Do One Thing is a regular series where we bring you a simple idea for reducing your carbon footprint and protecting the planet. The latest instalment: why it’s important to calculate your carbon footprint.

Not that long ago, ‘carbon footprint’ was an obscure term used  mainly by climate academics. Now, it’s a household phrase. In a nutshell, it’s the measure of impact that human activities have on global warming, in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced, measured in units of carbon dioxide.

There are two ways that we as individuals produce greenhouse gases – thereby adding to our carbon footprint. Firstly, through direct means, such as burning petrol and diesel in our cars, flying, or by using gas and electricity in our homes. But we also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions indirectly, through the carbon that’s ‘embedded’ in the things we buy and the activities we take part in. For example, the groceries you buy every week will contribute to your footprint in the fertiliser on the farm, the transport miles required to get them to your supermarket, and the energy needed to create the packaging.

The carbon footprint of the average person will vary wildly across the world, but it probably comes as no surprise to learn that those in western countries are responsible for a considerably higher volume of greenhouse gases emissions than those in less economically-developed regions. According to the latest figures from Oxfam, the average person in Rwanda has an annual carbon footprint of 0.09 tonnes of CO2. In the UK, however, the average is a significantly higher 8.3 tonnes. Or to put it another way, it would take the average Brit just five days to create the amount of emissions someone in Rwanda does in a year.

The global average, according to Oxfam, is 4.7 tonnes – a much more reasonable figure than the UK with Australia and America having some of the highest carbon footprints. In a paper by the United Nations University, limiting rising global temperatures to 1.5°C means cutting CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050, and this means that per person per year we would have to live a 3-tonne lifestyle. So we need to see a significant reduction in the amount of carbon emissions we create.

The first step to reducing your carbon footprint is to know exactly what it is – you can’t reduce something if you don’t know what you’re starting with, after all. And while 8.3 tonnes is the UK average, yours may well be higher or lower. A carbon calculator will help you figure out what yours is and, crucially, how you can start making it smaller. WWF has a really straightforward, easy-to-use questionnaire that also offers up interesting climate-related facts and titbits as your progress. Conservation.org, meanwhile, lets you discover the carbon footprint of individuals, families, trips and even events. There’s also carbonindependent.org, which offers a much more in-depth, statistics-driven calculator, that really digs down into the carbon-based nitty gritty of your lifestyle.

There are dozens of carbon footprint calculators available online, and while they will all generally ask you similar questions about your travel, eating habits, electricity consumption and so on, each will use slightly different metrics. As such, if you check your carbon footprint with the view to reducing it, make sure you use the same calculator when you review your efforts in the future!

The bottom line

We all know how important it is to reduce our carbon footprint, but it can be tricky to know where to start unless you’ve got a solid number to work backwards from. Keeping on top of your carbon footprint through an online calculator will give you a baseline to get started, and also give you plenty of tips and advice on areas you can make the biggest (and often easiest) improvements.

We would love to hear your comments and stories about the issues raised in this article:

 

 

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