What is a carbon footprint?
Your carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that are emitted by you or on your behalf as you live your life. These emissions can come from the food you consume, the heat for your home, the products you buy, the ways you travel, and all the shared services that you use.
This is usually measured in tonnes of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent), since we produce a variety of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and others). These are converted into a CO2 equivalent to make it easier to measure and compare.
The average carbon footprint of someone living in the UK is about 9 tonnes; in the US it is about 16 tonnes; the global average is 5 tonnes. So there is a huge disparity in the level of emissions around the world.
The term was popularised by a $250 million advertising campaign by Ogilvy & Mather for BP in the early 2000s in an attempt to move the focus away from the company’s emissions and try to put the responsibility for emissions (and solving the climate crisis) on to normal people.
So it’s just green-washing then?
Yes and no. Most of the responsibility for the climate crisis rests with the fossil fuel companies, who knew about the issue decades before governments and ordinary citizens became aware of it. Through enormous advertising spends and political lobbying contributions, they have successfully obfuscated the issue and delayed action, which has resulted in the huge damage to the biosphere and the emergency situation we now find ourselves in.
The climate crisis will not be solved just through ordinary people reducing their carbon footprints. To solve the crisis, we need a combination of changes in our legal and economic systems and a restructuring of global society. This is a structural problem and is not the responsibility of any single person, or solvable through individual action.
However, there is a kernel of truth in the concept of a carbon footprint, and that is that we are all complicit in the crisis. Fossil fuels are extracted and consumed on our behalf to produce the power and heat for our homes, the fuel for our vehicles, the fertiliser for our food, and the materials for almost all the products we buy. Changes to individual consumption will be a part of a successful response to the climate crisis, and individuals must be prepared to change their expectations and behaviour.
In the global North, our consumption of food, commodities and energy far outstrip those of people in many other parts of the world. We cannot solve the crisis and create a fairer world for the sum of humanity and life on earth if we maintain our current levels of consumption.
What can I actually do?
You can minimise your carbon footprint and help the environment in many different ways. Small changes 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.
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.
Bank, save and invest ethically
One of the most powerful actions you can take is to transfer your banking, investments and pension to ethical banks/funds. If you don’t, then you’re money is likely to be funding fossil fuel extraction, deforestation, armaments and other contributors to the climate and ecological crisis. Your hard-earned savings for the future might be endangering the future for all of us, and making the present more dangerous and unpleasant for others around the world.
Our financial system is premised on the need for constant growth, which requires the consumption of natural resources at a faster and faster rate. When those resources are depleted at home, our economy tends seeks them elsewhere, following a colonial and racist mindset that exploits other people around the world.
Despite the rhetoric, there is currently no way to decouple economic growth from resource consumption. We live on a finite planet and everything we do requires physical resources (even those that appear not to, such as the internet, require precious metals to build servers and electricity to run them). Growth cannot be infinite, and will soon exhaust the limits of our planet.
As the financial system seeks to maintain previous growth rates, inequality is widening rapidly, with the richest getting substantially richer, while people in the UK suffer a food, energy and cost of living crisis, and gains on poverty elsewhere start to backslide. Wealth means influence in a capitalist society, so oil companies can use record-breaking profits to lobby governments harder for tax breaks and exploration licences, and spend more money on green-washing PR; billionaire oligarchs can use their accumulated wealth and the media that have captured to futher warp the political agenda and sow division and unrest.
You can take small steps to combat this by voting with your money (whatever you have). Research where your money is held of invested. Move it to ethical alternatives if you can and let your bank or pension know why you’re moving. Ask awkward questions if you can’t, and put pressure wherever you can for the system to change. The whole basis of the financial system needs to change. But in the meantime, we can start limiting the damage by removing our money, along with the power and tacit consent that it provides.
Take a look at the Make My Money Matter campaign and Ethical Consumer for information and advice on your pension. Look at Triodos or the Co-operative Bank, which are some of the only ethical banks available. Listen to BBC Radio 4 Moneybox on Ethical Investing if you have money to invest. And get in touch if you find other good resources!
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.
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.
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. 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?
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.
Don’t forget though, that electrical products contain a huge amount of embedded carbon (the emissions created by the mining and processing of raw materials, as well as the manufacturing process and transportation of the finished product). It’s often best to move to a more efficient model only once the existing product has reached the end of its life, rather than upgrading a working appliance.
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. Use waste water to water plants during dry spells.
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.
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.
Refuse, 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. Better still, avoid buying over-packaged products in the first place whenever possible.
Eliminate single-use plastic
Single-use plastics may be convenient, yet they’re 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 water in plastic bottles, coffee cups and cutlery to reduce your company’s carbon footprint.
Composting is surprisingly good for the environment, particularly when food waste is such a big issue. What’s more, this type of compost is free, doesn’t use energy to produce, and is good for your school gardens.
You can reduce your energy bills and carbon footprint by keeping electrical and electronic devices turned off and unplugged when they’re not in use.
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.
Use public transport
Vehicles 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, buses, and coaches carry many people and are often more sustainable forms of travel.
Being part of your local community group and help make the community resilient to the coming changes. Be part of it however large or small your input. Learn skills, grow food, make changes. Check out the sign-up page.