Carbon Handprints: An Overview and Tips to Start Measuring

Why We Need to Measure Both Carbon Footprints and Carbon Handprints

By Jane Marsh

Climate change is one of the most significant challenges of our time. Over recent years, more people and world leaders have structured policies and lifestyle changes to combat climate change impacts.

Although the planet has been warming up for decades, we’ve had some of the highest temperatures on record in the last seven years, particularly in 2016 and 2020.

Reducing one’s carbon footprint – the greenhouse gas emissions we produce in our daily activities that damage the earth – is at the forefront of the climate change movement. The average American’s carbon footprint is 16 tons, one of the highest worldwide.

However, the carbon footprint concept carries negative connotations that may hinder climate success. A newer movement – carbon handprinting – aims to encourage people instead.

Handprinting: An Overview

The idea of “carbon handprints” was developed by Gregory Norris, a lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health. He was upset by his students’ reactions to uncovering their carbon footprints and recognized feelings of depression and guilt.

Whereas carbon footprints focus on how one’s actions adversely impact the environment, carbon handprints track the positive contributions one actively makes to shrink their carbon footprint.

For example, it’s not enough that companies develop eco-friendly innovations that reduce carbon footprints if no one is utilizing them. You can improve your carbon handprint by creating or using a product, service, or process that avoids generating extra emissions.

Another principle that separates the two concepts is that footprints strictly calculate your effect on others. Handprints, however, can only be achieved when you shrink your footprint, help others reduce their own carbon footprints, and promote actions with positive impacts.

Handprints represent the benefits of the positive changes you make at the same time as you’re measuring your carbon footprints. That’s why you should look for ways to yield more handprints than footprints to offset it.

carbon handprints on exterior wall with paint
Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak on Unsplash

Start Generating Handprints

According to the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, there are several different components of generating handprints, such as the following:

  • Making more efficient use of materials and energy
  • Extending the lifespan of products by not replacing them too soon
  • Reusing products and enhancing performance
  • Reducing waste and making sure to recycle appropriately
  • Increasing carbon capture and storage through land-use changes

Think about what you can do to help yourself and everybody else shrink their carbon footprints. If transit buses run nearly 60% on lower-emission alternatives, then you could start riding public transportation and encourage others to do the same.

Another way to boost your handprints is by switching to a more balanced diet. Raising livestock for meat production is a significant producer of emissions, from the amount of feed animals consume to maintaining their health to transportation.

By incorporating more Meatless Mondays into your weekly meal plans, you can address your carbon footprint. However, to create a handprint, you can then share your vegetarian recipes with friends and family.

Simple acts like donating clothes to Goodwill or consigning items are other ways to create handprints. The fashion industry currently accounts for 10% of the world’s global emissions, which is expected to rise to 50% by 2030. Allowing others to reuse lightly worn clothing that no longer serves you is a positive recycling action with a beneficial environmental impact.

On the corporate level, an excellent way for companies to calculate their own carbon handprints is by reviewing their annual sustainability report.

Look at your company’s approach to achieving sustainability through its decisions, innovations, and actions for the year. Recognizing how much improvement was made with each measure can help you gain insight into long-term effects. You can then compare the estimated handprint to your footprint to understand what areas require more effort.

Aim for Net-Positive Measures

The more people you can encourage to shrink their carbon footprint, the more your carbon handprint increases. The reality is, many people feel defeated when they realize how much their carbon footprint damages the earth, causing them to give up on trying to make improvements. However, people may feel more inclined to take smaller, more manageable steps when they know they’re actually making a difference.