How can I reduce my carbon footprint and support COP26?

1 step at a time

As COP26 gets underway more and more people are asking what they can do to cut their carbon footprint and support this historic meeting. 

In this article we look at one of the key aims of COP26 and how you can get involved.  COP26 has 4 aims covering everything from Net Zero to working together but the first aim, securing global net zero by mid century and keeping 1.5 C within reach, is a central part of limiting the worst impacts of global warming.  

What global net zero means is that we need to ensure that, by 2050, any greenhouse gas emissions are balanced by the same amount being removed from the atmosphere. The end result: no additional greenhouse gas emissions are added to the Earth’s atmosphere by human activities. 

The only way to achieve this is for people to do things differently and what this means for everyone is finding ways to cut your carbon footprint. As an example the average per capita carbon footprint in wealthy nations is 10 tonnes per person per year1. This needs to reduce to 2.5 tonnes per person globally by 2030, to achieve a halving of global emissions2. The largest components of personal carbon footprints tend to be diets, home and transport and so it’s those areas that we dig into below, starting with food.  

Cut your diet footprint, eat more plant based products 

Food typically makes up one quarter of the average carbon footprint, and switching to a plant based diet can cut your food footprint in half. This is because the production of meat, dairy and fish have a higher carbon footprint than the production of plant based foods. There are several key reasons for this: 

  1. Greater amounts of land are required to produce the same amount of calories from animal products, than plant products. This is due to the requirement for additional land to grow feed for animals. Land used for agriculture typically absorbs less carbon than forestry, or uncultivated land. 
  1. A lot of soy animal feed is grown in Brazil and is linked to deforestation. Agriculture and land use create approximately one quarter of total global greenhouse gas emissions,3 and the majority of deforestation is to provide more land for agriculture.  
  1. Animals, in particular red meat from cattle and sheep, produce methane, which is a highly potent greenhouse gas. Methane is getting particular attention at COP26 where the global methane pledge commits to cutting methane by 30% by 2030. 

Here’s a three step process to get more plants into your diet: 

  1. Try a few plant based products. Either try a vegetarian meal, instead of a meat meal, or opt for one of the many new plant based products on the market. You can now get plant based bacon, burgers, sausages, chicken pieces, even chicken nuggets, and as food technology evolves, they are becoming much more tasty. 
  1. Try a period of time without red meat, for example one month. There are many vegan or vegetarian chefs and recipes online now for inspiration. 
  1. Eat animal products just once a day. This is an excellent way to make a significant cut in your food footprint. It can be easiest to avoid animal products at breakfast and lunch. For example, if you have cereal in the morning try it with plant based milk or yoghurt. For dinner, try swapping your sausages, burgers or kievs for a plant based alternative. 

It is projected that by 2025 one quarter of British people will be vegetarian, and half will be flexitarian (predominantly plant based with occasional meat or dairy)4. As numbers grow, supply of plant based options is expected to continue to grow quickly. 

The great thing about food is that you can start at the next meal, and start reducing your impact straightaway. You can find all these steps on Giki Zero which is a free tool for people to understand, track and reduce their carbon footprint. 

Find greener transport, switch to Electric Vehicles 

In wealthier nations, transport can be one of the largest parts of personal carbon footprints. Transitioning away from fossil fuels in transport is crucial to achieving the goals of keeping temperature rise below 1.5 °C. Electric cars are one of the fastest growing solutions in the transport sector. 

Graph showing environmental footprint of vehicles and travel
Breakdown of a typical transport carbon footprint5 

Figure 1 shows how petrol and diesel cars are one of the biggest contributors to individual transport carbon footprints6. They are also slowly being banned. Electric vehicles (EVs) on the other hand typically emit zero emissions, do not emit other harmful pollutants7, and are also a lot cheaper to run. This is due to lower fuel costs and even the ability to charge at times of day when electricity is cheaper. Every year the price of electric cars versus their fossil fuel ancestors gets closer and closer. 

Are EV cars really so much better? 

Although Electric cars typically require more energy to build because of the battery, this is cancelled and more out over the lifetime of the car. This is called embedded carbon and it means you have to drive a certain amount before the EV emits less carbon overall. The key factors to consider when making the switch to EV cars are:  

  • how large your car is, 
  • how far you drive, 
  • how old it is  

and when you switch to electric: 

  • how big the battery is  
  • whether it’s charged by renewable electricity. 

Over the whole life of a car, and including embedded carbon, EVs emit 65% less carbon per km than petrol cars. With renewables it’s 80% less. 

