Understanding your carbon footprint
Understanding your carbon footprint is the first step in the fight against climate change. Every individual has a carbon footprint, although the size will vary depending on your lifestyle choices.
Definition of a carbon footprint
Your carbon footprint is the amount of carbon released by the sum total of all your activities. This includes how you get around, your diet, your buying habits, and your home. Almost everything you do has greenhouse gas emissions attached to it. So the choices you make in everyday life will affect the size of your carbon footprint.
For example if you fly lots and eat lots of red meat (both activities that are carbon intensive), your carbon footprint will be much larger than someone who eats a plant-based diet and never travels by plane.
You can reduce your carbon footprint through lifestyle choices. But every individual, even with the greenest lifestyle will still have a carbon footprint. The size of this footprint is affected by which country you live in.
Carbon footprint by country
The amount of carbon dioxide emissions produced vary enormously from country to country. On average developed countries emit 10 tonnes of CO2 equivalents per capita each year. However countries like Australia and America emit a lot more than this (around 15 tonnes each). The numbers depend on the average lifestyle of residents of that country. This includes how much they travel by car and by plane, what the average diet is like, and what kind of energy the country uses.
The energy consumption of a country will greatly affect the average carbon footprint. Some countries rely on burning fossil fuels for the majority of their energy, whereas others use more renewable sources and nuclear energy. These have much lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Why do country carbon emissions vary?
You may see variation in the exact numbers depending on which source you look at. This is because not all sources take into account consumption emissions. Consumption emissions are the emissions from importing goods from abroad. Some estimates will count these in the country that produces the goods. Whereas others count these in the country where the products are being shipped to, where the demand is.
For example Saudi Arabia has one of the highest carbon dioxide emissions per capita, but this is because they produce a large proportion of the world’s oil, which provides energy to the rest of the world. There is ongoing debate internationally about how to account for these emissions and who should be held responsible.
Average carbon footprint UK
This is made up of emissions from all aspects of life, from diet to energy in the home, to transport and purchasing habits.
Overall, UK CO2 emissions have fallen by 29% in the past decade. Scientists believe this to be mainly because of a declining use of coal as a source of energy. This is a positive step towards reducing the UK’s emissions, but much more action will be needed to meet national emissions targets.
Under the UK Climate Change Act, the UK must reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. As the host of the COP26 UN climate talks next year, the UK aims to establish itself as an international climate leader. However currently the country is set to miss its next two upcoming carbon budgets. These carbon budgets are intended to act as stepping stones towards the 2050 target. They impose caps on the amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted in the UK across a five-year period.
This means dramatic action will need to be taken to reduce the country’s emissions.
WWF carbon footprint calculator
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has developed a carbon footprint calculator for individuals to work out their carbon footprint.
Based on a series of questions about your lifestyle the calculator can tell you where your carbon emissions are coming from. Identifying the sources of emissions in your life is the first step towards reducing your carbon footprint.
Individual carbon footprint breakdown
Broadly your individual carbon footprint can be broken down into four aspects of daily life:
- How frequently you eat meat and dairy products will greatly affect your carbon footprint.
- It is also affected by how often you eat in restaurants and get takeaways. Food made in restaurants has a much wider carbon footprint than food cooked at home because of the energy emissions of the restaurant (lighting, heating, cooking). Takeaways have additional packaging and transport emissions.
- How much food you waste. Today, one third of all food produced is wasted. This represents 14 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions from wasted food in the UK every year.
- How often you buy locally produced food. It’s not guaranteed that food imported from abroad will always have a higher carbon footprint than food produced locally, but this is often the case. This is because of the extra packaging and transport required.
- How you get about on a daily basis. This includes your commute. If you drive a car, you will be emitting much more pollution than someone who mainly walks or cycles. Public transport is much better for the environment in terms of emissions than cars.
- The number of flights that you take each year will have a huge impact on your carbon footprint. Mile for mile flying is by far the worst mode of transport for the environment. The exact emissions of your air travel will depend on the length of the trip and the aircraft.
- How energy efficient your house is. The type of house you live in (detached, semi-detached, terrace, flat) will also affect your home’s carbon footprint as it impacts its energy efficiency.
- Basic energy efficiency measures such as insulation, double-glazing, and low-energy lighting can cut your energy bills and reduce your carbon footprint.
- The primary fuel source used to heat your home will also affect your carbon footprint. The warmer you heat your home, the more energy required.
- If your home is powered by electricity, you might want to think about switching to a green tariff. This means that your electricity either comes in part or wholly from renewable sources.
- The production process for brand new items requires large amounts of energy.
- Aim to buy second hand and recycle as much as possible to divert waste from landfill and reduce the demand for new products.
- This category includes how much you spend on new clothes and personal items.
- Don’t forget about anything you buy for your pet if you have one.
- How much we recycle will affect our carbon footprint. When waste is sent to landfill, it releases methane, which is a contributor to greenhouse gases. Recycling and composting can help mitigate this.
