Everything we do – from travelling, watching TV, to the weekly shop – contributes to our carbon footprint.
The term is the catchall amount of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, that is generated by our actions and is measured in carbon dioxide equivalent or C02e, which is the sum of all greenhouse gas emissions rolled into one.
On average, our individual carbon footprint is seven tonnes of C02e per year, (a whopping 16 tonnes in north America, one of the highest rates in the world) the equivalent of driving 5,500 miles from Spain to South Africa in a large SUV or two return flights from London to Hong Kong.
If we’re going to avoid a 2℃ rise in global temperatures we all need to drop our carbon footprint per year to under two tonnes by 2050. Of course, that’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s not as hard as it sounds.
Quick and easy wins include eating less meat, washing clothes on eco-mode or a cold wash, line drying them instead of using the tumble dryer and reading a book instead of switching on Netflix.
But if we’re going to achieve that global carbon footprint target we all need to look at our current carbon footprint (calculate yours here) lifestyles and make a permanent change for the better. It might sound daunting but here’s The Ethicalist’s Guide to lowering your carbon footprint:
Green energy and insulation
Switch to a genuinely green energy supplier by choosing one that actively builds more renewable energy infrastructure, rather than just offsetting. Better still, generate your own energy from solar panels, a wind turbine or ground source heat pump. If that’s not feasible, research community energy schemes local to you. These create renewable energy and put the profits into community projects.
The way you use your energy has a big impact. Turn down the A/C, the temperature in your shower and block draughts. In cold countries, replace old windows, insulate your loft, close curtains when you have the heating on, and remember to bleed your radiators.
Improve your home’s carbon footprint in more ways than one by planting a tree – they not only absorb carbon dioxide, but a deciduous variety can provide your home with cooling shade in winter and let the heat through in summer.
Eco electricity and gadgets
Try to resist the lure of an upgrade for mobile phones and tech. Instead, go to your local repair café where electronics and homeware can often be fixed for a small donation, or donate old tech to charity. Remember to switch off devices and lights when not in use, including chargers which drain lots of energy. What’s more, turning down the brightness on screens can reduce power usage by up to 50 per cent. Also choose more energy efficient LED lightbulbs and integrated appliances, which waste less energy in manufacture and usage.
Low carbon food prep
Choose an electric fan oven over gas, and use smaller, more energy efficient appliances like a microwave or toaster when possible – and switch these off when not in use. When cooking on the hob, use lids to contain the heat and choose the smallest pan possible.
Unless baking a cake or bread, there’s usually no need to preheat your oven. You can even turn the oven off a few minutes before serving because food will continue to cook in the residual heat.
Preparing meals in batches saves energy and time, especially if you choose a one-pot meal.Wasted food creates more greenhouse gas emissions than you might think. Try to ‘compleat’ your food by using all parts and checking the fridge before heading to the shops.
Greener cleaning and grooming
We’re sold so many different cleaners, but really a few simple products or a homemade vinegar cleaner will usually do the job. Source plastic-free cleaning bars or refill bottles at a zero-waste shop. Used ‘grey’ water from washing up can be collected and used to water plants or flush the loo. Choose lower temperatures for your washing machine and only use it when full.
Similarly, refill bathroom essentials like shower gel or choose soap bars. Most self-care products are now available plastic-free, such as toothpaste in jars, compostable floss, and shampoo bars.
Gardening might seem like a green activity but our gardens are far from natural. Make the most of your outdoor space by planting bee-friendly flowers, and trees and shrubs to absorb carbon dioxide and provide a year-round habitat for nature.
Our plant choices also affect the resources used. Lavender and rosemary, for example, are drought-resistant so don’t need watering regularly. Could you also grow some produce? Turning your plot into a kitchen garden with herbs and veg reduces your reliance on shops, cuts food miles and looks beautiful.
Low carbon finances
Our mortgages, pension and banking can all fund a greener future. But most financial organisations invest in industries such as fossil fuels, arms and deforestation. If you don’t support these, then why should your savings? Read some money advice guides to help you switch to a more ethical and lower carbon bank, pension or mortgage. Also speak to your employer to see who they bank with and whether a pension switch could be companywide.
Having children adds enormously to your carbon footprint. If you’re a parent, try to teach your children how to reduce their carbon footprints and care for the planet. Enjoy things like gardening, growing, nature walks and cooking a plant-based meal together. Could any of these values be echoed in your child’s school or nursery? Express the importance of this to teachers and other parents, and suggest changes such as a student wildlife area.
Try to borrow or buy second-hand baby clothes and toys or join a toy library. Choose wooden, rather than plastic toys, and tech-free games which don’t use energy. Also consider whether you could commit to reusable cloth nappies – although these need washing, they do still use less greenhouse gasses than disposables.
Going green in the office
Working from home greatly reduces our emissions. Video conferencing, rather than rushing around to meetings, uses less money and energy. Changes can also be made in the office, whether at home or not. Encourage managers to switch to LED lightbulbs and renewable energy, reduce reliance on aircon – or lower the temperature as we’ve all been in offices where you need to put on a few extra layers – and introduce company-wide policies such as switching computers, lights and tech off at night. There are many corporate green schemes which guide businesses to make changes to benefit the planet while showing customers you care.
There’s so much to see on our doorsteps with a staycation. If you’re going to fly, choose direct and short-haul flights, which create less emissions. Pack lightly because any extra weight adds to the aeroplane’s carbon footprint. Consider offsetting your flight but beware of greenwashing and weigh up whether you could ‘offset’ your holiday by supporting local businesses, volunteering, or visiting an area where people’s livelihoods depend on tourism.
When possible, walk, cycle or choose public transport rather than jumping in the car. The emissions from small car journeys quickly add up. Invest in an electric car. Using the correct gear, driving smoothly, not idling, getting regular services and making sure you don’t overload your car all also help reduce fuel usage.
Ellen Tout’s book, How To Reduce Your Carbon Footprint: 365 Practical Ways to Make a Real Difference, is available to order now.