It’s highly likely that you’ve heard the phrase ‘carbon footprint’ – two words which have come to denote our individual contributions to climate change. Your carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gases that are released as a result of your actions as an individual, such as the way you travel, the food you consume, and how you heat your home.
Overall, carbon footprint is an umbrella term given to all greenhouse gas emissions, not just carbon dioxide as many may presume. Gases like nitrogen oxide and methane that also contribute to global warming are given a carbon equivalency measure and included in the overall figure.
It’s important to note that everybody has a carbon footprint, and you shouldn’t necessarily feel bad for having one. The trick is to keep track of what yours is and try to minimise it. Being aware of your carbon footprint is a great way to reduce your climate impact as a whole.
What Impact Does Carbon Production Have on The Environment?
The Earth’s atmosphere is mostly made up of oxygen and nitrogen, but over the last two centuries since the industrial revolution, more and more carbon released when we burn fossil fuels has found its way into the ether. This matters because carbon traps heat – just as a blanket or woolly hat would – rather than allowing it to escape the Earth’s atmosphere. A proportion of this heat is then re-emitted back to Earth, creating a greenhouse effect. Once emitted into the atmosphere, carbon is there for around 100 years, unless it is sequestered back into the earth or ocean.
So if too much carbon is in the atmosphere, the Earth’s temperature will increase. This matters because ecosystems are finely balanced, and large increases in temperature will have disastrous effects. The earth’s temperature is currently 1oC above pre-industrial levels, and already we are seeing droughts around the equator, tropical storms in the Mediterranean and wildfires in Australia and the USA. To understand a little more about the impact of climate change on the Earth’s ecosystems, it’s worth having a read of our blog piece here on the impact of climate change on biodiversity.
The Paris Climate Agreement states that the nations of the world will try to keep temperature rises to 2oC above pre-industrial levels, and preferably no higher than 1.5oC. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated that anything above 1.5oC will damage the habitability of the Earth for humans, and an increase above 2oC would be disastrous. The attending sea level rises, extreme weather, and extinction would cause death, destruction and the mass movements of people beyond our imaginations.
It is also important to understand that runaway climate change is possible if temperatures get too high. In this case ocean acidification, mass extinctions, melting ice releasing methane stored in the permafrost of the arctic circle, and desertification of tropical rainforests would cause a feedback loop of environmental damage that would mean climate change couldn’t be stopped – a truly terrifying prospect.
Which Countries are the Worst Carbon-Offenders?
The entire carbon footprints of countries are calculated regularly, and the difference between them is staggering. The top emitter in the world is China, which creates around 30% of CO2 emitted per year, with the next biggest emitter, the United States, coming in at 15%.
Coming in third, fourth and fifth are India (7%), Russia (5%), and Japan (3%) respectively, then Germany, Iran, South Korea and Saudi Arabia. Finally Indonesia rounds off the top 10; all the latter countries account for roughly 2% of global emissions each. The lowest emitters are developing countries or small island nations like Namibia and Fiji, leading to the judgement that it’s unfair that those most likely to be affected by climate change are the ones who have least contributed to it.
This is even more unfair when you consider the longevity of carbon in the atmosphere. So-called developed nations like the UK have been pumping carbon into the atmosphere from fossil fuels for much longer than growing economies like China and India. Therefore, even though these countries have higher carbon footprints than most European nations, they are at a stage of economic development which we have already benefited from.
The average carbon footprint per person on the planet is 4.79 tons per year. However this varies hugely from country to country. For example, in the US the amount emitted per person is nearly 16 tons per year whereas in China it is just over 7 tons, despite the fact that China’s overall emissions are nearly double that of the US. This is because the population of China is so much bigger than the US, meaning that the average person in the US uses more energy and emits more carbon than the average Chinese consumer.
In the UK the average person’s carbon footprint is 5.5 tons per year, just over the global average, but it is worth remembering that we offshore a lot of our emissions. Many of our goods are manufactured in China, which is why their carbon footprint is so high compared to ours. Likewise Indonesia’s carbon footprint is high due to deforestation, but we import the palm oil that is the product of this destruction. The heavy industry of these countries is a phase of development which we have already been through; notably the carbon we produced while going through our version of that phase (the Industrial Revolution) is still in the atmosphere.
What Can I Do To Reduce My Carbon Footprint?
It’s important for you to make the link between energy use and carbon emissions; once you understand this you’ll be able to identify your main source of emissions in four key areas: food, travel, home and shopping.
The agricultural industry is responsible for 8.5% – 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. You can reduce your footprint relating to this by making changes like adopting a plant-based diet, shopping for seasonal food, or buying from local vendors. Both of the latter help to minimise import and export emissions from a diet heavy in out of season products, and as many well know a plant-based diet is purportedly one of the best things an individual can adopt when reducing their carbon emissions. If you want to learn a little more about this, have a read about the impact of the dairy industry here, or glance over our guide to sustainable living here, which expands on the reasoning behind a plant-based diet, and the how to eat as sustainably as possible if full vegan is not possible for you.
Transport is harder to calculate, but in the EU and US roughly accounts for 27% (based on data unaffected by the pandemic) of greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from fuel-guzzling cars and planes. To reduce your travel emissions, try to take fewer, longer holidays abroad, and opt for rail or boat transport where possible. Many airlines are also putting applaudable efforts into reducing carbon emissions, our favourites of which can be found here. Day-to-day switching to an electric vehicle can make a big difference, or even better try active travel (walking, cycling etc.). Have a think about the journeys you usually make by car; if they are 2km, or less could you walk or cycle instead? If you suspect your travel emissions are high, it is well worth checking out the travel section of GoEco Explains and GoEco Recommends, to find the best ways to cut your carbon.
There are a number of ways in which you can identify and reduce your use of energy in the home, most of which comes down to heating and electricity use. Reducing gas use by installing a heat pump is one option, insulating your home properly is another (click the links for more info on these). But even just turning the thermostat down so that you’re on 15 – 20C will make a huge difference to your gas use; alternatively using a smart heating system can be an excellent way of managing your heating remotely – never again will you have to worry about accidentally leaving the heating on when you pop out. To learn more about how you can reduce your energy and heating consumption around the home, be sure to check out our GoEco Explains and GoEco Recommends pages.
Adjusting your shopping habits by cutting down on disposable products and fast-fashion will also make a huge difference to your carbon footprint. Prioritise buying less, have a reccy around the home before buying new and wherever possible re-use and re-purpose. Mending clothes, or repurposing them as cleaning rags when they are truly spent is a great example of this. And when you truly are in need of a new purchase, be sure to buy from ethical companies, ideally local and on the smaller side. If you’re in need for specific recommendations, be sure to check out GoEco Recommends, where we share our favourite brands of everything from jeans to notebooks.