Middle and High School
A carbon footprint measures the number of greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted into the atmosphere due to an individual, organization, or activity. GHGs include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O), and they contribute to climate change by trapping heat in the atmosphere and increasing global temperatures. We shared some of the science behind this process in Heat Things Up with this Greenhouse Effect Activity.
Reducing carbon footprints is important because GHG emissions contribute to climate change, which can seriously impact the environment and human health, including more frequent and severe heat waves, droughts, storms, rising sea levels, and biodiversity loss.
As a science teacher, you can inspire your students to learn about their own carbon footprints. By incorporating lessons about carbon footprints into your coursework, you can help students understand the impact of their daily habits on the environment. Feel free to recycle the tips we share in this post to use in your classroom.
Introduce students to a Carbon Footprint Calculator
A carbon footprint calculator is a tool that helps people measure the impact of their lifestyle choices on the environment in terms of greenhouse gas emissions (specifically CO2). Students will be excited to learn how to estimate the CO2 produced due to everyday activities, like driving, using electronics, and eating.
Here's a simplified explanation of how a carbon footprint calculator works:
Categories: A calculator typically divides carbon footprint into various categories like transportation, home energy, food, and waste. These categories cover the major aspects of your daily life contributing to carbon emissions.
Data Input: You'll be asked to input information about your activities within each category. For example, in the transportation category, you may be asked to provide details about your family’s vehicle usage, such as the number of miles driven or vehicle type.
Calculations: Once you've entered the necessary information, the calculator uses predetermined data and formulas to estimate the CO2 emissions associated with your activities. It considers factors like energy consumption, fuel type, and average emissions per unit.
Results: After the calculations, the calculator will provide you with an estimate of your carbon footprint. It may present the results for total CO2 emissions or as an equivalent number of trees needed to offset those emissions.
The Global Footprint Network shares its Ecological Footprint calculator. This calculator helps visitors calculate their footprint and learn “how many planets we would need if everybody lived like you.” Students in your class can “Take the first step” by answering, “How often do you eat animal-based products (beef, pork, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy products)?” This calculator also estimates the date we would have used as much from nature as Earth could renew in the entire year “if everybody lived like you.” Students will be intrigued to learn when they overshoot the planet’s resources, D'oh!
Some calculators offer suggestions for reducing your carbon footprint. Typical recommendations include using public transportation, reducing energy consumption, eating less meat, or recycling more.
A carbon footprint calculator aims to raise awareness about the individual impact on the environment and encourage sustainable choices. It helps people understand the connection between their daily activities and greenhouse gas emissions, promoting an eco-friendlier lifestyle.
Using a carbon footprint calculator can be a great way for students to become more conscious of the environmental impact of humans’ everyday activities. They may even be inspired to make informed decisions to reduce their carbon footprint and take action toward a more sustainable future.
Ways to reduce your carbon footprint
Above, we describe the categories that cover some of our daily activities adding to carbon emissions. The budding conservationists in your class may wonder how to modify their behavior in those categories to reduce their carbon footprint. Here are some tips they can consider.
Follow the 3 R’s Waste Hierarchy
No, not "reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic." It’s Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. The 3 R’s framework is an effective way to reduce one’s carbon footprint. This means using fewer resources with products that are reusable, like water bottles or cloth bags. Additionally, it means recycling materials like paper, glass, and plastic. Doing so can help conserve natural resources, reduce waste, and decrease the energy required to produce new products.
Another effective way to reduce your carbon footprint is to conserve energy. You can save watts and watts of energy by turning off lights when you leave a room, unplugging electronics when not in use, and using energy-efficient light bulbs. You can also reduce energy usage by turning off your computer when not in use or setting your thermostat a few degrees lower in the winter and a few degrees higher in the summer.
Use public transport
Those ticket inspectors, you gotta hand it to them! Using public transportation or carpooling instead of driving alone is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint. Public transportation is much more energy-efficient than cars, and by taking it, you can help reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere. Additionally, carpooling can help reduce traffic congestion and save money on gas. In fact, researchers from UC Berkeley reported that individual carpoolers may reduce GHG emissions by about 4% to 5% (Shaheen et al., 2018).
Eat a plant-based diet
Some people may think being vegan is a big, missed steak. But believe it or not, what you eat can also impact your carbon footprint. Eating a plant-based diet, or at least reducing your consumption of meat and dairy products, can significantly reduce your carbon footprint. This is because the production of meat and dairy products is much more resource-intensive than the production of plant-based foods. That’s why so many folks go nuts over a plant-based diet. They know that reducing animal product consumption can help conserve natural resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Be conscious of your water usage.
As anyone out west can tell you, water is a precious resource; conserving it can also help reduce your carbon footprint. You can significantly reduce water usage by taking shorter showers, turning off the tap when brushing your teeth, and fixing leaky faucets. A low-flow showerhead or faucet aerator can also reduce the energy required to pump and treat water.
Carbon footprint and calculator concepts are real-world examples that engage students in lessons about the environment and encourage critical thinking. Ask students for their ideas for reducing our carbon footprints.
Global Warming and the Greenhouse Effect Lab Activity
Using a plastic "greenhouse" and various other materials, students study the causes of global warming.
The Greenhouse Effect: Exploring the Theory Kit
Students create two identical soil-filled environments, except one is open and one is closed. Both environments are exposed to the same conditions.
This wide-range, horizontal terrarium/vivarium thermometer provides temperature readings from 60-170º F and 20-42º C.