How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint?

Our carbon footprint is our personal contribution to global warming. It’s an approximate measure of the greenhouse gas emissions we’re responsible for. In the West, carbon emissions are between 2 and 4 times higher than those in the developing world, which means we need to make some serious changes. So here are the best ways to lower your carbon footprint and help save the planet.
Recycling household goods can help to reduce your carbon footprint
German householders recycle over 70% of their household waste. Photo: © Jasmin Sessler/Unsplash

The thing to remember is that climate action is a global affair. We need as many people as possible to get involved. So if you don’t fancy any of the following recommendations to reduce your carbon footprint, you can still help – simply contact your political representative and ask him/her what they are doing about climate change.

1. How Fewer Children Can Help Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

The single most effective way to reduce your CO2 emissions is to have one less child. And no cheating! Don’t say you’re going to have 3 children, when you really want only 2, just so you can reduce your carbon footprint. Having one less nipper in the family saves you nearly 60 tons of CO2e per annum. By comparison, going vegetarian – which would be a major sacrifice for most meat-eaters – saves you 0.8 of a ton of CO2e. 1 2

You may well ask, how does having one less child make such a difference to your carbon footprint? This is how experts come to their figure: They take the average emissions a person is likely to make over a lifetime. They then assign half of those emissions to each parent. On top of that, they assign the parent one quarter of that child’s offspring’s emissions – the grandchildren – and so on down the line. Essentially, it is a ripple effect. For other climate-related ethical dilemmas, see our article: The Ethics of Climate Change.

Ways To Lower Your Carbon Footprint

How To Reduce Your Carbon Footprint. Have fewer children. Avoid plane trips. Live car-free. Buy green energy.
How To Reduce Your Carbon Footprint. Image: Seth Wynes, Kimberly A Nicholas, Environmental Research Letters (2017) 1

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2. Lower Your Carbon Emissions By Choosing An Electric Car

Next up, is the car. Love it or hate it, it gives many people a freedom they can’t do without. And transport is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions for people in developed countries. Unfortunately, cars are choking our cities with fumes (in the winter) and photochemical smog (in the summer).

If you want to reduce your carbon footprint and slow down global warming in the process, you need to switch to an electric vehicle (EV) and, choose a source of electricity that comes from renewable energy.

For the pros and cons of EVs, read our article Electric Vehicles: Best for Climate.

Okay, you might have to wait until your region acquires more re-charging points, before buying an EV, but it should definitely be on your radar. The benefits of renewable energy are felt by everyone, while petrol and diesel cars are yesterday’s products.

Here are some facts showing why electric cars are so much cleaner than old fashioned ‘gasmobiles’. A typical U.S. passenger vehicle (doing 22 miles to the gallon; annual mileage 11,500) emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Every gallon of petrol burned emits about 8,887 grams of CO2. 3 Also, when petrol is burned it generates water vapor as well as carbon dioxide, roughly one molecule of water produced for every molecule of CO2. 4 And as we know, water vapor is another important greenhouse gas.

According to a 2-year study by the Union of Concerned Scientists into how many emissions conventional cars account for compared to electric cars, battery-powered electric cars generate half the emissions of the comparable petrol/diesel car, even after pollution from battery manufacturing is accounted for. Although building an electric vehicle results in more emissions than making an equivalent gasoline vehicle (currently between 15 and 65 percent more emissions depending on size of car) the situation changes as soon as you hit the road. Battery electric cars typically make up for their higher manufacturing emissions within 18 months of driving, with shorter range models achieving this within 6 months.

In the United States, the conclusion is well stated in a report from Vehicle Technologies Office of the US Department of Energy:

“The national average is 4,815 pounds of CO2-equivalent emissions for a typical electric vehicle per year, as compared to the average petrol/diesel car which produces 11,435 pounds of CO2-equivalent emissions per year.”

Note: this is a national average, because well-to-wheel emissions of EVs are dependent on the electricity source used to recharge the vehicle. The electricity supply in some states (Vermont) comes mostly from renewable sources: in other states (West Virginia) fossil fuels like coal still dominate. 5

All in all, over a 10-year useful life, the average conventional car in America emits 66,000 pounds (33 tons) more carbon dioxide pollution than the average electric vehicle. What’s more, emission statistics for EVs get better year on year, as manufacturing processes become greener.

