The idea of saving the earth can feel like a superhero-sized mission, but it is within our collective power to stop climate change. 

But which actions make a real difference, and which have just benefited from a wealth of publicity? 

As we go about our day, we are almost constantly adding to our carbon footprint. From the food we eat to the items we use, anything that requires energy to produce or use comes hand-in-hand with carbon emissions.

Average carbon footprint per country

While the size of that footprint varies enormously by country, the overall strategy to reduce that footprint is the same worldwide. 

By stopping emissions-generating activities altogether you can avoid those emissions. This has the greatest impact on your footprint. Reducing emissions where possible and replacing them with lower consumption alternatives will lower it still further. For anything that remains you can pay a third party to offset them, although this should be a last resort. 

Offset, replace, reduce emissions - Carbon Management Strategy

So what are the most worthwhile steps you can take in your missions to save the earth and reduce your carbon footprint?

The energy used in your home contributes on average 26% to your overall carbon footprint, although the true amount of energy used varies enormously by country. Colder countries tend to rank highly, thanks to the need to heat both the buildings and water. 

Want to know how much energy we're using? Energy use by country

Regardless of where you live, there are steps you can take to reduce your home energy use. 

The biggest thing you can do is to switch the source of that energy from fossil fuel to renewable energy, such as solar, wind or hydro. This doesn’t mean you have to install solar panels on your roof or a 40-foot wind turbine in your garden. You can simply switch suppliers. 

While it’s not currently possible to guarantee that green energy comes straight from the source into your home (unless the entire country runs on renewable energy), you can guarantee that the energy you remove from the grid — effectively like the big bucket of energy that the country draws from — is replaced by renewable. This means that the total contents of that bucket of energy will go green over time. 

The availability of green energy varies by country, but a quick Google should give you the options in your area. In the UK, Big Clean Switch compares prices of the main renewable energy suppliers, while this list shows the US suppliers, state by state. 

Heating and cooling your home accounts for anything up to 44% of your energy use, so doing this more efficiently can have a big impact on your home’s carbon footprint. It’s simply a matter of making sure that you don’t heat or cool the house when it’s empty, and doing so less when people are sleeping. 

US and UK Residential Power Usage

During colder weather, the Department of Energy’s recommendation is to keep your thermostat at 68 degrees while people are home and awake, but 68 degrees overnight and even less when the house is empty. When it’s warmer and you need air conditioning, cool the house to about 78 degrees, and push that up to 85 degrees when no one is home. 

If you’re able to invest in a smart thermostat this is really easy to do from your phone, so you can literally activate it to heat the house for 15 mins before you arrive home from work. Alternatively, make use of the various timer settings on your thermostat, and change them if you know you’re going to be out for the evening or away for the weekend. 

Long-term, the best solution is to insulate your home. Some governments offer vouchers or grants to help homeowners do this. In the short-term, closing well-lined curtains to trap heat in or keep the sun out can help, reducing the need for heating or air conditioning. 

Turning things off at the power source rather than leaving them on stand-by is one of those things that feels like it shouldn’t make a big difference, but does. Globally, stand-by power consumption is estimated to be responsible for about 1% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. 

This energy drain when an item is not in use is often referred to as a phantom or vampire load. In the UK, 76% of households report leaving electronics on stand-by and 38% do so all the time. 

Lots of devices continue to suck energy when not in use, which isn’t a big deal for one phone charger, but quickly mounts up when you think about everything that’s plugged in. TVs and phone chargers are the most common culprits, while games consoles consume almost as much electricity in idle mode as they do when in use.

Installing smart plugs will allow you to turn off mains power at the socket from your phone. Or for a slightly lower-tech solution, you can get plug adaptors that can be turned on and off by remote control. 

The easiest way to save energy in relation to keeping your clothes clean is simply to wash them less. While some things need to be washed after one use for hygiene reasons, for the rest, give them a sniff before you decide whether they truly need to be chucked in the laundry basket. 

When you do your laundry, go for a lower temperature. If you wash your clothes at 60 degrees and then use a tumble dryer every couple of days, you’ll be responsible for 440 kg CO2e per year — that’s more than a flight from London to Moscow. In contrast, using a 30 degree wash and air drying your clothes you'll be responsible for just 9% of that. 

The way you get from A to B can make a big difference to your carbon footprint. 

