Reducing Your Carbon Footprint
Your carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere as a result of your activities. It is generally given in tonnes of carbon, or as carbon dioxide equivalent. A carbon footprint can be calculated for individuals, households, organisations or even communities. The idea behind the concept of carbon footprints is to allow us to quantify and compare the amount of carbon released by different activities and products.
The real value in calculating a carbon footprint is that measuring anything is the first step towards reducing it. We cannot reduce our carbon footprints—either individually or on a wider scale—if we do not understand which activities have most effect. This page explains a bit about what activities most affect your carbon footprint, and some steps you can take to try to reduce it.
Understanding Your Carbon Footprint
What do we mean by the term ‘carbon footprint’? It is a measure of the amount of carbon dioxide or its equivalent that is released into the atmosphere as a result of your activities (see box).
carbon footprint, n. a measure of the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of the activities of a particular individual, organization or community.
Source: Oxford Languages
“Measure of the exclusive total amount of emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2 ) that is directly and indirectly caused by an activity or is accumulated over the lifecycle stages of a product.”
Definition used by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
Carbon footprint is important as a concept, because carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. That means that it accumulates in the upper atmosphere and prevents heat from escaping. It is therefore directly linked to climate change. Reducing carbon emissions is an essential part of moving to a more sustainable lifestyle that does not have a huge impact on the world.
It therefore makes sense to measure your carbon footprint, to get a better understanding of the impact that you have on the world.
However, this is not always easy for individuals, organisations or communities.
The first question is what do you count or measure? If you only measure your direct impact, this is likely to be significantly less than if you consider the impact of your activities further up and down the ‘supply chain’. There is therefore growing agreement that all activities, direct or indirect, must be measured (see box).
Types of Carbon Emissions
There are three types of carbon emissions that count within your footprint:
Scope 1 are those that you control directly, for example, the emissions from using your car or heating your home or water using gas.
Scope 2 are those from generating the electricity to power your direct activities, such as to light your home, or power your devices.
Scope 3 are indirect emissions, those that are generated by other people who support your activities. In business, for example, these are the costs of producing the raw materials for your products. On a personal level, these might be the costs of shipping a product to you from where it is manufactured, compared with the cost of buying second-hand or locally.
There are now companies that specialise in assessing carbon emissions for organisations. On a personal level, you can use several different free tools available on the internet (such as this one from the WWF) to get a quick assessment of which areas to consider.
However, even without fully understanding your carbon footprint, you can still take steps to reduce it by changing some of your activities to those that use less carbon.
Elements of your Carbon Footprint
Individual carbon footprint calculators tend to split up carbon use into four areas:
Home, or anything to do with your house, such as how often you use your appliances, whether you have insulated your home, and whether you use low-energy alternatives for light bulbs and other consumables (and there is more about this in our page on Saving Energy and Natural Resources).
Food, anything associated with your food, including how much you waste, whether you recycle or compost food waste (and you can find out more in our page on Reducing and Managing your Waste), and whether you try to source food that is locally produced.
Travel, including commuting, holidays, and everyday activities such as shopping, school runs or errands (and our page on Sustainable Travel explains more about how you can reduce the impact of each element).
Stuff, meaning how often you buy consumables such as appliances, devices, clothes and shoes, and where you source them. Locally produced goods, for example, have a lower carbon footprint than those made on the far side of the world and shipped in. They may also be produced more ethically (and our page on Ethical Consumption explains more).
Reducing Your Carbon Footprint
What can you do to reduce your carbon footprint? There are many options, which tend to fall into a number of categories.
1. Use Less
The option that has the biggest impact is to simply reduce your consumption, and therefore carbon emissions. For example:
Use technology to control the temperature in your home or office more precisely, and avoid heating or lighting unused rooms when nobody is there. This will reduce your energy use directly (and there are more tips in our page on Saving Energy and Natural Resources).
Reduce the ‘normal’ temperature in your home, especially when nobody is there.
Add insulation to reduce the amount of energy required to heat your home.
Use your appliances less often by using them more efficiently. Make sure that your washing machine and dishwasher are always full before turning them on. Wash clothes, sheets and towels less often. If a plate only has a few crumbs on it, rinse it in cold water rather than put it in the dishwasher.
Make sure that your car tyres are correctly inflated, because this makes a huge difference to your car’s fuel efficiency.
Walk or cycle where possible on short journeys, to reduce your reliance on cars.
Eat food that is in season locally, and choose food that has travelled less far to get to you. This is likely to be cheaper as well as being associated with fewer emissions.
