Reducing your carbon footprint: small changes can make a difference

From the Carbon Smart placement series

My name is Emilie Sheldon, I am currently studying for my A-levels. Throughout my week of work experience, Carbon Smart has been able to teach me a lot on how they manage and help other companies with sustainability. This has given me an idea of what to expect after university and has helped me learn more about the different pathways available. During my stay, I particularly learnt about Carbon footprints, a major issue in the modern world and thought I’d take on the challenge of calculating my own carbon footprint and see which small changes we can all make to reduce our GHG emissions.

What is a Carbon Footprint?

This is the amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) released per year into the atmosphere calculated in CO2e. As there are different GHGs that contribute to global warming such as methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, the impact they have on global warming is calculated in terms of how much CO2 would be needed to create the same effect.  An individual carbon footprint can be calculated by looking at gas and electricity bills, flying and driving habits as well as diets.

How Greenhouse Gases affect the planet:

Increase in production of GHGs changes the natural composition of the atmosphere. This means more heat from the sun is trapped in the lower atmosphere, warming the planet and speeding up global warming. This causes the ice caps to melt, reduces biodiversity and increases sea levels.

Additionally, an increase in CO2 levels increases CO2 being taken in by water. This means the sea becomes more acidic damaging marine life decreasing the number of corals, mollusc and fish.

How I calculated my carbon footprint:

  1. I started by finding my gas and electricity bills for the month. I then calculated my energy use in a year. This value is then used to calculate Kg CO2, using a coefficient.
  2. I then decided on an average distance I travel by car each year. The coefficient for CO2e varies by the size and purpose of the car. The bigger the car, the higher the emissions.
  3. Flying has a huge effect on your carbon footprint. To calculate this, I had to find the distance I had travelled during each flight including the greater circle distance. For this one, coefficient depended on the time of flight, and class has flown. Flying also has an additional environmental impact. This is because at high altitude, the release of nitrous oxides and water vapour is more potent.
  4. To calculate the amount of GHG my diet produced, I used the BBC’s food calculator. This allowed me to decide how frequently I ate each food and then add up their carbon footprints to discover the annual impact they had on the environment.
  5. I also included the effect my pet has on the environment. Based on my research a large dog has the highest impact the and a goldfish the lowest. This is because pets require a high meat diet which creates GHG.

My carbon footprint calculation

Results

After adding up all the separate values, my carbon footprint amounted to 6.3 tonnes. Whilst the average UK carbon footprint per capita in 2014 was 7.6 tonnes it has now increased to around 9 tonnes of CO2e.

In my analysis, I will be using values from 2014 (these values might have changed). The average Canadian individual has the largest carbon footprint which more than doubles mine, at 24 tonnes. In contrast, India has the lowest individual footprint at 2.5 tonnes, but the country has a large total carbon footprint. This is because of the dense population. The global average is 6.8 tonnes CO2e; this is just above my value, but because of the wide range of CO2e values we cannot rely on the world average. The difference in GHG emissions is caused by different lifestyles and access to resources.

Comparisons with other countries

Why should you calculate your Carbon Footprint?

I believe calculating your own carbon footprint is an important procedure. It personally allowed me to see which actions I was taking were having the biggest effect on the environment and understand how much CO2e we are creating. Small changes to our everyday lifestyles could have great effects on a larger scale. Unsurprisingly, flying has the largest impact on your carbon footprint, I think we underestimate the effects it has; when drawing my pie chart, I realised that flying contributed to just under half my total footprint, followed by my diet. This shows which aspects of my lifestyle I should investigate changing.

How to reduce your carbon footprint?

The Climate Change Act is looking to have the UK GHG emissions reduced to 80% of the levels in 1990 by 2050. Whilst this requires lots of changes from large business and companies, there are small changes we can make as individuals to reduce our carbon emissions.

  1. Reduce your meat intake. The difference between a high meat diet and low meat diet is almost 1 tonne of CO2 Meat from cows and lamb have the highest carbon footprint. This is because they produce methane, which is 25 times more potent than CO2, these livestock have a large carbon footprint before even leaving the farm.
  2. Switch to renewable energy. This would reduce your CO2e for electricity to 0, as no CO2 is produced whilst making the electricity.
  3. Use local produce, this reduce carbon footprint as it reduces travel the produce will have.
  4. Look for efficiency when buying new devices. This reduces the energy they use and need, decreasing their GHG emissions.
  5. Unplug your devices, once charged your devices will keep drawing in energy. Whilst unplugging your devices and turning off the switches might not have a huge effect on your Carbon footprint over the period of a year, you could be slightly reducing your electricity bills and saving energy.

Written by: Emilie Sheldon