What is a Carbon Footprint and how can you help yours?
What is a carbon footprint?
‘Carbon Footprint’ was a phrase coined in the 1990’s as a way of measuring roughly the amount of greenhouse gases being generated by any one process or activity. This came about because the organizations looking at climate control had made a strong link between the greenhouse gases (gases that have an insulating effect on the planet and therefore heat it up) and the emissions from the activities in our lifestyles. Crudely put, the concern is that the more greenhouse gas put into the atmosphere the warmer our planet gets and the less able nature can correct that, this means things like coral reefs (and all the marine life that relies on it) die, normal farmland becomes desert and weather patterns cause wild fires in some parts of the world and floods in others.
Carbon footprint refers to many gases but mostly Carbon Dioxide and Methane, which are the majority contributors from man-made activity, and it tends to be measured in tonnes per year.
Personal carbon footprints:
The average person, roughly, in the UK is responsible for about 12-14 tonnes per year, just to support normal daily lifestyle. This includes things like;
- Heating the house and the hot water and electricity to run it (about 20%)
- Transport to work/school/activities (about 25%)
- The food we eat (but not including the ‘food miles’) (about 15%)
- Any foreign holidays (about 10%)
- A mix of products and services you buy or engage in, for example the energy that goes into making your mobile phone or laptop, or the energy involved in heating and cleaning the swimming pool you use at the gym, or the showers
If you want to test your own personal carbon footprint you can use one of the many online calculator which will not only give you and idea of what your footprint is, but how you might manage it better. Carbon footprint calculator here
Here are a few simple things you can do to bring your personal footprint down a little:
- Reduce waste by buying things with less packaging or reusable packaging, like multiple use coffee cups, reusable spray bottles, refillable packaging and bulk foods.
- Eat less meat and try to eat only locally produced vegetables, flying your tomatoes in from abroad or eating vegetables that aren’t in season contributes a lot to transport costs.
- Drive less, walk or bike as much as possible. Not only is it better for the planet, it’s better for you too.
- Reduce your household energy use, turn the thermostat down a little in winter and instead wear an extra layer. Turn appliances off when not in use, and use low energy light bulbs or LEDs. Upgrade house insulation and your hot water system if possible.
- Only fill the kettle with the amount of water you need.
- Sign up to use renewable electricity. It’s worth checking with your gas/electricity provider if there is a more efficient rate/program your household can be on too. Also, you can request a smart meter to monitor your expenditure and work out what is using up energy/electricity.
- Reuse or recycle clothes, either with charity shops or simply buy longer lasting clothes and less of them. Quality over quantity. Clothes might be cheap to buy, but they still cost the planet energy, water and materials to make and that would have been a waste of resources if you don’t use them.
- Hang out washing, rather than tumble drying it or putting the heaters on.
Remember: Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Refuse
For more detailed actions and up to date reports click here.
Industrial carbon footprint:
At the same time as we take responsibility for our personal Carbon Footprint, we should also consider the larger scale global emissions from big industries and businesses.
These are the topics the Paris and Kyoto agreements are partly aimed at – these conventions are huge get-togethers with all the leading countries who try and create agreements to systemically reduce the global emissions we as a planet produce. The results of these talks become a mixture of incentives to businesses to improve their emissions, and to also improve their energy production and domestic usage.
The industries that create the most emissions are:
- Electricity production (largely a government regulated and sponsored industry and accounting for approx 25-30% of a countries emissions)
- Transport – trains, buses and trucks (also government managed, attributing to approx 20%)
- Heavy industrial materials like construction and steel production (approximately another 20%)
- Agriculture (particularly the meat industry) which can be as much as another 20% depending on the balance of arable and livestock farming.
Whilst each government takes responsibility for overall reductions in emissions they will also try and do things to offset the negative effects of industries, like planting tree’s for example, which absorb carbon dioxide and take it out of the atmosphere. This is often known as carbon offsetting and is popular in area’s where it’s difficult to change habits, such as flying aboard.
To note – movements in the travel industry have adjusted as people have become more aware of the damage of emissions to our planet, as such airlines are becoming increasingly transparent with consumers over the emissions omitted in any one single flight and now there are options on a number of airlines to pay extra to offset those emissions (to a certain extent of course, are you still flying!).The theory being if you generate 1 tonnes of co2, (one way flight to US) you can counter balance your footprint by planting 6 trees (the amount on average needed to take 1 tonnes of Co2 out of the atmosphere) at the same time.
Carbon capture technologies
There are also other carbon capture type technologies like filters that catch the waste co2 from industrial processes (like cement production) and dispose of them in a safe way rather than let them escape into the air to become a greenhouse gas. It’s worth being conscious of these disciplines when you are purchasing from larger brands/global companies as most have schemes in place.
Governments and councils are continuously working to improve the industries they control and manage, such as large infrastructure projects, energy production and major transport networks, whilst at the same time working with businesses to reduce and improve their energy use and management, including carbon offsetting where appropriate and finally trying to encourage individuals to limit their own carbon footprints and household management.
To learn more about UK’s challenges and how we can address them check out: Zero Carbon Britain