What's my carbon footprint? Calculate and reduce it
From world leaders to your own household energy provider, everybody’s talking about their carbon footprint these days. What does the term actually mean? Read on to understand what a carbon footprint is, how to calculate yours and what you can do to reduce it.
What is a carbon footprint?
You’ll have heard the term ‘carbon footprint’ bandied about a lot in recent times. Someone’s carbon footprint simply refers to the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions they release into the atmosphere when performing a particular activity.
These CO2 emissions can be divided into a couple of different categories: direct CO2 emissions and indirect CO2 emissions.
Direct CO2 emissions
Direct CO2 emissions are those that are produced wholly by an individual or organisation. For example, from fuel burned to power a personal vehicle or heat your home.
Indirect CO2 emissions
On the other hand, indirect CO2 emissions include all the emissions that come as a consequence of an activity.
Let’s take grocery shopping, for example. Everything from the energy used to maintain the ideal conditions to produce an item of food, through to the waste produced and any transport to get that item from farm to shop count towards its carbon footprint.
What’s the average person’s carbon footprint?
It’s difficult to put a figure on the global average, as not all lifestyles have the same environmental impact. However, western and developing countries consumption habits make them among the biggest polluters.
How does the UK’s carbon footprint compare to the rest of the world?
Following on from the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 and 2015’s Paris Climate Agreement, the UK signed up to tackle carbon emissions by reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) output and committing itself to a clean energy transition.
Based on the latest data for annual emissions of GHGs, the United Kingdom fares better (5.7 tonnes CO2 emissions (tCO2) per person) than the EU average (6.7t per person), though it is still performing slightly worse than the world average (5.0t per person).
On the plus side, we’ve seen GHG emissions decrease by 2% from 2017 to 2018. In fact, this follows a nationwide downward trend since 1990. The objective of the Paris Agreement is to reduce and stabilize greenhouse gas emissions in the long term. In 2018, EU emissions fell by 0.2t per person, while worldwide there was an increase from 4.8t to 5.0t.
In 2018, more than a quarter of the UK’s carbon footprint was linked to the transport sector, with the main culprits being petrol and diesel cars. The next highest emitter of CO2 was the energy industry.
How can my daily habits affect my carbon footprint?
There are many ways we can try to limit climate change in our daily lives, from the mode of transport we take to how we power our home and even the food we eat.
The carbon impact of travel
Transport represents the majority of carbon emissions in the UK. According to the Department for Transport, 83% of all passenger journeys in 2018 were made by car, van or taxi.
In terms of the average carbon footprint per passenger per kilometre travelled, the largest emitter of CO2 is a car with one passenger, though if we include other emissions, such as nitrogen oxides, then flying takes the lead.
In the air
Flying has by far the largest carbon footprint, mostly because of the amount of fuel consumed during take-off and landing, making it the most polluting form of transport.
Flying and carbon emissions in numbers:
- 915 million tonnes of CO2 produced by flights in 2019.
- Aviation is responsible for 6% of the UK’s annual emissions.
- If the aviation industry were a nation, it would be in the top 10 for greenhouse gas emissions.
Did you know..?
Short-haul flights tend to pollute more than long-haul trips. And that doesn’t even take into account the amount of CO2 each passenger uses just to get to and from the airport in the first place!
On the road
Although the UK government has ambitious plans to end sales of all new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040, for the time being, at least, the car remains one of the UK’s main pollutants.
For the moment, electric cars and hybrid vehicles are still a bit of a novelty on our roads and although their price is coming down, they are still cost-prohibitive for many households. One other way to bring your carbon footprint down when travelling by road is to take a bus or carpool. In fact, there are many ridesharing apps out there, such as Waze and BlaBlaCar to help you get from A to B.
Taking the train
For domestic trips, the train is by far one of the greenest ways to get around. In fact, taking the train from Manchester to London - rather than going by car or plane - could reduce your carbon footprint by around 73%!
Often it’s also a lot less hassle than making your way to an airport on the outskirts of the city, queuing up to go through security and finding your gate.
Sure, it can cost more than a budget Ryanair flight, but you can sit back and watch the world go by or even get some work done on your laptop and arrive in the centre of town instead of having to get a taxi or shuttle bus from the airport.
Agriculture and food
The carbon footprint of food is often underestimated and it can be easy to forget the amount of energy used to grow and transport your groceries to the supermarket, be it a bag of rice, a piece of fruit or a pack of minced beef.
The three main gases released in the farming process are carbon dioxide from farmhouse electricity and fuel for transportation, methane from livestock and nitrous oxide from fertilisers. In the UK alone, agriculture counts for 10% of all carbon emissions, while a number of studies claim that worldwide that figure is closer to 20%.
The individual carbon footprint of a meat product can vary greatly, depending on the animal and how it is raised. Generally, 7kg of greenhouse gases are emitted per kilogram of chicken, while for a kilo of lamb it is 39kg.
According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAOUN), the United Kingdom ranks 26th among the largest consumers of livestock and meat products worldwide, with a whopping 1,207kg CO2 per person per year emitted from farm to table.
Although the fishing industry is seen as being less carbon-intensive, as it doesn’t require farmland or upkeep of livestock, the carbon footprint produced really depends on the species of fish caught. This is mainly because 90% of the emissions produced are from fueling boats.
For example, small fish such as anchovy and mackerel are the most carbon-efficient, as they swim in large schools and are caught in nets which can pull up thousands of them in one trip, averaging 80 litres of fuel per ton of fish, according to the FAOUN.
