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It is near universally acknowledged that human-induced climate change is happening and that without major intervention, the world risks experiencing a significant and potentially irreversible climate crisis. It's not too late to act, but the time for making changes is now.
The UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in 2021 has been widely described by many commentators as a ‘best last chance’ to save the planet from a climate breakdown. One of the major talking points is around the principle of reaching ‘net zero’ carbon emissions. This is an idea that the UK government is supporting with the launch of a campaign called Together for our Planet. Under this scheme, small businesses are being encouraged to adapt their practices in order to meet the target of net zero carbon emissions from their business activities by 2050.
“Everyone has a carbon footprint whether they know it or not,” says Michelle Li, Founder of Clever Carbon. “It would be tempting to think that only corporations, manufacturers and companies have one. But individuals have one and I guess your pet has one too!”
So, what can any one person do to reduce their own carbon footprint. The answer is that by making a number of small changes to our lifestyles and choices as consumers, we can all contribute to reducing the amount of CO2 entering the atmosphere.
How do I figure out my carbon footprint?
“Everything we consume from the food we eat, how we heat our homes, how and where we travel and the clothes we buy contribute to our carbon footprint,” says Henry Muss, Founder of The Climate Resilience Company.
“The country you live in can really impact how high or low your footprint is,” says Michelle Li. Depending on whether you live in Vietnam, the UK or the US you could have a carbon footprint ranging from a modest 2.1 tonnes, to 8.3 tonnes to a vast 17.5 tonnes of CO2 per year.
What are the main contributors to my carbon footprint?
Before we can take action to try and reduce our carbon footprint, we must first understand what aspects of our lifestyle contribute to our personal tally of CO2 emissions.
The world saw a glimpse of what a huge reduction in air travel might look like as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, according to UN figures, total air travel fell worldwide by 60% during 2020.
However, since the reopening of international travel throughout 2021, the carbon-heavy act of flying has been back on the rise and aviation giant Boeing estimates that global air travel will return to pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
As a society, as we venture back to the skies, it is important to fully understand how impactful our travel decisions are for the environment.
“The most impactful way to cut down on your carbon footprint is to scale back or completely cut out flying,” says Henry Muss. “Just one short haul and one long haul flight can be equivalent to around two tonnes of CO2 which could be a quarter to a third of your personal carbon footprint.”
Environmental campaign charity, Friends of the Earth, report that 72% of all air travel by UK citizens is for leisure purposes, rather than for more essential business reasons. It is worth noting that the burden for reducing the carbon footprint of air travel is not one that is shared equally amongst the population, with 10% of travellers - those dubbed frequent flyers - being responsible for more than 50% of all emissions from aviation.
What’s on your plate, and where it’s travelled from, are two major factors in determining your personal carbon footprint. In simple terms, the further your food has to travel from its source to reach your plate, the greater the carbon footprint of that meal will be. What types of food are in your meals will then further determine how large a carbon footprint your eating habits leave behind.
In a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, it is estimated that 14.5% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions are as a result of meat production, particularly beef and dairy cattle. Rearing livestock for food takes large areas of land, contributing to deforestation and the release of large amounts of methane gas from the animals themselves.
Seafood is generally considered to have a smaller carbon footprint than land animal produce, but this is not always the case. Intensive salmon farming, for instance, carries with it a particularly high carbon footprint, with 4.14kg of carbon attached to every kilogram of salmon that ends up on our plates.
It’s true, your use of social media could be causing your carbon footprint to swell. Your device, your wireless network and all the data centres and servers needed to support the internet all emit carbon dioxide. The electricity needed to maintain the infrastructure of the internet as it grows exponentially is fast becoming a recognised source of damaging carbon emissions.
Indeed, Climatecare reports that 3.7% of all global carbon emissions are the result of internet usage. As well as being beneficial to our mental health generally, spending less time on our phones and computers can actively benefit the environment.
How do I reduce my carbon footprint?
Despite the doom and gloom of the climate emergency facing society, one positive element is that the ways in which we can reduce our personal carbon footprint are clear and achievable.
Change your diet
Swap out meat and cheese for beans, pulses, nuts and vegetables. “Going from dairy to plant-based can be an easy switch and help you reduce your footprint,” says Michelle Li. Indeed, it is estimated that switching from a meat-heavy diet to a vegan diet (entirely consisting of plant-based produce) can reduce your food’s carbon footprint by a staggering 73%. Explore the BBC’s interactive quiz to see how your food and drink choices add up.
Change how you heat your home
Switching to green energy is one of the easiest and quickest ways to reduce your carbon footprint, and it doesn’t need to cost you more. Check out comparison site Big Clean Switch for an overview of all your green energy options.
Even without a wholesale change of energy supplier, simple changes add up to big reductions in carbon emissions. Try reducing your central heating by one degree. “It can cut your heating bills by 8-10%,” says Henry Muss. Turning off the lights when you leave the room, switching off appliances at the mains, or boiling only as much water as you need? They can all combine to give you a lower fuel bill and a smaller carbon footprint.
A major contributing factor to any meal’s carbon footprint is the effort and energy required to transport the ingredients from their source to your plate. “Fruits and vegetables that are imported can have a significantly higher footprint,” says Michelle Li, with many overseas foods being transported by air rather than sea to maintain a longer shelf life.
Another factor to consider is the physical packaging that your food comes in. “Buy from farmers markets if possible,” says Michelle, “as less plastic packaging is used. There are over 200 zero waste refill stores in the uk and it is easy to find the one that is nearest to you. Here, you can refill your wholefoods, herbs and spices, toiletries and even cleaning products. Less waste, less packaging being produced and lower carbon footprint.”
Fix your finances
“One study found that moving your pension savings to sustainable investment funds can be 27 times more efficient in reducing your carbon footprint than making changes like eating less meat, using the train instead of the car, flying less and taking shorter showers” says James Lindley, Managing Director of Castell Wealth Management.
Check out environmentally responsible investment platforms like The Big Exchange, EQ Investors or Impax Environmental Markets, whose mission is to provide an investment portfolio that both offers you impressive returns, and also only invests in sustainable industries, companies and commodities.
Be a conscious consumer
A big step to reducing your carbon footprint is being willing to behave actively, rather than passively. “Write reviews for restaurants and shops with positive and constructive feedback” suggests Michelle Li. “If they go out of their way to reduce waste, call that out so that they know it’s important and will continue to do so and competitors will notice too.
If they provide disposable utensils in a sit-in environment, provide a kind but constructive review to let them know you care about these things.” Sadly, without active efforts, our collective carbon footprint is unlikely to reduce in size. We cannot sit passively by and expect things to change.
The power of asking
Communication is a key tool in the longer-term effort to reduce the human impact on our own environment. Be prepared to actively communicate with people and businesses to help facilitate change. “If you’re at a restaurant that doesn’t have a vegan option for what you want, even if you know the answer is no, still ask so that they can start collecting feedback and incorporating change,” says Michelle Li. “Are coffee shops taking reusable cups yet? Can you get reusable instead of disposable cutlery at a sit-in restaurant? Every little bit helps!”.
The time for action is now
So there you have it, our short guide to understanding what a carbon footprint is and what steps you can take to reduce your personal impact on the climate. Of course large corporations must shoulder their responsibility, but it’s never too soon to start taking action at an individual level to assess, understand and reduce your own personal carbon footprint. Together we can make the changes necessary to reduce the effects of climate change, if we act now.
This content has been created for general information purposes and should not be taken as formal advice. Read our full disclaimer.