What is a carbon footprint?

A carbon footprint is the total CO2 emissions from one person based on all of their activities over one year. In the UK today, the average carbon footprint is around 14 tonnes per person per year. It’s made up of the co2 emissions that come from heating homes, transport, food consumption (including production, cooking & refrigeration), holidays and products we buy.

We all have different lifestyles, making each person’s carbon footprint very different. You can get an  idea of your own carbon footprint by using a carbon calculator.

The calculators on the Carbon Savvy website are very user friendly. They will help you find out what your personal carbon footprint is and where you are producing the most carbon. They are a handy tool to work out where to start when looking at cutting your carbon footprint.

 

What does a carbon footprint include?

Your carbon footprint includes your personal share of all the CO2 emissions created from your lifestyle.

  • If you live in a house with multiple occupants:  The CO2 emissions generated by heating the home & using electricity, is divided equally between the adults in the house. It’s assumed, in a household, that children use less electricity and heat. Therefore, in a carbon calculation, they are counted as half a person.  If there are 2 adults and 2 children living in a house, one adult would include 1/3 of the house emissions in their carbon footprint.
  • If you share a car with someone:  Work out what percentage of the mileage is yours. Most good carbon calculators will work out your carbon emissions from the car using that percentage.
  • The carbon emissions created by driving to your place of work are included in your footprint. However, any carbon emissions that are created in the course of doing your work are not included (See explanation below).

Why are work emissions excluded from my personal carbon footprint? What happens to them?

Every business has an end user or customer. All emissions that are generated as part of that business are passed on to the customer.

For things that are of general use to society, like government, health or education, these are all included in what is called the Infrastructure Share. Currently, every person in the UK has to include 1 tonne of CO2e/ year, in their personal carbon footprint as their share of the national infrastructure.

When it comes to CO2 emissions, businesses and governments are powerful in different ways.  Since businesses depend on their customers for their survival, if everyone in the nation decided they would only buy from companies with low carbon footprints, it would push companies to lower their carbon emissions.  So every penny is a vote!

Why do carbon calculators vary so much?

There are 3 reasons why carbon footprint calculators differ so much:

  1. Some calculators don’t allow you to put in much detail e.g the type of house you have, the type of car you use, whether you use wood or coal fires and details of shopping habits. If they don’t ask for the details they have to make big assumptions and everyone calculates these differently.
  2. Calculators use different sources for their carbon footprint calculations. E.g, the UK government publishes data for carbon foot printing but this only includes information about the carbon footprint of common fuels and vehicles. Even this is subject to criticism. For example, the CO2 emissions of air travel, because it is emitted at high altitude, has a much bigger global warming effect than CO2 emission emitted at ground level. Scientists are not in agreement about how much worse it is. The Government uses a factor of 1.9 in its current official statistics but most climate scientist prefer a figure of 2.7 and there are many that argue that it should be much higher. Some carbon calculators don’t use any increased altitude factor, some use the government factor and some use other factors.
  3. Government calculations don’t include questions about food and shopping. Others do. Baseline data comes from a range of different sources. This leads to a range of different calculations.

Do my actions actually make a difference?

Yes, they certainly do!  Individuals’ carbon footprints make up the carbon footprint of a nation. The global carbon footprint is the total of all nations.  Therefore, the savings that we all make in our personal lifestyles, when combined, have a complete effect on the global carbon footprint. Collectively we all make a difference.

What’s more, people tend to motivate each other, so your actions will also influence the people around you.

 

How big is a sustainable carbon footprint?

If the co2 levels in the atmosphere were the same today as they were 100 years ago, then a sustainable carbon footprint would be 2 tonnes per year for every single person on the planet today (7 billion). You could think that 2 tonnes is a sustainable carbon footprint.

However, CO2 levels are not the same as 100 years ago. Our daily activities generate a lot more carbon emissions and the levels are building up. The cumulative effect is causing rising temperatures on a global scale.  So to return to climate equilibrium, we need to get our personal carbon footprints to net zero.

Net zero means that CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions are reduced to zero. 100% of our energy demand would be met by renewable energy.  Once at Net Zero we will be working on drawing C02 down from the atmosphere. The good news is all the solutions we need have already been developed.

 

Is it expensive to cut my carbon footprint?

No, cutting your carbon footprint is not expensive. Most activities that cut your carbon footprint save you money. However, sometimes an upfront investment is required.  For example, it is usually cheaper to insulate your home than to pay your fuel bills over a 10 year period. So cutting your carbon footprint by insulating your home will save you money, but it requires a large upfront payment.

Carbon footprints are often approximately proportional to the amount of money you have.  If you can’t afford some of the upfront investments to save CO2, that means you probably  have a smaller carbon footprint in the first place and don’t need to worry about it so much.  If you don’t have the money to insulate your home, you could look at other lifestyle areas first. Similarly, long lasting products sometimes cost more to purchase but cost less over their lifetime. However, if you use guides like Which? magazine, you will find that some budget products have a reputation for lasting a long time.

Finally, purchasing organic food is one way to reduce your carbon footprint. It is often the case that if you go to the kind of shops that sell organic food, there are less temptations so you end up buying less unnecessary snacks and sweets. You can also bulk buy products through community buying groups which makes it more affordable than from the supermarkets. If you feel like you can’t afford to buy all organic options, you could simply buy one of two products, such as organic milk.