The Carbon Footprint of Daily Activities

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Earth (Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Image by Reto Stöckli (land surface, shallow water, clouds). Enhancements by Robert Simmon (ocean color, compositing, 3D globes, animation). Data and technical support: MODIS Land Group; MODIS Science Data Support Team; MO)

The average U.S. household pumps 49 metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year, according to the CoolClimate Network, a University of California, Berkeley consortium that has developed carbon footprint calculators for homes and businesses.  What are you doing to create all that carbon? We ran the numbers on some everyday activities.

Note: Your actual carbon footprint depends heavily on your location, said Mia Yamaguchi, the CoolClimate outreach coordinator at UC Berkeley's Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory. In California, for example, electricity generation is relatively climate-friendly, so focusing on vehicular emissions has a greater impact. Visit for personalized estimates.

Driving to work

Let's say you commute 30 miles round-trip to work, which was about average in 2003, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. That's about 7,800 commuting miles each year. And if you drive a car that gets 22 miles to the gallon every weekday, your annual carbon footprint from commuting is 4.3 metric tons.

If you want to shrink that estimate, try carpooling three times a week. You'll save 0.85 tons of carbon — and $323 dollars in fuel and vehicle depreciation costs — per year.

Chowing down on steak

If you're eating 444 calories a day of red meat (the equivalent of about one 8-ounce steak sirloin), your annual meat-related carbon footprint is 0.8 metric tons of carbon dioxide. Try switching things up with poultry, eggs, or even better, vegetables. Your carbon footprint will barely register.

Going on a shopping spree

Splurging on $100 of clothes each month will set you back 0.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Throw in a $1,000 furniture purchase once a year and you're up to almost a ton. You sure you need that new sofa?

Flying to grandma's house

You live in California, but you've got to spend Christmas at Grandma's back in Boston. That’s about a 5,000-mile round trip, making your carbon footprint from this airplane trip alone 2.23 tons of CO2.

We're not suggesting you deprive Nana of your company, but taking your trips close to home can give you big carbon savings: Every 1,000 miles you don't fly saves 0.45 tons of CO2.

Throwing clothes in the dryer

Drying one load of laundry a week puts 0.1 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Hang 'em outside and save yourself $11 in electricity costs while you're at it.

Working out

Gym rats, beware: Running on a treadmill for 30 minutes three times a week will boost your carbon footprint by 0.07 metric tons per year. Take it outside and watch that number plummet to zero.

Getting a divorce

A 2005 analysis showed that divorced households used an extra 73 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity compared with married households. The boost in carbon output had to do with the additional homes needed to house the now-separated couples. There were about 16 million divorced households in 2000, which comes to 4,562.5 extra kilowatt-hours of electricity per household. Break that down into carbon emissions and you get an extra 2.8 metric tons per year per household.

Having sex

Getting busy can be very green. Say you spend a total of two hours per week between the sheets. If you turn off the bedroom lights, you could be saving 0.9 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. But be careful in there: A 2009 study published in the journal Global Environmental Change found that having a baby will set you back 9,441 metric tons of CO2 over your lifetime.

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.