Your (Greenhouse Gas) Hot Air Balloon
There are 125 million households in the United States, and in each one, people consume energy, goods, and services. With climate change becoming a critical global issue, many people want to know what they can do personally to reduce their carbon footprint, or in other words, how they can reduce their household greenhouse gas emissions. That starts with measuring their current ‘baseline’ level of emissions.
For houses that use natural gas, oil, or wood for heating and/or cooking, burning those fuels produces carbon dioxide emissions on-site. Using electricity also causes emissions from the power plants used to generate that electricity (assuming some portion is from coal and natural gas-fired plants). Though these emissions occur off-site, they can still be attributed to household consumption. Finally, there are emissions associated with producing all of the stuff that we buy: goods like food, clothes, and furniture but also services we consume such as streaming video, education, or insurance.
Many of our goods and services are actually produced in other countries. This image shows household greenhouse gas emissions, including emissions that occur outside of the U.S. that are ‘embodied’ in our imports. The total estimate is 115 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents annually for the average 4-person American household, nearly 20% of which is emitted in other countries – filling a balloon 78 feet wide by 155 feet tall.
 Hertwich, E.G. and G.P. Peters. 2009. Carbon footprint of nations: A global, trade-linked analysis. Environmental Science & Technology, 43(16): 6414-6420.