What is the Average Carbon Footprint?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Globally, the average carbon footprint is four tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per person per year. However, this data is a bit misleading, because the size of someone's carbon footprint varies considerably, depending on where he or she lives. People in industrialized nations such as Canada produce much larger carbon footprints than people in the developing world in places like Malawi. Breakdowns of average carbon footprint per country tend to be more revealing than looking at the global average.

Drinking bottled water can increase a person's carbon footprint.
Drinking bottled water can increase a person's carbon footprint.

The information in this article comes from the first decade of the 21st century. Most nations were showing an upward trend in carbon emissions at this time, despite attempts to curb carbon emissions in the interests of protecting the environment. It is important to note that very few nations had shrinking average carbon footprints, and that growth rates were quite variable, with some countries having rapidly expanding carbon footprints when compared to others.

Driving less and using public transportation can help an individual reduce her or his carbon footprint.
Driving less and using public transportation can help an individual reduce her or his carbon footprint.

Carbon footprints are based on the amount of greenhouse gases generated to support someone's lifestyle over the course of a year. They are measured in carbon dioxide equivalent, with all greenhouse gases being fitted along a rubric which uses carbon dioxide as a base. Some footprints look at primary and secondary sources, separating the two. For example, when someone drives a car, this generates a primary source of carbon dioxide. When someone drinks bottled water, this generates a secondary source; the emissions are not in the bottle itself, but in the manufacturing and transportation of the bottle.

North Americans have the highest average carbon footprint, around 20 tons per year. A study conducted by MIT students showed that members of the homeless population in the United States have a carbon footprint of around eight and a half tons annually. By contrast, in Ethiopia, the average carbon footprint is .01 tons per year. Some other examples include Russia, 10 tons per year, Egypt, at two and a half tons well below the global average, and France, slightly higher than the global average with six tons per year. Residents of China hover close to the global average with a carbon footprint of 3.8 tons per year.

Researchers have pointed out that the average carbon footprint is heavily influenced by the culture in which someone lives. In regions where consumption is ubiquitous and widespread, footprints are high, even though individuals may live below the average national footprint. Conversely, in nations where poverty is high and people lack purchasing power, the footprint stays low. Interestingly, some of the nations most vulnerable to changing climate conditions, which many people believe may be in part caused by carbon emissions, have some of the lowest carbon footprints.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Iluviaporos - That's true, but people can definitely do a lot right now to reduce their own carbon footprint. Recycling is something that should be done by everyone. It's close to universal in some European countries and it's not that difficult to achieve.

People throw out huge amounts of waste and use electricity like it's going out of fashion.

Just being thrifty could help to reduce the average carbon footprint by a huge amount.


@Mor - I do think that we should be smart about some of these things though. For example the idea of everyone growing their own vegetables. That's not as simple as it sounds. In order for people to grow their own vegetables, they all need the space to do that and spreading people out is actually very bad for the environment. Cities are one of the ways in which we can reduce a carbon footprint, believe it or not.

And while our usual current methods of growing vegetables are not particularly environmentally friendly, it's not necessarily going to be a better option switching everything up to permaculture methods. Mass production can be more environmentally friendly, because we have massive amounts of people to feed and it's far more efficient to feed them with a system that uses mass production.

There are massive changes that could be made and I think everyone should try to lower their personal carbon footprint, but the average is going to be much more effected by changes at a policy level.


A lot of the stuff that we could be doing to reduce a carbon footprint is stuff that's good for us and for the environment in a host of different ways. Taking people-powered transport for example (like walking or cycling) or growing your own vegetables rather than using vegetables that have been mass produced and shipped long distances.

That's one of the reasons I've never been able to get my head around the people who insist that climate change is just a big conspiracy. I mean, even if it was, all of the stuff that's being advocated is good for other things. Reducing air pollution can only help health and the environment in general anyway.

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