Grow your own vegetables or salad, even if all you have is a windowsill. Every plateful of salad harvested from your own plot is a plateful that has not had to travel from elsewhere.
Go on holiday in your own country instead of abroad, or short-haul rather than long-haul. It isn’t a fundamental human right to go on a long-haul holiday every year. Consider taking holidays in your own country, or that don’t require flights, at least every other time. You might also travel in a different way—for example, by train rather than air.
Reduce your water consumption by having showers instead of baths, and showering for slightly less time.
Did you know that the Eurostar produces around 6g of CO2 per kilometre travelled, compared with around 133g for a flight?
2. Use Differently
This option is about changing your approach, so that your activities have less impact. For example:
Change your energy supplier to one that produces more ‘green’ energy;
Change how you use your appliances to take advantage of any energy- and resource-saving features. For example, many washing machines have a longer cycle that uses fewer resources. Put that on at night, when it doesn’t matter to you how long it takes, and then hang your washing outside to dry in the morning rather than using a dryer.
Wash at a lower temperature. Modern detergents are efficient at much lower washing temperatures, so you can reduce the temperature of your wash without having an impact on the cleanliness of your clothes. Lower temperatures can also be kinder to your clothes.
Drive a bit more slowly to reduce your fuel consumption. You may have to leave slightly earlier—but you will have more money in your pocket as well as the satisfaction of knowing that you have caused fewer carbon emissions.
Empty all the excess weight out of your car. Most of us carry around a lot of junk in our cars: coats, boots, and quite often a lot of rubbish. Clear out your car to ensure that you are carrying as little excess weight as possible.
Consider changing your diet to eat less meat and dairy. Unfortunately for many of us, meat and dairy farming have the highest impact on carbon emissions (they cause 60% of all the greenhouse gas emissions of agriculture). You don’t have to give up either entirely—but could you cut down a little and substitute with more vegetables?
Avoid so-called ‘fast fashion’, because this tends to be produced less ethically, and with a bigger carbon footprint.
Switch to LED lightbulbs, which both use less energy and last much longer (and of course turn off lights and other appliances when not in use).
If you have to fly, go direct wherever possible. The carbon emissions depend on the distance travelled. If you can go direct, the impact will be lower.
3. Reuse and Recycle More
The third option is both in how you handle your own waste, and also your purchasing decisions. For example:
Consider buying better quality goods that will have a longer life, and need replacing less soon.
Consider buying second-hand. A reconditioned phone may not be quite as lovely as the latest model—but it may well do the job very adequately for a considerable time, and it certainly has a lower carbon footprint. Second-hand clothes are also great value, especially for children (who tend to grow out of clothes rather than wear them out).
Repair things that break (or have them repaired) rather than immediately replacing them. It is not always easy to repair goods, but if you can give them a new lease of life, then do.
Buy only what you need. Both for food and other goods, ask yourself whether you really need it before buying, or if you could use something else instead. For food in particular, this avoids waste.
Compost your vegetable waste and use it in your garden. Nobody likes to waste food, but vegetables that are past their best can be composted at home, and then used as a mulch to help grow more.
When you have finished with something, consider if someone else could use it instead of throwing it away. Could you even upcycle it yourself into something else?
The final option is something of a last resort, for when you absolutely cannot avoid carbon emissions.
Offsetting is the practice of investing in an environmental scheme somewhere to balance out your carbon footprint. Offsetting schemes include tree planting, clean energy generation projects, or buying (and then destroying) carbon credits from an emissions trading scheme.
Offsetting has been criticised for allowing people to continue to use carbon-emitting technology but not feel guilty. It is certainly not as good as using less. However, it is better than nothing.
Remember, if measuring is too difficult, or will take too much effort, just act instead.
- Don’t try to quantify how many microfibres are released from each load of laundry, or the impact of your detergent. Instead, just switch to eco-friendly detergents, and when you buy clothes or bedlinen/towels, look for natural fibres that will biodegrade more readily.
- Don’t try to measure the precise impact of every meal you eat. Instead, try switching to plant-based foods for an extra meal or two every week.
It isn’t always worth measuring, but it is always worth acting.
Towards Zero Carbon
None of us can reasonably expect to achieve ‘zero carbon’ or even ‘carbon neutrality’ overnight.
As individuals, it is also hard to see our own personal impact. However, that should not stop you from acting. If every person in the world took one small step towards reducing their carbon footprint, the overall impact would be massive. As the saying goes, every little helps.