Around the world people are feeling the effects of climate change from floods to droughts and wildfires. As a result, more and more people are keen to understand what they can do as individuals but are not always sure what really matters or what impact it will have.
This guide aims to help you understand what your carbon footprint is and how to reduce it one step at a time. From the first small and important steps to larger and more impactful changes and taking those final leaps, all in manageable steps.
Understanding your individual impact
Our individual carbon footprint is a measure of the greenhouse gases (GHG) which are emitted from our activities. Broadly these activities cover, running our homes, how we travel, our diets, the products we buy and the services we use.
It is measured in kilograms (kg) or tonnes of carbon dioxide ‘equivalents’. Carbon dioxide is the main GHG, but it also includes other important (and less known) gases such as methane and nitrous oxide, which have much greater global warming potential.
It is valuable to understand your own footprint so that you know how much carbon you are producing each year, which areas are the highest emitting for you, and why.
Why we all need to reduce our impact
The average carbon footprint in the UK is around 9 tonnes of carbon emitted each year. To ensure global warming does not increase to a point where we cannot reverse it, we will need to work towards an average 2.5 tonnes per year by 2030, and eventually to a position where the amount of carbon we emit is no more than the amount removed – commonly known as net zero.
To go from an average 9 to 2.5 tonnes typically takes years (see figure below). Advancements in technology, policy, and industry should make it easier to achieve in the future and it will also involve us all doing things differently.
How to take positive steps
Committing to one step at a time is a great way to make these changes stay within our lives.
If we take one of the largest areas of our carbon footprint, our diet, we can look at how we might do this in practice.
On average our diets account for 25% of our footprints and moving to a sustainable diet can reduce this by 45%, whilst having a positive impact on carbon, water, land, plastics, and our health. It is also an area where we can have an immediate impact.
Breaking down our actions into small steps can mean that we are more likely to take that all important first step and for it to stick. Below looks at how this might work in reality; starting with a year of small but important steps, moving to larger more impactful steps and finally the leap to a 2.5 tonne or even net zero lifestyle.
Taking our first steps
Looking first at things that are low effort but make a small and positive impact, we can plan out the first 6 months of our journey. With just one step a month. The hope with this approach, is that these new activities are likely to become normalities in our lives.
After 6 months we have taken those all-important first steps and are thinking more about the choices we are making. At this point we are more informed and inquisitive and will start talking to others about the changes we are making. Here are some suggestions to get started:
Building on our foundation
Over the next 6 months we will be making changes to the way we shop and consume.
As we take slightly bigger steps, taking the time to educate ourselves on the reasons why we are making them is important to keep us in track.
Taking the step of ‘cutting back on cheese’, for example, it takes 10 litres of milk to make 1kg of cheese, this means a lot of cows which need housing and feeding. This is an issue as cows emit a large amount of methane (a potent GHG) but also as 70% of deforestation is to make way for agriculture, with much of the land needed for animal feed.
There are many other benefits of making these changes, cutting back on meat and dairy and replacing it with plant-based foods should also mean we are healthier and save money!
Example steps for the next 6 months (6-12)
The impact we are making with these steps is now noticeably greater. Making the switch to organic for example, organic farms have 50% more plants, insects, and wildlife than conventional farms supporting biodiversity and the soil has more nutrients and stores more carbon.
You may want to break these larger steps into smaller more manageable steps:
Step 1 – go through your shopping and write a list of products that you’d like to switch to organic.
Step 2 – investigate where you can find organic fruit, vegetables, and grains (e.g. supermarket, local market).
Step 3 – start to switch the products on your list, checking that they are marked as organic or have an organic certification.
Final step – check out your cupboards, are most of your fruit, vegetables, and grains now organic? Great work, your step is now completed.
Our second year of progress
We’ve done it! A year of action and through taking steps; we are shopping and eating more consciously and seasonally, wasting less, and reusing more, which is having a bigger impact on our footprints. It is not always possible, so sometimes we end up grabbing the cheapest or quickest option, but most of the time thinking about what we buy and eat, much more than we were.
We now have the formula of understanding why we are taking each action, what the impact is, and the steps we need to take.
Applying this formula to our next step of cutting back on food waste. This is important when we consider that on average each of us throws out our own body weight in edible food eat year! You can make a start by just taking a note of any food, you throw out for the next 3 days. Then make a list of ideas on how the food you waste could be avoided. Next try your list out for a week. Check in, was it successful and are you now rarely throwing out food?
Example steps for 12-18 months
Once these steps are completed and imbedded in your lifestyle, the aim now is to take that leap to a mainly plant based diet. This means that the diet part of our footprint would be within the target of a total footprint of 2.5 tonnes.
You might find that over the next year, following the steps below can get to a mainly plant based diet. You might also want to continue the process of breaking these down into smaller steps, so they feel more manageable and easier to make stick with your lifestyle.
For example, going vegetarian may involve, having a month of being vegetarian one day a week, then completing a week per month of being a vegetarian for a year, until finally committing to becoming vegetarian.
Whatever the size of the step or the end goal, if we follow this process of understanding why we are taking action and what impact it will have, breaking down the steps if needed to smaller more manageable steps, and not beating ourselves up if we are not 100% perfect, this should be a good recipe for reducing our carbon footprint.
Getting to 2.5 tonnes or net zero will be a different journey for us all, some will find it easy to cut back or stop flying for example, whilst some may have family living abroad and it will be much harder.
The most important thing is to just take that first step. Look at the largest areas of your footprint or the areas you can start making an impact, and take small steps, one a month or more if you can. If there is something you can’t do due to your current circumstances, then move on and concentrate on the step you can take.
We must also hope that advances in technology, policy and industry will soon mean we don’t have to do all this alone. Because we cannot do this alone, we need to share our successes with friends, family and colleagues. Collectively we can make a bigger impact, and we are more likely to reduce our own impacts by supporting and encouraging each other to take the steps and positive changes we need to in our lives.