On the other hand, large prawns and lobsters can burn more than 10,000 litres of fuel per catch, as the large, heavy nets are less fuel-efficient and travelling from one lobster trap to another also uses extra energy.
Heating our homes counts for a large portion of the average person’s carbon emissions in the UK. As we can see below, the amount of CO2 emitted per kWh depends on the energy source for heating, cooking and powering lights and devices.
Insulation also makes a huge difference, as poorly insulated housing can consume twice or even three times as much through heat loss as a newbuild.
|Energy source||CO2 equivalent per ton|
|Propane gas||274 kWh|
|Natural gas||234 kWh|
How do I calculate my carbon footprint?
There are a number of different factors involved in calculating your own carbon footprint, such as your house size, the number of people you live with, your consumption habits and diet.
Broadly speaking, an estimated 28% of CO2 emissions in the UK in 2018 were from the transport sector, 23% came from energy supply and 10% from the food we eat.
Carbon footprint calculators
There are a number of online tools online to help you calculate your own individual carbon footprint. One of the most popular carbon footprint calculators is on the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) website. Created alongside the Universities of Leeds and York, the WWF carbon footprint calculator takes the form of a questionnaire and bases your environmental impact on a number of factors:
- Diet and food waste
- Type of accommodation
- Energy use in the home
- Travel for both work and leisure
- Purchasing habits.
Why should I calculate my carbon footprint?
Calculating your carbon emissions is the first step towards reducing your global impact and helping us hit net zero emissions by 2050. By measuring your carbon footprint you can see which areas your emissions are highest and work on a strategy to reduce them.
How to reduce your carbon footprint
If we want to limit climate change, the best place to start is by looking around us and making changes to our daily habits. There are many measures we can take - some can be particularly advantageous from an ecological and even financial standpoint, while others require very little effort at all.
Adapt your diet
The food industry makes up a large proportion of carbon emissions in the UK. Therefore, adapting your diet can have a considerable impact on the environment.
Reduce your meat consumption
One of the easiest yet most effective ways to make a difference to your carbon footprint is by reducing your meat intake or even cutting it out altogether, if possible. Although figures show that we Brits are consuming less meat than in recent times, the amount we eat is still almost double the world average, at 226g per day.
Eat locally and in season
Sticking to seasonal and local products can also considerably reduce our impact on the environment. According to the Nicolas Hulot Foundation for Nature and Man, consuming imported products can emit up to 20 times more greenhouse gases (GHGs) than the same product grown locally.
Reduce single-use plastics and carrier bags
Unnecessary packaging takes energy to make and creates waste as it is often not recyclable. You’ll also usually save money by buying loose fruit and vegetables, which means you can reduce your weekly shopping budget and lower your carbon footprint at the same time.
Since the introduction of the single-use carrier bag charge as a measure to tackle the environmental impact of plastic waste, there has been an 86% reduction in take-up of plastic carrier bags in major supermarkets, with customers preferring to bring their own from home.
Energy efficiency in the home
Another simple way to lower your carbon footprint is by improving how energy efficient your home is. Improve the insulation of your home with double glazing, wall insulation and draught-proofing.
Although it may seem like a costly measure initially, the long-term savings you’ll see on heating bills should outweigh the installation costs. There are also schemes to support those who may require financial aid when insulating their home, such as the Energy Company Obligation.
Other easy ways to save energy are to replace old incandescent light bulbs with LED bulbs and when buying white goods such as washing machines and dishwashers to invest in newer, more energy-efficient models.
However, do make sure that you recycle these items properly, as they can become a major landfill contaminant due to the fact that they also contain greenhouse gases. Many shops will collect any unwanted larger electrical goods when they deliver your new ones, but you can also take them to a local household waste recycling centre, if not.
Change your daily habits
For many of us, transport is a non-negotiable part of our carbon emissions, as we have to get from A to B somehow. However, something we can do is change our method of getting around.
On your bike
Not only is the exercise good for your health, but you’ll also be making a huge dent in your environmental impact if you take your bike to work, even just for a couple of days a week.
Catch the bus
Most major cities in the UK offer a good public transport system and many even have park and ride systems, where you can drive to a pickup point on the outskirts and make the rest of the journey into work by bus.
Carpool (karaoke optional)
Here’s some basic maths: for each extra person in a car, the amount of carbon dioxide produced per passenger decreases. If a work colleague is going your way, why not take turns to be the designated driver? This also reduces the likelihood of traffic jams and therefore the resulting pollution from sitting stationary in gridlock.
Let the train take the strain
Although often more expensive and time-consuming than flying, thanks to the channel tunnel, getting anywhere in Europe by train is possible. Add this to the stress avoided by not travelling to an out-of-town airport and being bound by luggage and liquid restrictions and the train seems like a luxury in comparison.
Even with all the above taken into account, each person is different and it can often be complicated to make changes to certain habits. Living in a rural area can make it difficult to use a bicycle or public transport for example, while some long-haul journeys can only be realistically made by plane. For these situations, it is possible to offset unavoidable emissions by participating in a carbon offsetting program.
Carbon offsetting programs fund projects to reduce emissions elsewhere. Ideally, you shouldn’t simply rely on carbon offsetting alone to make up for your emissions, but combined with other positive actions it can be a way to significantly lower your environmental impact.
Here at Selectra, we have teamed up with EcoAct to participate in the Gandhi Project, a carbon offsetting program which supports the funding of sustainable wind farms in India. Along with the positive environmental impact, it also helps to create jobs and scholarships in economically impoverished areas.