If you’re wondering what a carbon footprint is and why it’s so important, we’ve got you covered. We explore the key terms and issues around climate change, as well as how you to reduce your carbon footprint.
Climate change is one of the biggest challenges we’re facing as a species. Human activity over the last 200 years has meant that we’re standing on the brink of an environmental disaster. Yet we’re told that there are still things we can do to minimise the damage. Reducing your carbon footprint is one such action. We take a look at what this means and what steps you can take.
You can minimise your carbon footprint and help the environment in many different ways. Whether at home, work, school, or while you travel, small changes can add up. In brief, to reduce your carbon footprint, you’ll want to do things like reduce the amount of energy you use, eat fewer animal products, shop locally, travel smart, and reduce your waste.
If you’re curious to learn more about the causes and impacts of climate change, as well as some potential solutions, check out our courses on climate change.
You can also find full details on some tips to reduce your footprint further down. First, let’s find out more about what the term means and why it’s so significant.
What is a carbon footprint?
Let’s start by looking at a carbon footprint definition. It’s a phrase that’s often used when talking about the environment and climate change, but it’s one that’s not always understood. What’s more, there are often other definitions you need to know to get the necessary context. We’ve highlighted the carbon footprint meaning and some definitions of other key terms we’ll cover in this post below.
- Carbon footprint. A measure of the total amount of greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere as a result of an individual’s, organisation’s, or nation’s actions. It’s usually measured in tonnes of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent).
- Greenhouse gasses (GHG). Any type of gas in the atmosphere that blocks heat from escaping. In relation to your carbon footprint and climate change, the main ones to mention are carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane.
- The greenhouse effect. The process through which GHGs in the Earth’s atmosphere trap heat from the sun. Although this is a natural phenomenon that keeps the planet habitable, our GHG emissions are causing the Earth to warm up at an unnatural rate.
- Climate change. A pattern of long-term change in the temperature and weather patterns either globally or regionally. Although these alterations occur naturally, man-made climate change is rapidly accelerating the pace of them.
- Global warming. The rapid increase in average surface temperatures on Earth caused by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It is just one element of climate change.
- Fossil fuels. Natural resources that produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses when burnt. Coal, oil and natural gas are all examples.
As we’ll see, these terms are all closely linked to the idea of a carbon footprint. What’s more, individuals, organisations, and nations can all do their bit to take responsibility for many of these factors.
The average carbon footprint
So, what is the average carbon footprint? In reality, this question is a little tricky to answer. It really depends on which averages you’re talking about, whether for a person, a business, or a country. Even then, there are many different factors that contribute to an entity’s carbon footprint.
There are plenty of studies and evidence out there that show average levels of carbon emissions. However, a lot of the data published by governments focuses on territorial emissions. Essentially, this refers to the greenhouse gases produced within a nation. In the UK, for example, 2018 data shows annual emissions of 448.5 million tonnes of CO2e, down 43% since 1990.
This data seems encouraging. However, when it comes to the total carbon footprint, there are other factors to consider. Consumption emission data takes into account who is responsible for the emissions, no matter where they’re produced.
Again, using the UK as an example, greenhouse gas emissions related to imports have actually increased. In 2017, for example, they were 18% higher than in 1997.
So, the latter example takes into account the story behind the emissions. For example, if a person in the UK buys a device produced in China, the emissions involved in producing, shipping, and using the device are attributed to the UK. Obviously, this is harder to measure but is perhaps a better indicator overall.
If you’re wondering how much CO2 the average person emits, there are figures out there. One source is Our World in Data, which allows you to look at per-capita CO2 emissions. We’ve outlined data from just a few countries as an example.
It’s worth noting that this 2017 data focuses on territorial emissions, so it doesn’t account for traded goods. And, of course, you’ll also need to take into account the difference in population size across these countries.
The biggest causes of a carbon footprint
So, what is it that’s driving these emissions? And how does that impact your carbon footprint? There are a few main industries that create the majority of the greenhouse gasses we produce. Global data from 2016 shows the main culprits:
- Energy (the burning of fossil fuels) produced 36013.52 million tonnes of CO2e.
- Agriculture produced 5795.51 million tonnes of CO2e.
- Land-use change and forestry (altering or converting land) produced 3217.07 million tonnes of CO2e.
- Industrial processes produced 2771.08 million tonnes of CO2e.
