2023

Everyone including governments, enterprises, startups and even individuals are talking about carbon footprint and are discussing ways to reduce them. How did this term become so important in our lives, how did it originate and firstly, what does it mean?

Here is all you need to know.

What is carbon footprint?

Carbon footprint is a simple way to quantify the greenhouse gases (GHG) emitted as a result of an activity. The sum of carbon footprint of all activities undertaken by an entity – organization, process, group or individual, within a time period, constitutes the carbon footprint of the entity for the given time period.

While carbon footprint accounts for all GHGs including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous dioxide (N2O), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) etc., the carbon footprint is expressed in simplified units of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e).

Where did it all begin?

Humans have always realized that their activities have impact on the planet, but it was only in 1990s that we started our pursuit of quantifying that impact and this is when the concept of “ecological footprint” first emerged, developed by Dr. William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel at the University of British Columbia.

The concept of carbon footprint began as part of “ecological footprint” and only started gaining prominence in 2003, courtesy a British Petroleum (BP) advertising campaign, which asked people on the street what their carbon footprint was and encouraged them to calculate their personal carbon footprint using BP’s calculator. The campaign was a major hit and its slogans like – “Beyond petroleum”, “it’s time to go on a carbon diet” and “It’s a start” captured the public imagination.

Due to the immense popularity of the campaign, the concept of carbon footprint largely remained focused on individuals. Well! all of it changed in 2015.

Why does everyone talk about it now?

It was during the 21st Conference of Parties, UNFCCC (COP21) at Paris that the convention decided to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degree centigrade by year 2100 and mandated all parties to put forward their best efforts through “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) to reduce their GHG emissions.

This is why all governments were required to develop a plan to reduce their carbon footprint (preferably to zero) over the next decades. These targets further extended (by compliance and/or voluntary action) to industries, enterprises and even MSMEs. This has resulted in these public and private entities setting and publicizing their targets and achievements in reducing their carbon footprints and hence all of us read about it every day.

While the narrative around carbon footprint has shifted rightly to large-scale GHG emitters for now, the concept of personal carbon footprint and how individuals’ action matter must also be kept in focus.