3. How To Minimize Your Carbon Footprint When Flying

Who doesn’t love the idea of jetting off on holiday? Answer: no one. Or at least, no one I know. If you work hard all year, you need a holiday. Climate change or not. Trouble is, lots of people take more than one return flight a year.

In fact, until the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, the airline industry and airports around the world were booming. (See: Effect of COVID-19 on Climate Change.) According to ACI World’s 2019 World Airport Traffic Report, passenger numbers reached 8.8 billion in 2018, an increase of 6.4 per cent over 2017. The planet can’t sustain this level of traffic, a hefty slice of which is non-essential. What’s more, judging by the numbers of new airports and airport extensions being built, future traffic numbers will be even greater.

The problem is, air travel causes significant emissions. One return short haul flight generates similar emissions to a 4,500 km (2,800 miles) car journey. Long haul flights are much worse: one return flight is similar to a 17,000 km (10,600 miles) car journey.

If you must fly, stick to economy class or coach. Business class is responsible for about three times as many emissions as economy because the flight’s greenhouse gases are divided between fewer passengers. First class can result in nine times more carbon emissions than economy. Bottom line: there’s no way to make air travel a low-emission process.

This doesn’t mean that no one should fly. That would be absurd. But if you want to reduce your carbon footprint, you need to reduce the number of flights you take, to a minimum.

The good news is, you may be able to reduce your carbon footprint in the future, by flying more cleanly. Aeroplane manufacturers realize that they need to clean up their act and invest in better technology. In 2020 Airbus revealed designs for the world’s first series of zero-emission aeroplanes. The concepts rely on hydrogen as their main power source, which may help the aviation industry reach their climate neutral targets.

4. Eat Your Way To a Smaller Carbon Footprint

Now let’s talk food! Your diet is an important source of carbon emissions, and a useful place to make changes if you want to lower your emissions. There are several eating habits you might consider changing, but one is much more important than the others: eating red meat.

Farm to fork emissions generated by the beef and lamb industry are much higher than those for other types of meat. A daily helping of beef, for instance, is responsible for 2,820 kg (3.1 tonnes) of CO2e emissions per year; a daily helping of lamb, 1,582 kg of CO2e per year; a daily helping of pork, 656 kg of CO2e per year; and a daily helping of chicken, 497 kg of CO2e per year.

Carbon emissions from farming and agriculture to help you choose the greenest foods and reduce your carbon footprint.
Breakdown of Livestock Emissions. 6

The reason for beef’s large carbon footprint is the amount of emissions, generated by the livestock industry, of methane and nitrous oxide, as well as CO2. Methane, from digestive outgassing and manure storage, is a gas with 28 times more heat-trapping power than carbon dioxide. Nitrous oxide, arising from manure storage and the use of nitrogen fertilizers, has 265 times more heat-trapping power than carbon dioxide. 7

As well as beef, dairy milk, butter and cheese also have relatively large carbon footprints, for the same reason.

CO2e Emissions Per Serving of Protein

If you don’t fancy giving up meat to reduce your carbon footprint, then consider cutting down. Eating less meat is a well-documented way to improve your health. 8

5. How To Power Your Home And Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Heating, lighting and powering your home and garden uses up a substantial amount of energy. In fact, energy use accounts for roughly a quarter of all US household emissions. 9 Which makes it an important area in terms of your carbon footprint. So, your choice of energy provider is critical.

If you switch to a supplier of green electricity (not derived from fossil fuels, like petroleum or natural gas) while making direct use of other renewables like solar power, you can make significant reductions in your energy consumption. The average household in Britain emits 2.7 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, from heating their home. So, if all (or even a good share) of your heating needs can be provided by renewable electricity, you will reduce your carbon footprint considerably.

