Treading lightly: How to gauge my carbon footprint?

First, find out how big it is by using a free online calculator.

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    Liu Ning, a engineer, has been riding his bike to work along the waterfront for the past year during the morning commute in San Francisco, California.
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Q: How can I measure – and then reduce – my overall “carbon footprint”? What are the major ­areas of one’s daily life that one measures?
Andy Fusco, Passaic, N.J.

A: With global warming dominating so many headlines today, it’s no surprise that many of us are looking to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases our activities produce.

By assessing how much pollution each of your individual actions generates – be it setting your thermostat, shopping for groceries, commuting to work, or flying somewhere for vacation – you can begin to see how changing a few habits here and there may significantly reduce your overall carbon footprint. A number of free online carbon footprint calculators can help you figure out where to start.

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One of the best, in our opinion, is the University of California at Berkeley’s Cool Climate Calculator. The free Web-based tool takes into account daily driving mileage and grocery and electricity expenses, among other factors, to assign a carbon score. Users can then compare their scores to similar households across the 28 largest urban areas in the United States. Some of the results are surprising. For example, residents of ecoaware San Francisco tend to have bigger carbon footprints than those in more conservative Tampa, Fla. The reason: San Francisco has a higher cost of living as well as colder, wetter winters (requiring more fossil-fuel-derived heat).

Another great carbon footprint calculator is available at EarthLab.com, an online “climate crisis community” that has partnered with Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection and other high-profile groups, companies, and celebrities. Users take a three-minute survey and receive a carbon footprint score, which they can update as they work to reduce their impact. The site provides some 150 lifestyle-change suggestions to cut carbon emissions – from hanging out your clothes to dry to sending postcards instead of letters to taking the bike instead of the car to work a few days a week.

“Our calculator is an important first step in educating people about where they are,” says Anna Rising, EarthLab’s executive director, “then raising their awareness about what they can do to make easy, simple changes that will lower their score and positively impact the planet.

“Our goal isn’t about convincing you to buy a hybrid or retrofit your house with solar panels,” Ms. Rising adds. “Our goal is to introduce you to easy, simple ways that you as an individual can reduce your carbon footprint.”

Other green groups and corporations, including CarbonFootprint.com, CarbonCounter.org, Conservation Inter­na­tional, The Nature Con­ser­­vancy, and British oil giant BP, among others, also offer carbon calculators on their websites. CarbonFund.org lets you assess your carbon footprint – and then offers you ways to offset such emissions by investing in clean energy initiatives.

Got an environmental question? Write: EarthTalk, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881. You can also contact them via e-mail at: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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