Want to reduce your carbon footprint? Welcome to the club!
It’s a goal shared by many of us, as we ask what role we have played in causing climate change, and crucially, what we can do to stop it.
The concept of a footprint is useful because it embodies the imprint that each of us has on the world, allowing each of us as individuals to understand our own impact and to take responsibility for changing that.
The Speed Read
1. Avoiding emissions altogether is ideal, but difficult.
2. Reducing your emissions and replacing your carbon-heavy consumption is more realistic.
3. The final step is to offset any emissions you absolutely can’t avoid.
What is a carbon footprint?
A carbon footprint is a term used to describe an individual, company or organisation's impact on the environment, due to the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere as a result of their consumption. It’s expressed in tonnes, with an average person’s carbon footprint measuring 5 tonnes, or 5 tCO2e.
CO2 is the chemical formula for carbon dioxide, but that’s just shorthand for the true climate culprit. Several greenhouse gases are responsible for climate change, so the ‘e’ in CO2e references the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide that activity is responsible for.
For instance, methane is 25 times more harmful than carbon dioxide, so an activity or item that emits methane will naturally have a high carbon footprint.
Almost everyone on earth has a carbon footprint, as it typically comes from any food you eat, any item you buy and (unless you walk absolutely everywhere) any journey you make.
Take someone proactively trying to reduce their carbon footprint. In a low footprint meal they might have grown their own vegetables and walked to buy a locally baked dessert. They will have avoided the bulk of direct CO2 emissions.
Emissions you are directly responsible for, such as those that are produced as a result of driving a petrol car.
But perhaps they used a plastic watering can to water their vegetables. Their locally baked dessert might have used eggs from an energy-hungry battery farm. That means that the indirect emissions could be sizeable.
Emissions created during the process of producing goods, such as the power used to manufacture an item or (even more indirectly) to heat the office of the manufacturer.
In reality, a carbon footprint is impossible to avoid. The key is to minimise it.
To do that, you need to understand as much as possible about your footprint. While this is challenging — due to both indirect emissions and the sheer volume of footprint-impacting decisions we make every day — an estimation helps you to make informed decisions so you can adapt the way you live your life.
A significant lifestyle change is the only option we’re left with. To stand the best chance at meeting the Paris Agreement target of no more than a 2°C rise in global temperatures, the average global carbon footprint per year needs to drop to under 2 tonnes by 2050.
Here’s where we currently stand:
So if your aim is to reduce your carbon footprint, where do you start?
How to reduce your carbon footprint
There are plenty of online tools that will calculate your footprint for you. But in order to get an accurate estimation, you need to input as much data about your lifestyle as possible. While it’s impossible to keep note of every single thing you buy and every journey you make, the more granular you go on the calculations, the more accurate your result will be.
Project Wren is a great resource for these calculations. The website not only gives you the chance to input things like your household energy bill amounts and the fuel efficiency of your car, it provides actionable and tailored recommendations on how to reduce your footprint after the calculations.
What to do about your carbon footprint
The bad news is that achieving a true zero tonne carbon footprint is almost impossible, because almost any interaction with the world results in emissions, to some degree or another.
Let’s face it: giving up plastic straws isn’t singlehandedly going to stop climate change, but it’s one small action that can form part of your carbon reduction strategy. And it’s by making positive choices every day that you can work towards reducing your carbon footprint to the bare minimum.
There are four simple steps to minimising your carbon footprint:
But it can be overwhelming to try to address your entire life in one go. A more manageable approach is to address transport, diet, home and goods separately, starting with the one that is the biggest problem area for you.
Here’s what a transport carbon management strategy might look like:
Step 1: Avoid carbon emissions
Avoiding emissions altogether undoubtedly has the biggest impact on your footprint. And at first glance, it seems simple — you just stop emission-hungry activities and consumption.
In fact, this can be one of the hardest things to do. Wholesale changes can often only happen with a complete change in lifestyle, such as giving up all flights, selling your car or turning vegetarian.
So what are the changes worth making?
If you’re a regular traveller the single biggest thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint is to stop flying. Emissions have a greater impact on the atmosphere when they are released higher up, which is why a single return flight from London to New York contributes almost a quarter of the average person’s annual emissions.
Meat, eggs and milk:
Meat and other animal products are responsible for more than half of food-related greenhouse gas emissions, and of that, beef and lamb are responsible for 50% of them. Cutting meat and dairy products from your diet can reduce your carbon footprint from food by two-thirds, but if you don’t fancy going full veggie, reducing the red meat you eat is the next best thing.