Household Energy Consumption

ApplianceUsageAssumptionsCost per year kg CO2 per year 
Microwave Oven96 times per year0.945 kWh per use (based on 1.39 kWh for full power and 0.5 kWh for defrosting)£9.0739
Washing Machine187 washes per yearEU energy label A-rated gives an average consumption at 40°C using a 2kg load to be 0.63 kWh£11.7851
Electric Tumble Dryer148 uses per year2.50 kWh per cycle
Based on an average load capacity of 4.76 kg of dry laundry
£37.00159
Kettle1542 uses per year0.11 kWh per use based on heating 1 Litre of water£16.9073
Gas Oven135.1 uses per year1.52 kWh per use£7.6038
Gas Hob424 uses per year0.9 kWh per use£14.1271
Electric Oven135.1 uses per year1.56 kWh per use£21.0891
Electric Hob424 uses per year0.71 kWh per use£30.10129
Dishwasher at 55°C110 uses per year1.07 kWh per use£11.7751
Dishwasher at 65°C135 uses per year1.44 kWh per use£19.4484
Fridge-Freezer A ++ spec24 hours a day206 kWh per year£20.6089
Fridge-Freezer A+ spec24 hours a day270 kWh per year£27.00116
Fridge-Freezer A spec24 hours a day408 kWh per year£40.80175
Standard Light Bulb4 hours a day100 W£14.6063
Low Energy Light Bulb4 hours a day18 W£2.6311

Household Energy Consumption. Data source: © Carbonfootprint.com 10

It’s also a good idea to learn how best to conserve energy. After all, less waste means less energy is used. Modifying your home to reduce heating bills in winter and cooling bills in summer can be expensive but, if you have the money, it’s an option worth exploring. Check out the use of smart controls and low-intensity light fittings as well.

When it comes to conservation, you don’t have to be perfect, just do what you can. It’s a long-term strategy rather than a short-term fix.

If you really want to reduce your carbon footprint, the 5 steps outlined above will definitely help you to achieve your goals. If your goals are more modest, that’s fine too – there are tons of ways to reduce your emissions by taking small steps. We’ll take a look at some of them. But first, a word about your Carbon Handprint.

What Is Your Carbon Handprint?

‘Carbon Handprint’ is not a substitute or replacement for ‘carbon footprint’, it’s just a simpler and more casual way of acknowledging small but positive contributions to solving our climate crisis.

If your carbon footprint is the negative impact you have on the planet, your carbon handprint is a record of the positive impact you have. It consists of the positive steps you take, no matter how small, or seemingly insignificant. 11

The carbon handprint concept was launched at the 4th International Conference on Environment Education (2007), as a measure of Education for Sustainable Development action, directed at reducing the human carbon footprint and making the world more sustainable.

The idea is, to move from scaring people about climate change, to encouraging them to do something about it. We want people to create a personal carbon handprint, recording all the positive things they’re doing for the planet, so that hopefully their handprint grows larger than their footprint.

Although handprint complements the ecological footprint, they are different concepts. Handprint goes beyond footprint thinking, and handprints can be created in addition to minimizing footprints.

Environmental handprints embrace all standards of accomplishment and small steps (e.g. technology innovations, pilot projects, demonstrations, experiments or even failed but valuable learning experiences) contributing to a larger outcome.

In addition to making our own efforts, handprint is also about influencing others. 12

Recently, VTT and LUT University in Finland, in conjunction with other Finnish organizations (including Nokia, Neste, KONE, Paptic, Gasum, Biolan, AO allover, AM Finland, Metallinjalostajat and Sitra), have developed a method and a set of guidelines for evaluating the carbon handprint of products. The carbon handprint method and guide were finalized between 2016 and 2018, thanks to funding from Business Finland, VTT, LUT University and other companies. VTT and LUT University will continue to develop handprint methodologies, by extending the concept to company and project level and by widening the list of environmental impacts involved.

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The 5 Rs of Greener Waste Management

These “R” reminders are used by government agencies, NGOs, waste management facilities and schools all over the world, to nudge people into embracing greener, more sustainable habits in their everyday lives. None of the following suggestions are going to turn you into a climate hero overnight, but small steps matter. Ask any ant. And every time I talk to people about their experiences putting these ideas into practice, they tell me how these steps have given them tons of interesting environmental and social contacts.