Whilst EVs look to be one of the most promising technologies for the future, the majority of vehicles on the road today are still powered by fossil fuels. There are ways to reduce the amount of petrol or diesel used in this case. Here’s a three step process to cut emissions and pollution from petrol and diesel cars immediately: 

  1. Accelerate gently: Acceleration is one of the biggest uses of fuel so the smoother it is, and the more you can maintain your speed, the more fuel you’ll save.  
  1. Drive more slowly. 50mph is 25% more efficient than 70mph. 
  1. Drive less: when the engine is off, it isn’t burning fuel. Get public transport or try to walk short distance trips which both reduce your footprint. 

Cut back on fossil fuels at home, install airsource heat pumps 

Heating and cooling our homes, along with all the other energy demands such as electronics, heating water and cooking are another significant part of personal carbon footprints. New technologies including solar panels, ground source and air source heat pumps can all deliver on these energy needs through renewable energy (eg wind, solar). Air source heat pumps are one of the fastest growing technology solutions for the home and could satisfy 90% of global heating needs8. The highest installation numbers so far are in Sweden where nearly 2 million are in operation in a country with just 4.8 million households. 9 

Installing an air source heat pump is a big step, but by the end of this decade, more and more homes will need to adopt such technologies if we are to achieve a 1.5 °C limit on temperature rise. 

Key facts: 

  • We cannot heat our homes with fossil fuels and reach Net Zero. 
  • Heat pumps are extremely efficient, and as a result cheaper to run than many alternatives, and provide low or no carbon heating and hot water. 
  • Compared to a new gas boiler you can save over 2 tonnes of carbon every year by installing a heat pump. 
  • New gas fire boiler phase outs are also on the cards from the 2030s. 

Useful tips: 

  • When researching heat pumps make sure that the refrigerant that the company uses has a low GWP (Global Warming Potential). Aim for under 5 which is possible with new refrigerants some of which are natural. 
  • Heat pumps in the EU and North America come with an Energy rating which you can check to see how efficient they are. 
  • You’ll save money every year if you apply for a government scheme to help you. A number of countries support heat pump installation including the UK, Germany, France and more. 
  • Switch to a renewable electricity tariff at the same time. This will mean your heating and hot water are getting close to zero emissions. 

Installing a heat pump is a long term project, and there are ways to reduce immediately the amount of fossil fuels needed to heat our homes and our water supplies. Heating and domestic hot water account for around 75% of household energy requirements so there’s lots of scope to cut carbon emissions and costs. Here’s a three step process to cut carbon at home immediately: 

  1. Turn thermostats down and turn radiators off in unused rooms. Turning your thermostats down by just 1 °C can save a big chunk of carbon throughout the year and reduce energy bills too. The majority of households in the UK and US could turn their thermostats down by 1C and still be at 18C or above. 
  1. Insulate your home: This means less fuel is required to achieve the same level of heating, so cuts carbon and cuts bills. It is estimated that you get payback on any investment within 3 years10 
  1. Switch to renewable electricity: Renewable energy uses nature to generate power rather than burning fossil fuels. Switching to renewables can lead to a big reduction in your carbon footprint and is one of the most important steps everyone needs to make. You can cut your electricity carbon footprint by over 90% if you use 100% renewable electricity. 

Together these changes make a big impact 

Bringing these three areas together, we have calculated the carbon reductions for a person who lives in a semi detached house with a gas boiler, eats a regular diet and drives a Volkswagen Golf and who switches to a mainly plant based diet, installs an air source heat pump, powered by renewable electricity, and drives an electric vehicles, 

The result – they will nearly halve their personal carbon footprint each year. 11 

These are all big, sometimes long term changes. The most important way to participate in this goal for COP26 is to get started, because quick wins can help lead to bigger steps, which collectively are a really important part of keeping temperature rise below 1.5 °C. 

Footnotes

1 Giki analysis based on consumption

2 The average global per capita carbon footprint is 5 tonnes, however wealthy nations have a higher per capita footprint, so need to reduce by more than half by 2030.

3 https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data

4 https://www.about.sainsburys.co.uk/~/media/Files/S/Sainsburys/pdf-downloads/futureoffood-10c.pdf

5. source: Giki Zero

6 Represents the average UK carbon footprint

7 Each year over 350,000 premature deaths around the world are attributable to car pollution. Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable.

8 https://www.iea.org/reports/heat-pumps

9 https://www.statista.com/statistics/864011/heat-pumps-in-operation-sweden/

10

Roof and loft insulation

11 They will go from a footprint of 12.4 tonnes to 7,7 tonnes with just these changes. This analysis is based on Giki Zero footprints and analysis.