Heat-trapping pollution is invisible in the atmosphere. And the unit used to measure the gas at the heart of the climate crisis — metric tons of CO2 — doesn’t translate to the lived experience of most people. Can you visualize your own CO2 emissions? Or how changing your behavior might help limit your damage to the climate?
Consider a gallon of gasoline. Burned in your car’s engine, that single gallon will produce 20 pounds of carbon dioxide. The average American car, driven over a year, will create 10,000 pounds of CO2 — or 4.6 metric tons. That’s far more than double the mass of the car itself, but, because it’s a gas, the CO2 occupies a far greater volume.
How to imagine that pollution in the atmosphere? Picture a hot-air balloon — the kind you might ride on a tourist excursion in Napa or New Mexico. The yearly CO2 emissions from that average car would overflow the volume of that balloon.
Now picture four hot-air balloons. The average American generates that volume of CO2 emissions every year — roughly 16 metric tons in all. If you can imagine all 330 million Americans launching a total of 1.3 billion CO2-filled hot-air balloons — this year alone — to join billions of other balloons, launched over decades, that have never come down, you’ve begun to visualize the scope of the U.S. contribution to the climate crisis.
No More Meat — Close to a quarter of CO2 emissions come from food production, and more than half come from animal farming. Americans eat, on average, 270 pounds of meat a year.
Cold Wash — U.S. residential washing machines emit a whopping 179 metric tons of carbon a year, equal to powering 21 million homes. The average household washing is 289 loads annually.
Go LED — Switching out incandescent bulbs for compact-fluorescent or LED bulbs is one of the actions recommended to reduce carbon emissions at home, but the impact is modest.
Green Power — This stat assumes a house’s energy needs are met using strictly carbon-free sources, such as solar and wind. About 17 percent of American energy comes from renewables.
Stay Grounded — Air travel produces two to three percent of global CO2 emissions annually. Avoiding one long-distance flight has eight times the impact of recycling for a year.
One Less Child — This stat accounts for the generational carbon impacts of having a child (who will have children). Caveat: An American produces 40 times more carbon than someone from Bangladesh.
Limiting that pollution will require big, systemic changes — to power our homes and industry, grow our food, and move us around without fossil fuels. In the meantime, daily individual choices make a difference. It takes roughly 6 pounds of CO2 emissions to put a quarter-pound of beef on your plate, for example, while a quarter-pound of tofu requires less than one-tenth of that. Driving to work releases nearly a pound of CO2 every mile, but you could travel 10 miles on a commuter train with the same output. As the chart above illustrates, some frequently touted suggestions for reducing your carbon footprint (e.g., changing your lightbulbs) have a modest effect, while the biggest impacts are achieved by forgoing things like large families — with each additional child locking in emissions for generations — and air travel. Private jets exact a staggering toll. Take the travel habits of Bill Gates. It’s been estimated that the billionaire’s 59 flights on a private jet in 2017 produced a colossal 1,629 metric tons of CO2 — or the equivalent of the yearly output of 100 average Americans.