If you decide to go completely car-free in favour of walking or cycling, you can save 2.4 tonnes of CO2e per year. And if you’re a regular flier, giving this up can significantly shrink your footprint: think 1.6 CO2e tonne reduction for every transatlantic round-trip you avoid. 

But you don’t have to give up everything to have an impact on your travel footprint. 

EVs tend to get a mixed reception from energy experts. Some think they’re the future and everyone should be driving them already, while others argue that the emissions involved over the lifetime of the vehicle make them roughly equivalent to conventional cars. 

A recent study found that EVs are responsible for lower emissions when compared to petrol or diesel cars. The difference is obviously smaller in countries that rely on fossil fuel for their electricity generation, where the footprint is roughly equivalent to a new vehicle operating at maximum efficiency. 

However, this isn’t the case in countries where the energy mix already skews green. In the UK, where fossil fuel is fast becoming obsolete, the lifetime emissions per kilometre of driving an EV are about 3x lower than for a petrol car.

If you do need to fly, eschew the champagne and warm towels and you’ll be doing the environment a favour. While a flight from London to Hong Kong results in 3.4 tonnes of emissions if you fly Economy, this increases to 4.6 tonnes in Business and a whopping 13.5 tonnes in First Class. 

That’s simply because the more room your seat takes up on the plane, the greater proportion of emissions that seat is responsible for. 

Long haul air travel is particularly harmful to the environment because the higher those emissions occur, the worse they are for the ozone layer. Estimates vary on just how much more harmful they are, but the emissions bible How Bad Are Bananas calculates them at 1.9x worse than ground-based emissions. 

Food emissions come from both the production and transportation of that food, and the chart below shows the worst culprits.

The CO2 cost of what you eat - Food CO2 emissions

It’s pretty clear what the ideal answer is: go vegan. By cutting out all meat and dairy products, you would slash eight of the top ten foods off your footprint completely. 

But if that sounds like a stretch, at least for now, there are other ways of lessening your diet’s impact on the environment. 

If you go fully vegetarian, you’ll save 0.8 tonnes of CO2e per year. But if you can’t face cutting out meat completely, make educated choices. 

Reduce your intake, and when you do eat it, be aware of what’s most harmful. Beef is commonly regarded as the worst for climate emissions, but in fact it’s lamb. That’s due to the methane sheep produce (methane is 28x worse for the environment than carbon dioxide) and the transport miles involved in getting it from the source to your plate. New Zealand lamb might taste delicious, but unless you’re a Kiwi, it will have traveled many thousands of miles to get to you. 

Food miles can have an enormous impact on your food’s carbon footprint. In the US, produce travels an average of 1,500 miles from where it was produced to its final destination, with fossil fuel burnt at every mile. 

Buying locally means your food doesn’t have to be shipped far. Part of that comes with buying what is in season, avoiding transport from warmer countries or being grown in energy-hungry artificial environments, like industrial greenhouses.

Finally, eating fresh food rather than processed also reduces your footprint. Frozen carrots have a 3x larger footprint than fresh carrots, because of the energy used to prepare and freeze them. 

Globally, we’re buying 400% more clothes than we were just 20 years ago, and to cope with this demand, roughly 80 billion items are manufactured every year. 

Fast fashion is largely to blame for this over consumption. Clothes are now made so cheaply, with such low quality materials that Greenpeace estimates these fast fashion items are worn on average less than five times before being chucked away. The environmental impact of this quickly adds up: just one cotton t-shirt manufactured in China has a footprint of 8.77kg CO2e

With numbers like that, it’s easy to see why the most important thing you can do to lower your footprint is to buy less. Half the number of new shoes you buy in a year, and you’ve automatically halved the footprint of your feet.

By wearing something an extra nine months, you can reduce the carbon footprint of that item by 20 to 30%. Part of that comes from washing your clothes less. This doesn’t just reduce the amount of energy you use, it will keep your clothes looking their best for longer. 

When those inevitable holes do start appearing, master the art of needle and thread (or become familiar with your local tailor) and fix it rather than fling it on the scrap heap.  

Levi jeans are beginning to offer an in-store denim mending service, while the popular outdoor brand Patagonia have sewing guides on their site showing wearers how to fix their most popular bits of kit. 

Whether you trawl through your local vintage shops, love hunting a charity shop bargain or are somewhat of an eBay ninja, there are lots of ways of refreshing your wardrobe without buying new clothes. 