- Waste produced 1560.85 million tonnes of CO2e.
How do I know what my carbon footprint is?
Amazingly, just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. But that doesn’t mean that individuals don’t also have a carbon footprint. Our actions and lifestyle choices all have some impact on the environment. So how do you work out your personal carbon footprint?
A good place to start is with a carbon footprint calculator. The one we linked goes into a fairly granular amount of detail, so for a simpler option, this WWF one is worth checking out. However, both follow the same format – asking questions about your life and activities to give you an overall picture of your emissions.
To understand what your carbon footprint is, you need to look at several key areas of your lifestyle, including:
- Your home energy use and waste production. This includes factors like how much electricity, natural gas, and other fuels you use and where they’re sourced from, as well as whether you recycle or send your waste to landfill/incineration.
- Travel. Your footprint will vary depending on whether or not you have car/motorbike, as well as how often you use it. Similarly, your use of public transport contributes. Any flights you take also need accounting for, as these contribute significantly.
- Your diet. The types of food you eat and where you source it from can play a central role in your overall carbon footprint. The more energy-intensive it is to produce and ship your food, the worse for the environment it generally is.
- Your shopping habits. Another factor is how often you purchase new products such as electronics, household goods and clothing. The lifespan of these items, as well as where and how they’re produced, can play a role in your carbon emissions.
Why do I need to reduce my carbon footprint?
All this talk of carbon emissions and footprints might leave you with one question – why should you reduce them? After all, how much of an impact can one individual have, particularly compared to governments and big businesses?
In reality, the links between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change are too evident and extreme to ignore. Average global temperatures are increasing, extreme weather events are becoming more severe, ocean levels are rising, and acidification is occurring. All of these ecological threats are a result of human activity.
By lowering your carbon footprint, you can help contribute to the overall reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. In our fight against climate change, everyone making small adjustments can lead to big results.
It’s not just about the environment either. Reducing your carbon footprint can help you live a healthier lifestyle, as well as save you money. Whether it’s cleaner air, a healthier diet, or reduced energy bills, these benefits of reducing your carbon footprint also mean you’re doing your bit to combat climate change.
20 tips on reducing your carbon footprint
Now that we’ve got a more detailed understanding of carbon emissions and climate change, let’s look at some ways to reduce your carbon footprint. Many of these are simple and convenient steps you can introduce. However, combined, they can make a big difference to your impact on the environment.
To make things clearer, we’ve focused on how to reduce your carbon footprint in several areas of life. Whether at home, work, school, or while travelling, you can make a difference.
How to reduce your carbon footprint at home
Let’s start with some steps to reduce your carbon emissions at home. Most of these are fairly quick and easy to implement, meaning you can start living a more eco-friendly life in no time at all:
1. Insulate your home
Heating your living space can be an expensive and energy-intensive process. By insulating places like your loft and walls, you can make sure your home retains heat during the winter and stays cool in summer. It means you’ll use less energy, reducing your carbon footprint and your household bills.
2. Switch to renewables
Energy providers around the world are now offering greener tariffs. By switching to a company that provides electricity from solar, wind, or hydroelectric energy, you can reduce your household emissions and save money on your energy bills. You could even install solar panels if they’re readily available where you live.
3. Buy energy efficient
Electrical appliances are becoming more efficient by the year. What’s more, many countries now show how efficient particular products are, meaning you can make an informed choice. Whether it’s buying energy-saving light bulbs or choosing appliances with a high energy star rating, you can make your home more eco-friendly. Additionally, make sure to turn off and unplug anything you’re not using.
4. Use less water
It takes energy and resources to process and deliver water to our homes. What’s more, it’s also quite energy-intensive to heat it once it’s there. So, by using less, you can help the environment and lower your carbon footprint. Try turning off the taps when brushing your teeth, having short showers rather than baths, and only boiling the water you need.
5. Change your diet
The food we eat can have a significant impact on the environment. For example, meat and dairy products require a lot of land, water and energy to produce. They also create a lot of methane, a greenhouse gas. What’s more, food shipped from overseas uses a lot more resources than local produce.
By eating fewer animal products, especially red meat, (or choosing a plant-based diet) and shopping for locally sourced food, you can make a big difference. Why not support your local farmers’ market?
How to reduce your carbon footprint at work
Reducing emissions is something that you can do outside of the home too. Whether you make individual changes at work or company-wide policy adjustments, your activities can soon add up.
