The Atmosphere We Create - The Typical American Carbon Footprint

Without knowledge action is useless and knowledge without action is futile.
— Abu Bakr

Over the last few years, the number of Americans who report being familiar with the term “Carbon Footprint” has gone from the minority to the majority.  Most people now not only know the term but also want to see us act on making meaningful reductions on our greenhouse gas emissions.

  • 73% of Americans see Global Warming as a threat. (Bloomberg)

  • 65% favor proposals to set higher emission standards for business and 62% and for automobiles. (Gallup)

  • 83% of Americans want their country to make an effort to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs. (Yale)

Most of us understand that we need to make some changes and are willing to do something about global warming.  A well meaning effort might have a person trying to make changes in every aspect of their life, but as the American Psychological Association points out – you are more apt to be successful with behavior change if you focus on one thing at a time.  We have a much better chance of successfully changing our behavior - and our environmental impact - if we understand what makes up the aspects of that impact and prioritize our efforts accordingly.

If I want to make the biggest reduction in my personal carbon footprint and want to select the first thing to work on, where should I prioritize my efforts?  Should I stop using paper towels first, or give up eating beef?  Should I we drive for our summer vacation or fly?  Should I try to buy fewer things or should I focus on reducing my heating/cooling energy at home?

Based on the level of misunderstanding we see on a daily basis just cruising the internet or cable TV news, it is clear there is still a fair bit of uncertainty about what, exactly, our personal carbon footprint is and where it comes from. 

The average American generates around 20 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually – that is 44,092 pounds.  That is, of course, an average.  Our individual footprint is highly variable based on our personal activities – someone who drives every day to work and is a frequent flyer will have a vastly larger footprint than someone who has never stepped on a plane and who rides the bus to work every day. 

The size of our footprint also tends to vary based on our socioeconomic status as well as our age.  Typically, our individual carbon footprint starts at zero at birth and steadily climbs to its zenith around age 65, dropping off in ‘retirement’ years.

The major sources of our personal carbon footprint come from our housing, transportation, food, consumer goods, and the services we use.  Looking to the Bureau of Labor Statistics for average household/personal spending on these categories, the breakdown of our personal carbon footprint by these categories is:

  • Housing:

  • 5.9 metric tons (29.5%)

  • Transportation:

  • 6.74 metric tons (33.7%)

  • Food:

  • 2.52 metric tons (12.6%)

  • Goods:

  • 2.42  metric tons (12.1%)

  • Services:

  • 2.24 metric tons (12.1%)


The Average American's annual transportation emissions alone are 140% of the average world citizen's entire  Carbon Footprint.

Click on the image to view an infographic for a more detailed carbon footprint breakdown and to get a sense of exactly how much atmospheric greenhouse gas each of these numbers represents.

Click on the image to view an infographic for a more detailed carbon footprint breakdown and to get a sense of exactly how much atmospheric greenhouse gas each of these numbers represents.

What you can do:

Take a moment to calculate your specific carbon footprint.  You can do that on our carbon footprint calculator.  When you understand your own personal footprint, you will see the areas where you could create the greatest reductions.  You can also offset your carbon footprint with BLUEdot Offsets in order to invest in greenhouse gas reductions balancing the impact you cannot yet eliminate.