Carbon footprint needn’t just be a scary buzzword: how to calculate yours, and lower it, too

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  • Do your bit to save the planet by educating yourself, with help from the experts

    You’ve likely heard the term carbon footprint bandied around about the same amount as sustainability, plastic-free and food waste.

    But do you really know what it means, how yours adds up, what that means for the planet, or how to reduce yours and live more sustainably?

    We’re guessing the answer is no, and we don’t blame you. It’s confusing, which is why we’ve enlisted a team of eco-experts to help educate you. In this handy guide, they’ll explain what your carbon footprint is and the most recent science and stats on why reducing yours is so important. How to be more sustainable never looked so simple.

    Know that you can make a change – it’s all in the small steps. Keep reading for some expert-led pointers.

    What is a carbon footprint?

    Your carbon footprint is essentially how many greenhouse gases you, personally, have added to the atmosphere. You might think you don’t use any, but sadly, many of your day-to-day habits do. Think the way you travel, the amount of energy you use at home, and what food you eat. Planes omit CO2, boiling the kettle omits CO2, and farming meat omits CO2. Yep.

    Yogesh Bali, founder and CEO at Nothing Wasted, breaks it down further: “At its most basic, your carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gasses (that can be carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane and more) you produce when doing something. These are then converted to a single unit of measure, known as CO2 equivalent.”

    Basically everything burns greenhouse gases, and greenhouse gases are bad because? Well, according to National Geographic, the sheer amount we’re producing is ultimately causing irreversible climate changed damage.

    Marcus Lima, co-founder of Reduce My Footprint, says: “Because of our ever-accelerating consumer patterns, practically everyone has some negative effect on the warming climate or the sustainability of our planet. That sounds daunting, but there are simple steps you can take to reduce your carbon footprint without affecting your quality of life.”

    But more on that later.

    What contributes to having a high carbon footprint? 

    May sound obvious, but actually, it really isn’t.

    Figuring out what in your life is adding to your CO2 emissions can feel like a minefield, so we asked our experts for the top three bad guys when it comes to greenhouse gases. Their top three answers, unanimously?

    Transportation

    If you fly and drive everywhere, it’s time to reassess. It’s the number one contributor to harmful CO2 emissions.

    Household electric items

    Seems obvious, but we may not think about it as much as we should. “Electricity we use has a high carbon footprint, so having your hair dryer on for a long time will add to your carbon footprint, for example,” explains Lima.

    What you eat

    All three experts agreed that eating meat in moderation is fine, but that, in general we eat too much, both for our carbon footprint and our health. Check out our guides to sustainable eating and veganism, while you’re here.

    Carbon footprint: A photo of a windfarm, which generates eco electricity

    How do you calculate your carbon footprint?

    The easiest way to calculate your carbon footprint is to use a handy online calculators, like this one at Carbon Footprint.

    Fun fact: you can calculate a carbon footprint of an individual, activity, event, product, service, organisation, country, area or group of people. Jonathan Gilmour, founder and director of Carbon Choice Limited, adds that your carbon footprint is actually a fairly simple calculation of the total greenhouse gas emissions you’ve released into the atmosphere.

    “A carbon footprint is expressed in the unit’s kg CO2e which tells us how much carbon dioxide equivalent has been produced. The e for equivalent is needed because there are 7 greenhouse gases, but we measure them all in relation to carbon dioxide,” Gilmour explains.

    If you’d rather do the maths yourself, Gilmour advises using the following formula – simply add up the amount of scope 1, 2 and 3 carbon emissions being used.

    Scope 1: Direct emissions from activities you have control over e.g. emissions from the vehicles you drive.
    Scope 2: Indirect energy emissions e.g. emissions from the electricity you buy.
    Scope 3: Other indirect emissions that are not S2, e.g. emissions from waste disposal or products that you buy.

    Why is having a high carbon footprint bad?

    Pretty much everyone has a high carbon footprint, and so there’s nothing you can do about reducing yours, right? Wrong.

    “Sure, some people have higher footprints than others,” explains Lima. “But having a high carbon footprint essentially and doing nothing about it means you are contributing more to some of the major long-term problems we face, including climate change and sustainable living.”

    Having a carbon footprint is inevitable, but there are steps you can take to reduce it, he shares.

    Like?

    Carbon footprint: A woman using reusable tote bags at a supermarket

    10 easiest ways to reduce your carbon footprint

    1. Become aware of your carbon footprint

    “This prompts you to think about whether you live an especially emissions intensive lifestyle or not,” shares Lima.

    2. Switch to a green or renewable energy tariff

    You can do this via your energy supplier or a price comparison website. “There are companies out there that source their energy from renewable sources which can limit your carbon footprint. The Ethical Consumer has a table which shows these companies in an easy table format,” shares Bali.

    3. Use a green search engine

    Ecosia, for example, plants tree when you search the web.

    Carbon footprint: An image of a factory burning fossil fuels

    4. Cycle rather than drive

    “Start with the small things, like cycling to buy groceries every day, rather than driving,” shares Lima. Yogesh agrees, adding: “Even using public transport or carpooling where possible is better than nothing.”

    Top tip: take some time to plan your journey when out so you can optimise your route to get everything you need in a single trip without having to go back on yourself. This will also save you time and money.

    5. Buy local

    You have huge power over your carbon footprint simply in the choice of things you buy, the pros share. By buying things made locally, you eliminate the need for large manufacturing and supply chains.

    6. Eat less meat

    Try and substitute meat and dairy where possible for a vegetarian or vegan diet. Sourcing organic meat will help, to an extent, but reducing you meat and dairy intake is ideal. “Even if this is only twice a week to start with. There are lots of alternatives in the market now at affordable prices and some fantastic recipes that will make your experience that much better”, shares Bali.

    Carbon footprint: pollution fills the sky

    7. Switch off the lights

    “Even if the appliance isn’t on it, is still using electricity on standby,” explains Bali. Doing this will not only help reduce your CO2 usage, but will save you money. Win, win.

    8. Bank with a green bank

    Again, sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many don’t.

    9. Educate yourself

    Use sites like Carbon Choice to learn about your carbon footprint. “It’ll help you start to make carbon conscious choices when it comes to what products you buy, what food you eat, how you travel and how much energy you use in the home,” explains Gilmour.

    10. Offset your carbon emissions

    Finally, you can actually take responsibility for the CO2 you’re omitting, explains Lima.

    “While studying at Oxford University, we discovered that there was a way to take responsibility for your carbon usage. How? By paying to remove the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” he shares.

    Carbon offsetting has become a quick, easy and cheap way to offset your CO2, but shouldn’t be used as a way to justify living an excessively high carbon footprint lifestyle.

    “Planting trees is the number one thing we can do to reduce our footprint – they are nature’s way of fighting climate change and healing our planet,” the expert shares.

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