In the UK, 20% of greenhouse gas emissions come from home energy use, with heating and hot water responsible for three-quarters of that. Trapping heat in your home means that you need to reach for the thermostat less often, reducing your reliance on domestic energy.
Step 2: Reduce carbon emissions
Reducing your carbon emissions is the second, and perhaps more realistic, step. For example, while you might need to take the occasional flight for work purposes, you can reduce your overall travelling footprint by using rail or boat when you go on holiday.
An important part of reducing your emissions is understanding what really makes a difference, and what has perhaps just benefited from a lot of media attention.
Take cotton tote bags, the assumed ‘eco alternative’ to single-use plastic bags.
Plastic bags are horrible for the environment due to how long they take to break down, and the sheer number used. However, the much-loved cotton tote is not without its issues. Cotton requires a huge amount of land, water and fertiliser to grow, and it’s also heavy, which means the transportation of tote bags is a lot more CO2 intensive than plastic bags.
A cotton bag would have to be reused 131 times to equal the climate impact of a plastic bag, in terms of production. It’s the bag made of non-woven polypropylene (a more durable type of plastic) that wins in terms of production-related emissions, as these only need to be reused 11 times to equal the impact of a plastic bag.
So besides a certain type of plastic bag, what else would make a significant difference to your footprint?
Just a small amount of home working would certainly help. If 32 million people were able to work from home at least one day a week, it would save petrol enough to go around the globe 51,000 times.
And when home working is impossible, ensuring that your car runs efficiently means you need to fill up with petrol less often. Premium fuels remove dirt from the engine and actively reduce emissions, while regular oil changes prevent the wear and tear that erodes your vehicle over time. Even just keeping your tyres in good condition helps: low tyre pressure increases fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, with a 20% loss in tyre inflation reducing fuel economy by around 20%.
Step 3: Replace carbon emissions
So you’ve cut out the emissions you can, reduced the emissions related to other activities and you’re still left with a significant footprint.
It’s a fact of life that you’re going to use energy sometimes, and will therefore be responsible for emissions. Thankfully, you do have some choice in what type of energy that is.
By replacing high carbon energy with low carbon alternatives, you can take steps to manage the remainder of your footprint. This is about making conscious choices with regards to the fuel you use as an individual, whether that’s your home energy supplier or the type of car you drive.
Let’s return to our transport carbon reduction strategy.
Electric vehicles (EVs) are increasing in popularity, thanks to the increase in drive time between charges and the growing number of models available. Running on electricity rather than petrol, they’re often seen as the green future of transport.
In truth, that depends on how you recharge it. Pair your EV with clean domestic power, and when you charge it at home you’ll be using renewable energy, rather than fossil fuel, which is ideal.
However even if that’s not the case, an EU study found that even an electric car running on fossil fuel electricity would use only two-thirds of the energy of its petrol car equivalent travelling the same distance.
Step 4: Offset carbon emissions
Inevitably, even after avoiding, reducing and replacing your carbon emissions, there will be a few tonnes that stubbornly refuse to budge. That’s where offsetting comes in, helping you to reach that holy grail: the zero tonne footprint.
While it’s disingenuous to suggest you can achieve a true zero tonne footprint, as emissions have been released as a result of your actions, you can achieve a net zero tonnes, by paying to undo the harm you’ve done to the environment.
How does carbon offsetting work?
Carbon offsetting works by calculating how much carbon you’ve caused to be released into the atmosphere, and then working out a price that will undo that harm.
Since the harm has already been done (and time travel doesn’t currently exist), carbon offsetting services actually fund projects around the world that will prevent or remove the equivalent CO2 emissions elsewhere in the world.
So while your flight might have taken you to Hawaii, your donation might fund a hydro plant in Indonesia to power a local community so they no longer rely on coal.
Carbon offsetting platforms — which one is best?
Different carbon offsetting platforms offer different advantages. Here’s a breakdown of Atmosfair, Southpole, Project Wren and the United Nations offsetting platform, four of the most popular options.
But a word of warning: offsetting doesn’t provide a free pass, allowing you to do all the harm you like on the understanding you’ll pay to undo it later down the line. It should be used only as a last resort.
Reducing your carbon footprint is an ongoing process, and your reduction strategy is worth reviewing on a regular basis, as technology changes and choices increase. Part of the responsibility lies with the individual, but it’s also up to governments and corporations to make it easier for us all by switching to clean energy and increasing manufacturing efficiency.
As individuals, our choices have power. There’s the primary power of sustainable consumption on our immediate footprint, but there’s also a secondary element. By supporting companies that are tackling their emissions we can send the message that we, the public, care about climate change. In doing that, we’re encouraging other companies, corporations and governments to do the same.