There’s a new wave of resale websites that have sprung up in recent years, offering good quality clothes for a fraction of their original price. Depop, Poshmark and Mercari are all well-used, boasting as much stock as your local Topshop (and more). 

Sites like Thredup are particularly popular, as they check the quality of the clothes sellers send to them before putting them on sale online. They project that in eight years time, spending via resale will be 1.5x bigger than on fast fashion. 

In the quest to slow the scourge of plastic bags in our oceans, cotton tote bags have often been positioned as the greener alternative for taking your shopping home. 

But they’re not as green as they might appear. 

Cotton is a resource-intensive material to grow, needing huge amounts of land, water and fertiliser. Once farmed, it’s then heavy to transport, further adding to the carbon emissions associated with it. 

In fact, a cotton tote bag needs to be reused 131 times for it to equal the carbon emissions impact of a plastic bag. The most environmentally friendly bag is one made of a more durable type of plastic called non-woven polypropylene, sometimes called a Bag for Life. 

The recent increase in home working has had a positive impact on carbon emissions worldwide, but that doesn’t mean that working on a laptop in your kitchen is impact-free. Every time you look something up online, stream music or watch a video, there’s a data centre somewhere in the world that is making it happen. 

Those data centres use a lot of energy: they currently consume about 2% of the world’s electricity, but that’s expected to reach 8% by 2030. 

So how can you reduce the energy required for your online life?

Using the internet means relying on massive power-hungry servers. Netflix said that in 2014, the average customer had a carbon footprint of 300g per year thanks to the amount of streaming we were already doing. Since then, the number of subscribers to the service has increased by 79%, so there’s little doubt that Netflix’s overall carbon footprint is at least 79% larger (or more, as each person is likely to be streaming more today than six years ago). 

Online privacy, or a lack thereof, also comes at an energy cost. Tracking services like cookies transmits data about you to dozens or even hundreds of companies every time you go online, using previous server resources. To counteract this, ad blockers and browsers that come with additional privacy settings (such as DuckDuckGo), can help reduce this. 

If you’re searching for a reason to reduce the size of your inbox, do it for the environment. 

Data-heavy emails are surprisingly carbon-intensive thanks to the energy used in data centres: while a text email is responsible for 4g CO2e, an email with an attachment is 12.5x more, at 50g CO2e. According to Mike Berners-Lee, if you’re someone who uses email an average amount, it contributes to 1% of your carbon footprint. 

Practically speaking, keeping your use of cc-ing people to a minimum is always good email practice, both for the environment and for the sake of your colleagues’ inboxes. Compressing attachments can reduce the data-load on a server. Or even better, link to these files in the cloud, so readers can go and find them if they need them rather than having them automatically download to their inbox. 

Making changes to your lifestyle is extremely important in the fight against climate change, but it’s an unavoidable fact that the biggest impact will come from governments and corporations making large structural changes. 

In order to signal to our elected officials that climate change is the most important issue we’re facing today, we all need to use our vote. Voting in political parties that promise change: new schemes to insulate homes; the increasing of carbon taxes; the switch to electric vehicles and the improvement of broadband across the country. This creates governments that can spur a green recovery, create jobs and cut emissions permanently.

The other big piece of the climate change puzzle is changing the behaviour of corporations. Between 1965 and 2017, over 1.35 million tonnes of CO2e have been released into the atmosphere — and that can all be traced back to just 20 companies. 

One way we can signal our support of companies who are proactively tackling their carbon footprint is to buy from them. By choosing green energy, electric vehicles and sustainably made clothes, we signal that we those companies are the ones that we want to succeed. 

But there is an even more influential way: impact investing. This involves buying stocks, bonds and other assets in those same companies. While purchasing one product has some impact, investing money allows those companies to build their business, invest in greener processes and crucially, become more successful than their environmentally harmful competitors. 

At Cooler Future, we’re working on an app that makes it easy for you to do just that. Join the waiting list to be the first to know when it launches. 

Conclusion

While it can be tempting to buy the latest eco-alternative product on the market, the most impactful changes come from reducing your existing energy use. Reusing is always preferable to purchasing something new. 

Armed with this knowledge, saving the earth shouldn’t be daunting. Instead, it should be a life-long mission. While a true zero tonne carbon footprint isn’t possible in today’s world, with new technology, legislation and energy efficiencies becoming a reality every day, it’s something we can all one day aspire to.

Susi Weaser
Susi is a content specialist at Cooler Future, with a love of all things eco.

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