If nothing else, focusing on waste helps us to understand the limits of consumerism. As the American environmentalist Bill McKibben says, in his seminal work “Deep Economy: Economics as if the World Mattered” (Times Books. 2007): “All in all, we have more stuff and less happiness.” Buying more stuff doesn’t make us happy in the long run. Pretty soon, the novelty wears off and all we have left is the guilt.

NOTE: For answers to frequently asked questions about all aspects of our climate crisis, please see: 50 FAQs About Global Warming and 50 Climate Change FAQs.

1. Refuse (Say No)

How you spend your money says a lot about you. So, if you want to reduce your carbon footprint, or increase your carbon handprint, think about the environmental impacts of your buying decisions.

Start saying No to things you haven’t asked for. Say No to freebies that you don’t want. Buy products with less (or no) packaging. Say No to straws in your drinks. Say No to that free bottle of water in a hotel, at a conference, or on a flight. Instead, take your reusable water bottle along so you can fill up from a tap. Say No to paper bags; bring your own reusable bag instead.

Refusing to buy (or accept) things that companies want to sell you – things you know you don’t really need – can save a significant number of carbon emissions over the long term.

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2. Reduce

Our closets, refrigerators, garages and cars are full of stuff we don’t need, and every one of these things has an environmental cost. (Think clothes, shoes, the exercise bike, the poached-egg pan, the portable barbecue, and a million other items you wanted desperately, but somehow never got around to using.) It’s time to reduce our consumption of these unnecessary items.

You don’t have to stop treating yourself. Just think before you buy something, so that you get real use out of it. Or maybe buy less, but choose things that last longer, or that can be repaired and reused rather than disposed of after 5 minutes.

Don’t forget, almost everything has to be sourced, manufactured, packaged, and sometimes transported half way around the world. So, reducing your consumption is a very real way of reducing your carbon footprint. Plus, it reduces clutter, minimizes waste and frees up your house and your head.

3. Reuse

Work out ways of reusing an item rather than simply disposing of it at the first opportunity. Suppose, for example, you’ve unearthed a pile of books you’ve already read. Instead of throwing them away, think of someone that might be interested in reading them. Almost everything we buy eventually ends up on a landfill site, or pollutes the air, or the ocean, or results in the emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. We need to reduce our waste to reduce our environmental footprint. Reusing an item is a way to do just that.

Besides, doesn’t it make more sense to donate unwanted items to somebody (or some group or organization) who will put those things to good use? Facebook, eBay and other social media platforms offer numerous options to redistribute items thereby saving resources and emissions.

Everyday items (things like plastic containers and newspapers) can also be reused in a variety of ways, in order to save waste and resources. Check online for tons of suggestions.

And while you’re online, look out for advice on using general, cheaper products, in place of more expensive specialist products. For example, vinegar is a wonderfully versatile product with a wide variety of uses: as a a glass cleaner, a fabric softener and odour-neutralizer. It also repels certain pests. Vaseline is another versatile product that can replace other more specialist personal items.

Switch from disposable to reusable products. How far you take this idea is up to you, but at the very least make sure you have the “Big Four” – a reusable water bottle, reusable coffee cup, reusable shopping bags, and reusable plastic containers for food storage.

4. Repair (and Repurpose?)

Whenever something stops working (washing machine, food mixer, flashlight, mobile phone etc.) or wears out (shoes etc.), our natural reaction is to replace it, especially if the item is old. Sometimes it’s the right decision; other times a simple repair job is all that’s needed.

Trouble is, we live in an era of planned obsolescence in which products are designed to have a short life. And if we’re not accustomed to having things repaired, the very idea of organizing and paying for a repair can be irksome, especially if we have a pile of unwashed clothes and the repair person can’t come for 2 days. To make things easier: (a) identify a few items in advance that are repairable; (b) research local repair options before the items break down; and (c) next time you buy a similar item, do your homework and go for quality and repairability.

Repurposing is easier said than done, especially if you’re as unpractical as I am. The idea is to alter an item in some way, to make it usable again. (Think, bricks into a shelf support, or jam jar into a candle holder.) I prefer to phone a friend, who usually tells me I’m wasting my time trying to repurpose something, but invariably ends up by taking it away – for what purpose, I know not.

