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The Carbon Footprint of the Average American

written by: BStone•edited by: Donna Cosmato•updated: 10/18/2010

It is no secret that the United States is a major world polluter, but what about the impact of the individual? What is the average carbon footprint in America?

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    Your Step

    carbon footprint america Many of the decisions that you make in a day impact your own personal carbon footprint — drive or take the bus, turn on the air or open a window, hamburger or tofu burger. What difference do these choices make? A lot actually as even the most earth-friendly Americans contribute well over two times the world average for individual carbon emissions. The more Americans are aware of what the average carbon footprint is in the United States and the more that individuals make efforts to reduce their own impact, the better off the world will be in terms of dealing with the effects of greenhouse gas emissions.

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    How Many Tons?

    The average American adds 19.82 tons of CO2 to the atmosphere every year. The world average is 4.27 metric tons per person per year. So while the average person in China adds 4.28 tons, Canada, 17.3 tons, Venezuela, 5.82 tons, and Latvia, 3.25 tons, people in the United States add almost 20 tons. This does seem like an imbalance of pollution, and it is. In 2002, CO2 emissions for the whole country were 5,773 million tons. The next country, China, added nearly a full 2,000 million tons less with one billion more people.

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    Contributing Factors

    What is causing such a huge environmental impact? How can individuals make more earth-friendly decisions to try to reduce their own footprint? Part of the large American footprint is due to shared resources, such as libraries, the court system, roads, the military, and police force. Students at MIT found that even a homeless person who eats in soup kitchens and sleeps in shelters still has a carbon footprint of 8.5 metric tons. These factors are uncontrollable. What is controllable is:

    • Transportation — If you don't have to take the car, don't. When shopping for a new car, make fuel efficiency a priority. Take care of your car, keeping air in your tires and the fuel system clean to maximize the efficiency of your car. For every gallon of gas that you earth don't burn, you prevent 24 pounds of CO2 emissions from entering the atmosphere.
    • Eat right — Food choices have a lot to do with our environmental impact. First, substitute vegetable protein for meat as often as you can. Eighteen percent of the world's carbon emissions come from raising livestock. Buy local. The shorter the distance food has to travel to get to you, the less CO2 emissions. Don't waste your food. Two percent of all energy use in the United States is due to food waste.
    • How much energy do you use? According to the EPA, four of those 20 tons come from home use through electricity, heating, and waste. There are limitless ways that you can simply cut down your energy use. Minor changes include switching to CFL bulbs, or at least turning off the lights when you are not using them, unplugging appliances, washing clothes in cold water, and turning down the thermostat. Make every effort you can to reduce your waste, but also recycle what you do use. For every pound of garbage that you don't throw out, you prevent .94 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions.

    Knowing what the average carbon footprint is in the United States can be overwhelming. It can also be a wake up call that what you do, eat, use, and throw away makes a difference. Take proactive steps, even if they are small ones, to lessen your load on the environment.

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    "Carbon Footprint of Best Conserving Americans Is Still Double Global Average." (Science Daily, April, 2008) <>

    Time for Change <>

    World Resources Institute <[]=0&allcountries=checkbox&theme=3&variable_ID=466&action=select_years>

    "Can you reduce your carbon footprint with a vegan diet?" (The Independent) <>

    Union of Concerned Scientists <>

    Environmental Protection Agency <>

    photo by Net Efekt (CC/flickr) <>

    photo by Aussie Gal (CC/flickr) <>