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What is a carbon footprint?

SustainabilityPublished on May 28, 2020

The impact of our carbon footprint

Everything we do, buy, or eat impacts a person’s carbon footprint either directly or indirectly. Driving to work or flying cross country for a vacation directly results in carbon emissions, while buying something online from China has an indirect carbon emission effect. The important thing to realize is that while carbon emissions don’t directly affect people or the environment, they do cause the planet to warm, which then has a plethora of impacts including rising sea levels with their impacts to people and property, more severe wildfires and droughts and the resulting impacts to nature, agriculture, etc.  

Michael Case, Forest Ecologist at The Nature Conservancy, walks us through the impact of carbon emissions in our latest video from Convoy’s The Business of Carbon Emissions series. With almost 20 years of experience studying trees, animals and how people affect them, Michael currently leverages his knowledge about nature and climate change to help prioritize conservation efforts and restore forest lands in Washington State.

To educate us about how what we do impacts our carbon footprint, we asked Michael the following questions:

  • What is a carbon footprint?
  • What activities contribute to a carbon footprint?
  • How is a carbon footprint calculated?
  • How do carbon emissions affect people and the environment?
  • Why is it important to reduce your carbon footprint? 
  • How can someone reduce their carbon footprint?
  • What is the one thing people should know about carbon emissions?

Michael also planted a seed for evaluating our own carbon footprint by recommending The Nature Conservancy’s carbon footprint calculator ( It aids us in examining the carbon emissions of our home as well as a result of our travel, food, and shopping. It also provides useful strategies to reduce that impact by providing alternative options for our daily activities.   

Watch the video or read the transcription below.

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Jennifer Wong: Hi everyone. My name is Jennifer. I am the head of sustainability at Convoy. I’m excited to announce that Convoy is hosting a series about the business of carbon emissions. You’ll hear stories, research, and innovations to learn how eliminating carbon emissions is also good for business and the environment. Today, we have Michael Case joining us. Michael is a forest ecologist with almost 20 years of experience studying trees, animals, and how people affect them. He has both, a masters and PhD degrees from the University of Washington and has worked for Academia, federal, nonprofit, and private sectors. Michael currently leverages his knowledge about nature in climate change to prioritize conservation efforts and restore forest lands at Washington State. Michael, welcome. 

Michael Case: Thank you. It’s good to be here. 

Jennifer: Well, I’m very excited about our topic today, carbon footprints. I’m going to say this, you might not validate it, but I feel like’s carbon counter is probably the most popular carbon counter on the internet. I don’t know if you have stats about how many people use it but for me, it was one of the first things that I started doing, just really diving into sustainability, look up my own carbon footprint just to be a little more educated. So, I’m excited about this topic and I think just to kick things off I would love for you to just explain a little bit more about what is a carbon footprint. 

Michael: Yeah, well, thanks for the opportunity. Yeah, so carbon footprint, I mean, basically, its really just a measure of the greenhouse gases that are generated by our actions. So, you start off by just counting all the things that you do, buy, eat, and you figure out how much carbon was emitted by those things. So, I tend to think of it as like leaving a footprint in the mud and your track marks the size of your foot and that’s a measure of your overall body. Okay, so [2:00] carbon footprint represents the overall impact that we have on global carbon emissions. 

Jennifer: Okay, and you mentioned some of the activities that contribute to your carbon footprint. What are some of the overall themes of those activities just people kind of think about their day to day lifestyles. 

Michael: Yeah, well, some of those, I mean, some of those activities are really everything we do, buy, and eat. 

Jennifer: Do, buy, and eat. Got it. 

Michael: Yeah. So, an example might be jumping on an airplane and flying somewhere for a vacation or business work and that causes emissions, right? Driving to the grocery store, that causes emissions. Buying something online even, causing even more emissions. So, you can maybe break it down to direct and indirect if you want. Direct ones directly emit carbon. So, you turn on your car, that starts burning fossil fuels and that emits emissions. The indirect ones result in carbon emissions as a result of something else we did. So, in the example, you go to the grocery store and buy an apple that was shipped from South America. That transportation of that apple caused emissions. So that’s an indirect emissions result. 

Jennifer: Okay, and because it sounds like it can be very complex. Even in that apple case. How are carbon footprints calculated? 

Michael: Well, there’s lots of different ways to calculate this. My personal favorite, of course, is the TNC carbon calculator. It allows users to go online and examine the carbon emissions from their travel, from home use, food, shopping and then, I think, you know, the strong part about this tool is that it provides some useful strategies to then reduce your impact. So, it gives you [4:00] some suggestions about changing transportation choices, maybe improving some of your household efficiencies, reducing your shopping impact, and so on. 

Jennifer: I see. And I think when people talk about carbon emissions, they inheritably think about bad things. Carbon emissions equals bad. Could you share a little bit more around how carbon emissions affect people in the environment? 

Michael: Yeah, well, so carbon emissions themselves don’t really affect people or the environment directly. But they do cause the planet to warm and with that comes a plethora of impacts. So just to name a few, you know, we’ve seen sea level has risen, okay. And that’s had impacts on people and property. Wildfires are bigger and more severe. Summer droughts are projected to get worse that would make it more challenging for farmers to farm food and then there’s the impacts to nature. And those are most evident at the poles, so at the north pole and at the south pole, and at higher elevations. That’s where the warming has been most pronounced. But Spring has come earlier, lakes don’t freeze as often, and species have had to adapt or perish trying. So, there’s lot of impacts but it’s not too late to lessen those impacts. 

Jennifer: Okay. So, as you mentioned using your carbon calculator you actually also give strategies on how someone can reduce their carbon footprint based on the score that they get at the end of the calculator. Can you share a little bit more about how people can think about reducing their carbon footprint? 

Michael: Yeah. Well, so I think of each one of us being a citizen of this Earth and we have a responsibility to take action at that individual level. So, there’s a bunch of stuff that we can do to [6:00] lessen our carbon footprint and reduce the impacts of climate change, that will not only affect us, but also future generations. I also feel it’s important to let our elected officials know that this is important to us and use our voices as consumers to encourage businesses to use better practices and reduce their emissions and collectively, I think that this action will make a difference. 

Jennifer: Got it. Perfect. And as we wrap up, I guess, just one final question. What would you say is the one thing people should know about carbon emissions? 

Michael: Well, we all have a carbon footprint and we can all control how big that carbon footprint is and reduce the impact of climate change on people and nature. And some of the examples that we can do is maybe we drive or fly less, consider taking public transportation, or walking if possible. There are even things like home energy audits that we can do to identify inefficient appliances. So, there are lots of individual things that we can do and together we will get through this. 

Jennifer: Thank you so much for taking time today. 

Michael: Thank you. 


Jennifer Wong

Jennifer is the Head of Sustainability at Convoy, helping transportation leaders make progress against their environmental and social impact goals.
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