Read more: How we calculate your carbon footprint
Ways to reduce your carbon footprint
Once you have worked out your carbon footprint, you will want to start thinking about how to reduce it. Breaking down your footprint into travel, shopping, food and home will help you see where you can make easy changes. There are plenty of ways to reduce your carbon footprint that don’t involve making dramatic changes to your lifestyle.
Read more: 12 ways to reduce your carbon footprint
Best ways to reduce your carbon emissions
As an individual, the best way to reduce your carbon footprint is to set yourself some simple goals. These might include turning down your heating, eating less meat, and walking to work. Why not make a pact not to take any flights for the next year?
If you’re looking for inspiration, Treepoints curates monthly green living challenges for our community to help kick start your lower carbon lifestyle. These also include advice for eating seasonally. This reduces the carbon footprint of your food by not relying on energy intensive farming to produce fruits and vegetables that are not naturally in season.
Once you’ve reduced your carbon footprint as much as you can through lifestyle changes, you will want to think about carbon offsetting the remaining emissions.
How to reduce your carbon emissions at home
There are plenty of simple ways to reduce your carbon footprint at home. These include turning off appliances and not just leaving them on standby, and switching to more energy efficient devices. For example, replacing your light bulbs with LED ones will use around 85% less energy and last longer.
If you’re buying or renting a new home, take a look at its energy efficiency. Measures such as double glazing, insulation, and low energy lighting can all reduce your carbon footprint. You can also switch to a green energy provider. Companies like Bulb make the transition easy and help you to monitor your home’s carbon emissions.
If you are switching to green energy, make sure to check the percentage of renewable energy. This will vary from company to company.
How to reduce your carbon emissions with food
The meat and dairy industries are huge contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Together, they account for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. Beef produces approximately 8 kilograms of greenhouse gases for every serving, and other meats are not far behind.
If everyone switched to vegetarianism, we would save 6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year by 2050. Why not start with one day a week vegetarian or vegan? Slowly reducing the amount of meat and dairy products in your diet makes for an easier switch.
However, your carbon emissions from food are not just about meat and dairy. It’s also about being aware of where your food is coming from and how it has been produced. Eating seasonal produce and shopping locally can help reduce your footprint in this regard.
Finally, try to reduce the amount of food you throw away. Globally we waste around 1.3 billion tonnes of food every year. If everyone wasted less, the pressure on the global food production industry would be significantly lower.
Offsetting your carbon emissions
Now you’ve done everything you can to reduce your carbon emissions, you’ll want to think about offsetting.
Carbon offsetting is a way of taking responsibility for your carbon emissions. You can do it by supporting carbon reduction schemes that remove carbon from the atmosphere. These include renewable energy projects, and tree planting initiatives. The idea is that for every tonne of CO2 you emit, you can ensure that the same amount is reduced elsewhere. This results in net carbon neutral, meaning you offset the same amount of carbon as you emit.
Working out which carbon reduction projects to support can be a hassle. This is why Treepoints has simplified the process for individuals and businesses. All you need to do is pick the membership plan that corresponds best to your lifestyle. The size of your carbon footprint will determine this. Then you donate monthly and Treepoints supports the best carbon reduction schemes on your behalf.
From solar cooking in Chad to protecting biodiversity in Panama, Treepoints supports Gold Standard and VCS certified projects. Not only do they reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, they also contribute to sustainable development. You can see the kinds of projects that Treepoints supports here.
How can a company reduce their carbon footprint
It’s not just individuals who have a carbon footprint. Companies also have carbon emissions. This includes the energy used in all the processes of the business, including the office and any end products. It also includes employees’ work travel. If you are an employer or run your own business, you might be interested in how you can reduce your carbon emissions.
To work out your business’ carbon footprint, you will need to know your energy bills and how much business travel your employees take.
Once you know this, you can start implementing positive changes to reduce your company carbon emissions. This can range from big changes such as reducing flying for work travel, to small changes like recycling in the office.
A few ideas for reducing your company carbon emissions are:
- Take part in the UK government cycle to work scheme. This incentives your employees to cycle by offering them money off the price of a bike.
- Meat free Mondays in the office
- Recycle in the office. Maybe you even impose a ban on single-use plastics.
Read more: 10 practical ways to be a greener business.
Carbon offsetting for businesses
Not only is this good for the environment, but more than 70% of employees said in a 2019 survey that they were more likely to choose to work at a company with a strong environmental agenda. Becoming carbon neutral or even carbon negative as a company greatly improves your ability to attract and retain a talented workforce.
Find out more here about offsetting your company carbon footprint.
So now you understand what your carbon footprint is. And you know the next steps to start reducing it, whether you’re an individual or a business. Remember this simple process:
- Work out the size of your carbon emissions
- Reduce your emissions as much as possible through positive lifestyle changes
- Offset the remainder of your footprint to become carbon neutral.
At Treepoints we ask, why stop at carbon neutral? If you offset more than your total carbon emissions, you will become carbon negative. This means you’re actually making a positive contribution to the fight against climate change. What are you waiting for?