You've probably read in the news recently that the Earth is warming and that we all need to reduce our 'carbon footprint'.

It can sometimes be taken for granted the everybody knows what this means when sometimes isn't the case.

Here's everything you need to know about what is meant when we talk about a 'carbon footprint' and why this is important in tackling climate change...

What is a 'Carbon Footprint'?

Humans are causing climate change by releasing of certain gases into the atmosphere in quantities too great for the Earth to naturally absorb. These gases accumulate in the atmosphere and trap in heat causing the temperature to become warmer, just like in a greenhouse.

There are many different greenhouse gases which contribute to global-warming and carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most important.

A ‘carbon footprint’ refers to the amount of carbon dioxide that is added to the atmosphere as a result of a particular activity, e.g. flying, driving, or heating your home.

Other gases that contribute to human caused climate change are Methane (CH4) which is mainly produced by agricultural industry and it is even stronger than CO2,  and Nitrous Oxide (N2O) and refrigerant gases.

Carbon Footprint global warming explainer
A simplified animation of the greenhouse effect. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Breakdown of greenhouse gases that cause climate change

Carbon Dioxide
Nitrous Oxide
Refrigerant Gases

How can we measure a carbon footprint and is there a sustainable level per person that we can aim for?

An exact carbon footprint is difficult to calculate as there are so many variables with regard to food production and manufacturing processes.

What is considered to be an achievable and sustainable carbon footprint varies for different communities around the world, but in Europe at the moment a ‘Ten Tonne lifetstyle’ has been suggested. Due to factors like home heating, food production, and existing infrastructure it is considered to be extremely dificult for someone in the UK to get below this level under current circumstances.

However, a common sense approach can help people to understand the impacts of their actions and to make sensible decisions based on what we know.

Choosing to do something that requires no fossil fuels instead of choosing something that does is clearly the more ecologically sustainable choice. Walking instead of driving is an obvious example.

Carbon dioxide emission per capita 2016: Source: Wikipedia
Carbon dioxide emission per capita 2016: Source: Wikipedia

How to reduce your carbon footprint

Looking at the bigger picture is the best way to make decisions when trying to reduce your carbon footprint. For example when doing your weekly food shop, try to buy local ‘in season’ fruit and vegetables instead of going to a big supermarket which will probably have items that have been transported by plane from countries all over the world.

What Is A Carbon Footprint - Vegetarian Vegan Diet
Choosing a locally sourced plant based diet in place of meat and dairy products is a powerful way to instantly reduce your carbon footprint

Similarly a dairy and meat free diet will significantly help to reduce your carbon footprint due to of the many greehouse gases involved in the livestock industry.

The type of transport you choose is another fairly obvious factor that will have a significant impact on your carbon footprint. Riding a bike or walking are the clear winners here. if driving is essential, you could consider getting an electric vehicle and powering it with renewable energy from the grid or straight from your own solar panels.

The big one to avoid wherever possible is flying. According to the excellent book by Mike Berners-Lee ‘How Bad Are Bananas?’, just one return flight from London to New York produces a greater carbon footprint than a whole year’s personal allowance needed to keep the climate safe.

The 'Ten Tonne Lifestyle'

In his book, author Mike Berners-Lee looks at the ’10 tonne lifestyle’ as a realistic target which Europeans may aim toward in order reduce their carbon footprint to a sustainable level.

Adopting a 10 tonne lifestyle would mean reducing emissions to one third below the current UK average footprint of 15 tonnes per year.

If you want to try and calculate your own carbon footprint, the WWF website offers a quiz which you can take here.

You may also wish to view the Carbon Independent for another quick an easy questionnaire or offers the option to view the carbon footprint for individuals as well as a businesses.

What Is A Carbon Footprint - Cycling City
Walking or cycling to work will result in a significant reduction to your annual carbon footprint

Reducing your carbon footprint at home and at work

Energy efficiency is crucial to reducing the emissions from our homes and businesses. It is imperative that all properties in the UK are properly insulated in order to reduce energy waste as much as possible. .

Landlords and estate agencies are required to ensure properties meet new minimum EPC regulations but enforcement of this regulation is inconsistent.

Switching lighting to energy saving LEDs is also a quick and easy way to achieve a huge reduction in energy use and corresponding energy bills.

Switching your energy supply to one that provides 100% clean renewable electricity is one of the easist and quickest ways that you can make a big reduction to your carbon footprint. For more help and advice about switching to a green energy supplier please take a look at BHESCo’s ‘Clean Up Your Act‘ campaign page.

If you have any ideas and tips for reducing your carbon footprint then please let us know in the comments section below.

Thanks for reading.

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