Communications officer Carys Mainprize talks about her 2021 goal to live under a two tonne carbon footprint.
Carbon footprints are measured in tCO2e (tonnes of CO2 and equivalent greenhouse gases emitted).
According to an article by Carbon Brief:
“The UK’s per-capita CO2 emissions in 2019, at 5.3tCO2, are above the global average (4.8 in 2018) and India (2.0), but below the EU average (7.0) and the figure for China (7.2) or the US (16.6).”
Per-capita CO2 emissions are from the UK’s total emissions, divided among the population. It is not quite the measure of our individual carbon footprint, from my understanding (corrections on that welcomed), but it is still a great visualisation of where the UK stands. More on CO2 Emissions from this article by Our World in Data.
It is reassuring to know we are only 0.5 tonnes above the global average. However we need to cut our current emissions drastically. This is according to folk smarter than me who have worked out our individual carbon budget based on different targets (such as the 2 degrees warming prevention target) and commitments (e.g. to ‘net zero’). You can read more on that here or here.
I decided on 2 tonnes because it’s a significant start to reach net zero by 2050 (calculated between 1.1 to 1.5 tonnes, from what I can tell), and I already have a very low impact life. For someone with a larger carbon footprint, it can be very easy to make significant cuts – getting closer to 2 tonnes is harder, but makes sense as the next step for me and my lifestyle.
Carbon footprint calculators can be wildly inaccurate due to their generalised nature. However, I know I score low: I am vegetarian, frugal (some would say cheap!), already on a renewable energy tariff, and rarely drive (I do not count work journeys including driving to work, when we can do that again, and CCC is very mindful of emissions associated with work miles and how we can adjust what we do in the future to minimise these emissions).
That doesn’t mean to say I cannot improve and keep a closer tab on my carbon footprint. After a long research session hording data and creating chaos in excel, I have made my own tracker – which is mostly for food, as that will be where the majority of the footprint I can change comes from. I have not included electric, water, or internet usage – their carbon footprint is minimal, and I can’t monitor my water usage – but it is still important to reduce usage as much as possible.
Most of the data I use comes from this article (sourced from this summary article, more in depth, and this paper). From the paper (Poore and Nemecek (2018). Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science), I have created this graph (right) of the carbon footprint of common foodstuffs to help visualise the data I was working from.
Based on the first month of the year, as best as I can tell, I have narrowly kept within my target – my emissions are made higher due to a long drive at the start of the year (mileage emissions calculated from this calculator), where I had to relocate. In January, the things I bought/miles I drove added up to 144kgCO2e - just shy of the two tonne monthly limit, 170kgCO2e ((2000/365)x31). This doesn't include indirect emissions, my gas usage, or the produce I already had in my house, but it's the most accurate information I could scrounge up. This does include my dairy intake (40kgCO2e), my driving (82kgCO2e), and my best guess for crisps (4.89kgCO2e), although the only information I found on that is not even of the crisps I eat, and for an individual packet rather than 1kg (dodgy maths was used to convert this all to a figure I could use).
Enough of the hard data - what am I actually doing?
I will reduce my dairy intake from cows – e.g. more plant milk, less cheese (my dairy intake for Jan was just over 40kgCO2e!)
I will change my bank to an ethical UK bank, so I will no longer be funding climate change.
I have moved my cat onto compostable litter and ethical food (a great index is here – I use a B Corporation certified product - this is why my cat isn't included in my footprint; I can't find data on the carbon footprints of these products).
I will furnish my new (rented) abode with second hand furniture, and take steps to try and offset the inefficient boiler/heating system with things like plastic window films, radiator reflectors, and draught proofing.
I am eating more seasonably, from food mostly grown in the UK, and making my own food where possible (bread, desserts, hummus, and nut milks), and I plan to start composting.
Is this a challenge? In some ways.
Do I still buy a monthly takeaway, packets of digestives, and take occasional baths? Yes!
There are parts of my footprint I have no control over – renting means I have no option in the heating I use, and I cannot get rid of my car as I need it for my job and emergencies, as I am rather rural – but these will change by 2050 as society itself changes, and introduces more electric cars, pressure/incentives for landlords to invest in their property’s heating, and as agriculture improves, the footprints of the things I eat will shrink. I’m not going to worry about sacrificing everything that contributes to my footprint – instead, this is all a compromise that I am perfectly happy with.
I don’t want to write this blog to turn anyone off from reducing their carbon footprint because getting it to two tonnes is unrealistic, for them. It is realistic for me because my own likes and lifestyle is naturally low impact. Starting somewhere is better than nowhere, every time.
Some of the biggest changes an individual can make are set out by the Committee on Climate Change here.
Remember that your carbon footprint is only one measure of your impact on the planet. It does not consider the litter you may pick up on your walks, how wildlife friendly your garden is, or how much you encourage other people to make changes, for example.
Additionally, it's worth nothing that although products from cows have a large footprint, they're a huge part of rural economies in much of the UK. As mentioned, carbon footprint is only one aspect of our impact. We want to support local, sustainable farming - and cows can be important for conservation! The context surrounding what we buy is important to consider. Although I'll be buying less dairy, what I do purchase will be higher quality, local products rather than whatever is easiest on the supermarket shelf. I may not be able to make that choice every time, but even if I make it half the time, that's still a huge step.
I cannot do all the good that the world needs. But the world needs all the good that I can do. – Jana Stanfield.
Well said, Jana. I agree!
Any and all mistakes made in carbon footprinting, calculations, assumptions, and so on, are entirely mine and not CCC's. Your insights, advice, and corrections are appreciated!