6. Turn off the lights
Powering empty rooms and office space is a huge energy drain. By making sure you turn off lights and appliances when they’re not in use, you can make sure you’re not wasting power. You could also request to install automatic, movement-sensing lights and energy-saving LED bulbs to address the issue.
7. Go digital
It’s never been easier to collaborate with others online. Whether through sharing documents using cloud storage or video conferencing instead of travelling, you can reduce your waste and emissions. Try moving away from printed documents where possible, and encourage others to work on their digital skills for the workplace.
8. Cycle to work
Cycling and walking are two of the most environmentally friendly ways to travel. And, not only are they good for the planet, but they’re also good for your health. If you can, choose to cycle or walk to work where possible. Your employer might even have a scheme that can help you purchase a bike.
9. Reduce, reuse, recycle
Companies of all sizes use a host of different products in their day-to-day running. Whether it’s things like paper, electronic devices, packaging, or water, it all has a carbon footprint. By reducing the amount of waste you generate, reusing IT equipment, and recycling waste, you can make a real difference.
10. Eliminate single-use plastic
Single-use plastics may be convenient, yet they’re fairly dreadful for the environment. Not only do they pollute our waterways and oceans, but they also require energy to produce and recycle. You can stop using things like disposable coffee cups and cutlery to reduce your company’s carbon footprint.
How to reduce your carbon footprint at school
No matter whether you’re a staff member or a student, you can bring some positive changes to your school to reduce your carbon footprint. Here are just a few ideas:
11. Raise awareness
Your school community might not know much about things like greenhouse gases, carbon footprints, or climate change. You can change that by raising awareness of these issues. Things like school projects and fundraising events can help to educate students and their families about the importance of protecting the environment. This can help those around you to reduce their footprints.
Composting is surprisingly good for the environment, particularly when food waste is such a big issue. By setting up a composting scheme at your school, you can help to reduce landfill methane emissions. What’s more, this type of compost is free, doesn’t use energy to produce, and is good for your school gardens.
13. Switch off computers
An IT lab with rows of idling computers takes up a lot of energy. You can reduce your school’s energy bills and carbon footprint by keeping electronic devices turned off and unplugged when they’re not in use.
14. Use local food
This is a tip that can apply to just about every area of life. Locally-grown produce takes less energy to transport and supports the economy where you live. If you can get your school to switch to local and sustainable foodfor the kitchen, you can help save the planet and help local businesses.
15. Take local trips
Sticking with the theme of your surrounding area, try and work towards field trips that are nearby. Instead of going to far-flung destinations that require planes, trains, or busses, stick to something close by. Your emissions will be far lower, and you’ll contribute to your community.
How to reduce your carbon footprint when travelling
As we’ve already seen, travel can cause a significant amount of carbon emissions. However, by making a few small adjustments, you can make sure your trips have as low an impact as possible.
16. Use public transport
Petrol cars and taxis tend to emit a lot of carbon dioxide per kilometre of travel. These greenhouse gas emissions are usually only spilt between a few people, making it quite an energy-intense way to get around. Public transport such as trains, busses, and coaches carry many people and are often more sustainable forms of travel.
17. Fly direct
The carbon footprint of flying is larger than any other mode of transport. While the Eurostar, for example, emits around 6g of CO2 per kilometre travelled, a domestic flight produces 133g of CO2 and 121g of other emissions. When you do fly, you should aim to reduce the number of stops on your route, ideally by flying directly to your destination.
18. Offset your carbon
Many airlines and travel companies now offer you the chance to offset your carbon emissions. Essentially, this is where you pay money on top of the cost of your ticket to fund projects aimed at reducing your carbon footprint. These carbon offsets cover all kinds of incentives, such as restoring forests and making energy and transportation more efficient.
19. Pack a water bottle
Although you often can’t take liquids in your carry-on luggage, you can pack a water bottle on anything you’re checking-in. Having a reusable container for your water means you can cut down on one-use plastic bottles. This can cut your carbon footprint for the manufacture and transport of each bottle.
20. Think green
No matter how far you travel, you can take an environmentally friendly approach when you reach your destination. As well as choosing green accommodation and ethical destinations, you can also think about the tours and attractions you take. Try and walk, cycle, or use public transport, eat local food, and leave as light a carbon footprint as possible.