Green House Gas vs. Carbon Footprint and why the difference matters

Global warming caused by environmental degradation is the bane of our times.  It will be a paramount concern of our societies for generations to come.  There are two ways to measure the impact of our activity on this planet: one is the inventory of Green House Gas (GHG) emissions in a country and the other is the Carbon Footprint (CF) of a country.  The question is how these two methods differ from each other and which one is a better measure of our impact on climate change.

The green house gasses; carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (NO2) are found naturally in the earth’s atmosphere.  However, their dramatic increase in the earth’s atmosphere over the past century has contributed to global warming and is a direct result of human activity on this planet. Most of the GHG emissions are attributed to burning of fossil fuels, such as oil, coal, natural gas and deforestation.

The tracking of GHG emissions are focused on the production of these gasses within a country and does not take into account emissions outside of national boundaries, such as emissions from shipping on high seas or air travel.  The inventory of GHG produced in each country is tracked by The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

On the other hand, the Carbon Footprint (CF) focuses on emissions embedded in the consumption of goods in a country, whether made locally or imported. These products fall into several broad categories like manufactured goods, food, shelter, clothing, and construction materials. The carbon footprint provides a better measure of a country’s impact on climate change, because it not only takes into account the quantity of carbon emissions within a country, but it also focuses on carbon emissions related to imported consumer goods. Both of these measures that track GHG are important and account for slightly different perceptions of environmental degradation caused by human activity.

Industrialized countries, like United States and Canada, have big carbon footprints generated by their own carbon emissions combined with carbon emissions embedded in a large number of consumer products imported from Asia.  In India and China production methods are not as clean or efficient because the electricity needed to run plants is produced by burning fossil fuels, like oil, coal or natural gas (the United States and Canada use fossil fuels too, but regulate the method and environmental impact of energy production to a higher degree).

A study completed in the United Kingdom shows that between 1990 and 2004 the national emissions decreased under the Koyoto Protocol but their carbon footprint increased significantly due to emissions embedded in increased imports. European nations exhibit a similar pattern of increased emissions embedded in imports, matched by a rise in emissions embedded in exports from China.

Most of the industrialized nations with higher consumer demand have a much higher carbon footprint. So if industrialized nations significantly reduce their own national GHG emissions, but do not change their patterns of consumption, their carbon footprint will remain high.

This means that if we want to make a positive impact on climate change, then we need to reassess the cost of a lifestyle heavily oriented towards consumption, and here is a good place to start, at least for those who have overflowing closets.

Norwegian University of Science and Technology has a site where you can calculate the carbon footprint of a country like USA or China. By the way China is about to pass US as the world’s top generator of green house gasses .  Please check NUST’s site and use their calculator to see the carbon foot print of your favorite nation.  Their site has limited information about the calculation method for nations, but still paints a compelling picture.

 This article was written from the materials and information available on the Norwegian University of Science and Technology site.

The featured photo Coal Fired Power Plants is taken from Public Domain Photos Flicker Photostream

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