5. Recycle

With luck, if you’ve refused to accept unnecessary products, reduced your unnecessary consumption, reused what you purchased, and repaired items that stopped working then you should be left with a lot less waste compared to before. At this point, try to recycle whatever you can of what remains. What can be recycled? The main types of things are: paper, cardboard, glass, tin and plastic containers. For other items, such as light bulbs, batteries, electronics and the like, contact your local authority and check on your options.

Reduce Your Carbon Footprint And Help Save The Planet

Planet Earth needs your help. Every year, we generate between 275 and 350 million tonnes of plastic waste. Roughly 100 million tons of this is mismanaged plastic waste (MPW), of which about 90 percent ends up in the ocean. This waste is ingested by almost every creature in the sea, and so far has been found to block the digestive tracts of at least 267 different species. 13

According to a new report “Plastic and Climate” (2019), the production and incineration of plastic in 2019 will generate 850 million tonnes of CO2e greenhouse gas emissions. If current trends continue, these emissions will expand to 1.34 billion tonnes by 2030, and to 56 billion tonnes of CO2e, by 2050. And by 2100 it will generate 260 billion tonnes, more than half of the carbon budget. 14

Map showing the global distribution of plastic pollution and microplastics in the ocean.
Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans: more than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons afloat at sea. 15 Plastics take hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years to degrade – we’re not really sure. This longevity increases the probability of smaller pieces of plastic, called microplastics, being eaten and incorporated into tissues of many living creatures, big and small. Scientists are studying the ecological impact of plastic on fragile blue carbon ecosystems, like coral reefs and mangrove forests. Image: M. Eriksen. Wikipedia Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0

According to a 2017 global drinking water study conducted by OrbMedia, an average of 83 percent of global tap water samples were found to be contaminated by microplastics – tiny pieces of plastic less than 5mm in length. The United States led the field with a 94 percent rate of contamination. European countries, like the United Kingdom, Germany and France had the lowest contamination rate (72 percent). The study showed that people may be ingesting between 3,000 and 4,000 microparticles of plastic from tap water per year. 16

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References

  1. The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions.” Seth Wynes, Kimberly A Nicholas. [][]
  2. Limiting climate change: what’s most worth doing?” Paul C Stern, Kimberly S Wolske. 8 September 2017 Environmental Research Letters, Volume 12, Number 9. []
  3. Green Vehicle Guide. U.S. EPA. []
  4. The Role of Anthropogenic Water Vapor in Earth’s Climate[]
  5. Fact #950: November 7, 2016 Well-to-Wheel Emissions from a Typical EV by State.[]
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  8. The impact of reduced red and processed meat consumption on cardiovascular risk factors; an intervention trial in healthy volunteers.” Food Funct., 2019, 10, 6690-6698. []
  9. Scale, distribution and variations of global greenhouse gas emissions driven by U.S. households.” Kaihui Song, et al; Environment International. Volume 133, Part A, December 2019, 105137. []
  10. Household Energy Consumption []
  11. Carbon handprint – An approach to assess the positive climate impacts of products demonstrated via renewable diesel case.” Kaisa Gronman. Journal of Cleaner Production. Volume 206, 1 January 2019, Pages 1059-1072. []
  12. “Carbon handprint – Communicating the good we do.” Katri Behm, Roope Husgafvel, Catharina Hohenthal, Hanna Pihkola, Saija Vatanen. VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd, and the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra. https://www.vttresearch.com/sites/default/files/julkaisut/muut/2016/VTT-R-00452-16.pdf []
  13. Plastic Oceans.” Future Agenda. []
  14. Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet[]
  15. Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans: more than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons afloat at sea.” Eriksen, M., Lebreton, L.C., Carson, H.S., Thiel, M., Moore, C.J., Borerro, J.C., Galgani, F., Ryan, P.G. and Reisser, J. (2014) PloS One, 9 (12) []
  16. Your tap water may contain plastic, researchers warn (Update)” []
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