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What is the Average American Carbon Footprint and How to Reduce It?
Blog...What is the Average American Carbon Footprint and How to Reduce It?

What is the Average American Carbon Footprint and How to Reduce It?

Carbon accounting
american flag
In this article, we’ll explain what a carbon footprint is, why Americans tend to have a large carbon footprint, and how those residing in the United States can actively seek to reduce their ecological impact.
american flag

If you’ve ever been to the United States, especially in New York City – everything truly is bigger, but is it better?

From grocery stores to clothing outlets, shopping in the U.S. is nearly a part of the culture – with consumerism manifesting itself a key quality amongst many Americans, celebrating holidays such as Halloween and the Fourth of July which both create a substantial amount of carbon emissions in a short amount of time.

If you didn’t already know, the United States is the second highest emitting country in the world – right behind China. This means that if the world wants to reduce its overall carbon footprint, Americans will need to lead the way if we want to make a dent in our global goal.

In this article, we’ll explain what a carbon footprint is, why Americans tend to have a large carbon footprint, and how those residing in the United States can actively seek to reduce their ecological impact.

Recap: What is a carbon footprint?

Remember, a carbon footprint refers to how many greenhouse gas emissions are emitted by an individual or group – and ultimately contributes to global warming.

A carbon footprint is expressed in a carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), and can be created by various entities – such as a single person, a company, or an entire country.
bbc news footprint

Factors which may contribute to a carbon footprint include:

  • Travel
  • Food
  • Material goods
  • Industrial production

As of 2023, Stanford estimated that the world exceeded 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide – increasing our global emissions by 1.1% since 2022. Seeing as the United States has such a large population and lifestyle conducive to a larger carbon footprint, it is essential for Americans to understand the ecological impact of their current actions and adjust them accordingly. Although the U.S. was successful in reducing emissions in 2023, there is more that needs to be done if we want to fight climate change on a collective scale.

👉 Long story short, if Americans don’t make an effort to reduce their carbon footprint – the world will struggle to mitigate climate change as a whole.

american flag over grass in sunset

What is the average carbon footprint of an American?

The average American carbon footprint is estimated to be around 16 tons per year. However, it is important to note that the average American carbon footprint is bound to vary depending on the state – seeing as major factors such as diet and transportation differ vastly across the United States.

As a result of dietary choices, driving used as the main method of transportation, and excessive energy consumption in comparison to other countries in the world – the average American carbon footprint is higher than that of other countries.
whose to blame climate change

Some more data regarding the average American carbon footprint includes:

  • The average American household creates a whopping 48 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year;
  • Food alone contributes anywhere from 10-30% of the average American household’s annual emissions;
  • Americans are starting to eat more chicken than red meat, but it doesn’t change the fact that if more Americans were to switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet – the average American carbon footprint would be significantly reduced;
  • Central heating and air conditioning accounted for 44% of energy consumption in the United States in 2023 alone; 
  • A typical passenger car in the U.S. emits 0.77 pounds of carbon dioxide per each mile driven. Multiply that by the 40 miles each American drives every day, times 365 for each day of the day – this means the average American produces 11,242 pounds of carbon dioxide every year from driving alone.

If you still need convincing that the average American carbon footprint is larger in comparison to other nations across the globe, here is some food for thought: the average carbon footprint created by a person in U.K. is 6 tonnes, a French person 9.2 tonnes, Japan 8.6 tonnes, and 10.5 tonnes in Germany. None of these countries even exceed ⅔ of the average American carbon footprint.

👉 Some nearby countries, such as Canada, also produce a similar average carbon footprint per person – but it can be surmised that the neighboring American culture contributes to countries who have started to emit more CO₂. This could demonstrate the influence of Americans on the rest of the world and their annual emissions.

little girl long hair twirling american flag

Why do Americans create a large carbon footprint?

Many of those who are not American or who have never visited the United States may struggle to understand how the average American can produce such a large carbon footprint, but when you take a look at the average day of an American – it begins to make more sense.

Americans are used to convenience, such as easy access to the internet, central heating and air conditioning, drive their cars frequently, and engage in excessive consumerism behaviors – all of which contribute to an abnormal average carbon footprint amongst its citizens.

For example, as an American now living in Paris – I never drive nor do I own a car thanks to the public transportation system present in Île-de-France. However, when I used to live in the Washington D.C. metro area – I definitely drove or exceeded the average 40 miles each American drives everyday.

My excessive driving wasn’t out of choice, but circumstance – as there was simply no other way to get to my college campus every day and back on time. 

Let’s break down some other elements of daily life in the United States which contribute to the excessive carbon footprint created by Americans: are they a rite of passage or a road to the ultimate disaster? 

