Daily Environment Repost

Controlling your carbon footprint – Sort of

Some people care about their carbon footprint, and others don’t. Many of us are somewhere in between where we care, but balk at making any real lifestyle changes based on reducing that footprint. The reality is, however, that significant portions of our carbon footprint are beyond our control.

Assume a hypothetical case where a person named Sally, living in Washington State, buys an all-electric car to reduce her carbon footprint.  That very same day in West Virginia, Jack buys the exact same model car to reduce his footprint. Coincidentally, they both drive 12,000 miles during the next year. What are their respective impacts on carbon emissions?

The good news is that both Sally and Jack reduced their carbon footprints during the year. Sally reduced her carbon emissions by 92% when compared to her old gasoline car. Jack, however, only reduced his carbon emissions by 20%. During the year, Sally’s fuel usage accounted for 868 pounds of CO2-Eq (Carbon dioxide equivalent) in emissions. However, Jack’s fuel usage created 9,193 pounds of CO2-Eq in emissions. Jack’s car had a carbon footprint over ten times higher than Sally’s car. 

The difference resides in the methods of electrical power generation. In West Virginia, coal accounts for 92% of the electricity produced. In Washington State, 14% of the electricity produced is from fossil fuels, and 70% is from hydroelectric power generation plants. Electrical power plants are energy conversion plants. They take one form of energy and convert it into another form of energy – electricity. So, commercial electricity does not simply appear from nowhere; it requires that we use another energy source to produce it. 

Electricity – origin matters

Discussions on green alternatives often mention electricity, but there are different shades of green. The Washington shade is a bright green, and the West Virginia shade is a faded, brownish-green. While both Jack and Sally successfully took steps proactively reducing their carbon footprints, Sally was much more successful than Jack. They both did everything the same and had the same good intent. However, circumstances beyond their control made Sally 1000% more successful than Jack.

On a worldwide basis, fossil fuels account for 67% of the electricity produced, and a combination of nuclear and renewables makes up the remaining 33%. However, the numbers for total worldwide energy consumption show that coal, oil, and natural gas account for 87% of the aggregate energy demand. So, electricity is cleaner than many other forms of energy usage.

Think of the electrical energy numbers in terms of home heating. An average house with an oil furnace for heating derives 100% of its heating needs from fossil fuels. The same house with electric heating only derives 67% of its annual heat from fossil fuels.

On a worldwide basis, here is where our electricity comes from:

Fuel Source% Contribution
Natural Gas22%
Other Renewable6%

Electricity – the luck of the draw

There are aspects of our carbon footprints beyond our control. For most people, electricity is one of these uncontrollable factors. Short of packing up the house, leaving your job, and moving, individuals are tied to local electricity and the corresponding emissions from electrical power generation. It’s a part of the average carbon footprint that is difficult to manipulate. A reduction in the amount of electricity used is the only real option.


Can we quit fossil fuels? (Source: ArcheanWeb) – https://archeanweb.com/2020/01/23/can-we-quit-fossil-fuels/ Also:


Emissions from Hybrid and Plug-In Electric Vehicles (U.S Department of Energy) – https://afdc.energy.gov/vehicles/electric_emissions.html Also:

Energy (By Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser; Our World in Data) – https://ourworldindata.org/energy Also

Feature Image: Power transmission lines (High Tension) at Ghatkesar (By Adityamadhav83) 9Modified) – This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en –  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Power_transmission_lines_(High_Tension)_at_Ghatkesar.jpg

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.