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Q&A: The carbon footprint

You're a 27-year-old living in Fort Worth. You drive a Ford F-150 pickup about 30 miles to work and back. You've read a lot about the furor over global warming, and you've installed fluorescent light bulbs in your house. You also watch your thermostat closely, and you're proud that the electricity bill for your 2,500-square-foot house is $250 a month.

You probably view yourself as a fairly typical American.

But your energy and transportation habits produce 33 tons a year of greenhouse gases each year, according to estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Though the United States constitutes 5 percent of the world's population, it's responsible for nearly a quarter of the man-made carbon emissions. More than 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions come from home energy and individual transportation, according to the EPA.

"I firmly believe that we've got to reduce our carbon emissions to the atmosphere, both as individuals and as a nation," said William Schlesinger, president of the Institute of Ecosystem Studies, a private research institute in Millbrook, N.Y.

But what to do?

If terms like "carbon calculators" and "greenhouse gases" have you confused, you're not alone. Here are answers to some of the most common questions.

What is a carbon footprint?

Simply put, your carbon footprint is the total amount of carbon dioxide your day-to-day activities produce and how that contributes to accelerating global warming and climate change.

By measuring your carbon footprint, you can determine what effect you're having on the climate and what changes you might need to make to reduce your footprint.

Other countries are already miles ahead of us.

The average American family, through everyday activities such as driving to work and cooling the home, produces nearly 20 tons of carbon dioxide a year -- by far the most in the world. By comparison, French, German and Italian families, individually, produce less than half that amount.

How do I calculate my carbon footprint?

Many tools are available online, and that’s part of the problem. Google "carbon calculator," and you'll get more than 2 million hits.

There are, however, credible resources available to gauge the amount of carbon dioxide you and your family are responsible for emitting each year. Here are a few of the most reliable online carbon calculators:

This is arguably the most credible carbon calculator available online because it is produced by the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s also one of the easiest to use.

This calculator focuses on home-energy consumption and transportation, which account for most individual carbon emissions. You’ll need to calculate your average kilowatt hours used per month, which is listed on your monthly bill. But the effort is worth it, and the detailed results are guaranteed to be eye-opening.

This is operated by the Nature Conservancy, and it allows you to estimate both your individual and household carbon emissions.

This is the Web site for Al Gore’s controversial movie, An Inconvenient Truth. While that may turn some people off, the carbon calculator is the easiest to use of all the online calculators sampled.

Why should I care about my carbon footprint?

Although the Earth's climate changes naturally over time, there is significant scientific evidence that recent warming is being driven mostly by man-made activities, particularly the burning of fossil fuels in coal-fired power plants and gasoline-powered cars and trucks. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a diverse group of some of the world’s leading scientists, reported this year that climate change will produce severe changes in Texas by century’s end, particularly along the Gulf Coast.

Texas is by far the biggest carbon-polluting state in the country and in fact would rank among the 10 biggest carbon polluters in the world if it were a country.

In Dallas-Fort Worth, the average annual temperature is projected to increase as much as 5 degrees by 2050 and as much as 10 degrees by the end of the century, according to computer model forecasts devised by the U.S. National Assessment of Climate Change. As a result, North Texas will be subjected to more extreme heat waves, severe droughts and shortages of drinking water, according to the nonprofit Houston Advanced Research Center, which has done extensive air-quality modeling in Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth.

So what can I do to reduce it?

There are a number of easy -- and inexpensive -- steps you can take to reduce your carbon footprint:

  • Drive less: Every time you drive to the store, or to church, or to work, your vehicle is emitting carbon dioxide into the air.
  • Use less energy: The majority of individual energy use goes to cooling and heating your home. But adjusting your thermostat up 2 degrees in the summer and down 2 degrees in the winter can cut carbon emissions by about 1 ton a year, according to the Department of Energy.
  • Eat locally grown food: The average meal in the United States travels 1,200 miles to get to your dinner table, producing tons of carbon emissions via the trucks, trains and planes used to ship the food. By eating more locally or regionally grown food, you can cut down on the amount of energy it takes to transport the food to you by about 20 percent, said Robert Jackson, a climate change expert at Duke University.
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