  • Driving – Unlike European countries, cities in Asia, or other parts of the world – driving is a quintessential part of daily life in the United States. In fact, the average American spends 55 minutes behind the wheel everyday. This is because despite the fact that 83% of Americans live in urban areas, many areas (even when connected to or nearby a bigger city) are not equipped for walking, biking, or any mode of public transportation. In addition to this, getting a license at a young age or taking a road trip is a rite of passage in the U.S. – further amplifying the importance of driving in the States. 
  • Difficulty to Travel – Living in Europe, it couldn’t be easier to take a weekend trip to an entirely different country without creating a massive carbon footprint – seeing as all it usually takes is hopping on a train. However, in the United States – this isn’t usually the case. Traveling cross country requires driving or taking a flight, and even though most Americans only get two weeks vacation time a year – many of them will spend that time traveling via carbon intensive methods.
  • Hallmark Traditions – Classic traditions shown in American movies (which do happen, by the way) such as having a Sweet Sixteen, Halloween Party, or attending Prom – are all costly, materialistic, and carbon footprint heavy events which you will seldom see people in European countries, Asia, or Australia celebrating. 
  • Media & Consumerism – Heavily influenced by Hollywood, an extensive focus on media, and commercialism –  many Americans try their best to, “Keep up with the Joneses” by buying the newest version of technology when it comes out, which contributes to an excessive carbon footprint.  
  • Food & Diet – Americans are known for their barbeques, excessive fast food and packaged snacks – all of which are meat heavy and make use of plastic, which emits additional greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Culture & Time Spent Inside – Americans spend 90% of their time indoors – and it seems unbelievable for the majority of people to imagine, but when I break down my old life in the United States, I see just how eerily accurate it is. Seeing as most of your time is spent either working or attending school indoors or inside your car, it’s easy for Americans to always be watching T.V. with the heat or air conditioning on while inside – all of which contribute to superfluous energy consumption and increase the average American carbon footprint.

👉 Biden has made a genuine effort to help Americans reduce their carbon footprint, such as by offering incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 and suggesting that climate change is a national emergency. However, the truth is – no amount of government action will alter a culture that has already been instilled amongst Americans for decades, and it may not be enough to curb the effects of the average American carbon footprint. 

view of nyc from boat with us flag

How can Americans reduce their carbon footprint?

Americans can reduce their carbon footprint by trying to mitigate excessive consumption, avoiding the need to upgrade their smartphones after each new release, trying to reduce meat consumption, and switching to public transportation.

While government action and climate legislation will certainly influence some Americans to start reducing their carbon footprint, in order for the average American carbon footprint to go down as a whole – intrinsic motivation on behalf of all Americans will be necessary.

Here are some ideas of how you can reduce your carbon footprint as an American:

  • Less Uber Eats or Postmates – Avoid the tendency to order takeout, as each time you order food on an app – the delivery is made by a driver, which directly increases the average American carbon footprint.
  • Eat Less Meat – Try meatless mondays or vegetarian meals at least once a week.
  • Use Public Transport – If living in a city, try your best to avoid needing to buy a car – opt for walking, biking, bus, or the metro instead;
  • Car Maintenance – However, if driving is essential – at least make sure proper maintenance is taken care of on your car. This is because things like deflated tires can reduce the mobility of your vehicle and ultimately increase your average American carbon footprint.
  • New Appliances – Implement energy efficient appliances in your home, seeing as excessive energy consumption is one of the biggest factors to the massive average American carbon footprint.

In addition to these tips, perhaps one of the most useful ideas for Americans to try and reduce their average American carbon footprint is to evade excess consumption patterns. 

A great way to reduce your average American carbon footprint is to practice mindfulness when subjected to consumerism habits – such as going to the mall with friends and feeling peer pressured into buying something. We know it’s hard to not give into the 2 for 5 or 50% off deals in the clearance section, bombarded with yellow and red colors purposefully trying to psych you into buying more than you need – but remind yourself that’s all it is: a psychological tactic, and not a need. 

👉 It is important for Americans to learn that although excessive consumption is a hallmark trade of the United States – it doesn’t mean it still works in today’s world with climate change on our backs.

Overall, it is important for Americans to understand the overall impact of their average American carbon footprint and actively seek to reduce it in whichever way possible – as the world can’t evade climate change as a whole without the help of Americans playing their part.

What about Greenly? 

If reading this article about the average carbon footprint of an American and how to reduce it has made you interested in reducing your carbon emissions to further fight against climate change – Greenly can help you!

It can prove stressful to attempt to reduce the emissions your American company creates, but don’t worry – Greenly is here to help! Click here to book a demo and get personalized expertise on how you can start to reduce your own emissions and decrease your environmental impact.

Greenly can help you make an environmental change for the better, starting with a carbon footprint assessment to know how much carbon emissions your company produces.

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