You reduce, reuse, and recycle. You try to leave as small a carbon footprint on the planet as you can. But could you ever reduce your impact so much that it's not only zero but below zero? Can one person ever be carbon-negative?

Microsoft recently garnered worldwide attention with the announcement of a plan for the company to be carbon-negative by 2030. Two other tech giants, Apple and Google, pledged carbon neutrality, meaning they will compensate for their carbon footprint with green alternatives so their impact will come out zero in the wash. In contrast, carbon negativity will require Microsoft not only to reduce its carbon output to functionally zero but also to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

The company is investing millions of dollars in exploring atmosphere-cleaning solutions, knowing that a strong weapon in our planet's carbon battle might lie in technology not yet invented. The answer could be industrial-scale carbon capture and removal—like trees do, only faster.

Maybe atmosphere processors will be something we can all assemble in our backyard someday and run around the clock, but chances are that achieving carbon negativity this way will only be available to big concerns like corporations and cities and nations. So, what could a single person do to reach carbon negativity? Is it even possible?

A Typical Person's Carbon Footprint

Your carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases you produce (or cause to be produced). It's how much of the greenhouse effect can be assigned to the way you live, and it varies widely. For example, someone who drives a long commute has a much bigger carbon footprint than someone who rides public transit.

There's more than carbon in a carbon footprint too. To let us compare greenhouse effects across different gases, all emissions that contribute to global warming are equated to carbon dioxide, the biggest offender. All the greenhouse gases that anything contributes to the environment are expressed as the amount of CO2 that would have the same effect. This CO2 equivalent goes by the shorthand CO2e.

The New American Dictionary made carbon neutral its "Word of the Year" for 2006.

So what is the carbon footprint of a typical individual? If you input how much you pay for gas and electricity, how far you drive annually, and other numbers into the EPA's carbon footprint calculator it will estimate your annual CO2 emissions in pounds. The U.S. average is 16,631 pounds, with about two-thirds of that deriving from transportation.

Here are a few steps we could all take to reduce our carbon footprint, plus their associated savings in both money and pounds of CO2.

Small Actions Add Up—Yearly Impact
Take This Step Money Saved CO2 Reduction
Replace 1 incandescent lightbulb with compact fluorescent $4 20 lb
Enable power management feature on computer $13 66 lb
Wash your clothes in cold water $6 31 lb
Replace your fridge with an Energy Star model $38 197 lb
Perform regular maintenance on your vehicle $31 167 lb
Recycle paper, glass, plastic, and cans n/a 291 lb
Total $92 772 lb

You can see that it would take a lot to lower your carbon footprint to zero, never mind getting into negative territory. One United Nations environmental report, Kick the Habit, estimates that we're only directly responsible for about 50% of our greenhouse gas emissions (by driving a car, running the A/C, and so on). The creation, use, and disposal of products accounts for 20%. The rest comes from powering our workplaces and maintaining public infrastructure.

How much of a difference can one person make? "You can drive your car less and turn down the heat, but consider ways you can affect business and government policies that could tap into that other 50-plus percent," says the report.

A carbon-negative lifestyle requires that a person remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, not just refrain from emitting them. Can one person possibly do that? Not really. According to Scientific American, a carbon-neutral life would be enough of a challenge. Let's not try to bite off more than we can chew.

Could We Ever Plant Enough Trees?

Trees are nature's carbon capture and removal "technology." A fully grown tree can absorb around 47 pounds of carbon dioxide per year.¹ That sounds like a lot for one tree to absorb, but it's a pittance compared to how much CO2 one person makes. For example, if you heat your home with a gas boiler, you're contributing around 6,500 pounds of CO2 per year from that one appliance. So you'd need to plant and maintain 138 trees to offset it.

Bottom Line

Everyone taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint is worthwhile even if a tremendous goal like carbon negativity isn't within our grasp.