Over the past few years, individual actions have been touted as an indispensable step towards reversing the climate crisis facing us. How realistic is this vision? Greenly, the global expert in measuring the carbon footprint of companies and events, takes up the challenge by measuring the carbon footprint of an average person living in the UK, in association with Carbone 4, along with some simple solutions to reduce the carbon footprint
Despite the rising ecological awareness among the British public over the past few years, people often complain of not knowing where to start taking concrete and lasting action. In estimating an average UK resident’s carbon footprint at 11.7 tonnes of CO2 equivalent (tCO2e) per year.
Greenly and Carbone 4 arrived at this figure by taking the most recent available UK emissions data (774 million tonnes in 2019) and dividing it by the number of inhabitants in the country (66.43 million) in the same year. Due care has been taken to distinguish the UK’s carbon footprint from its territorial emissions, the former’s scope being larger since it includes emissions pertaining to imports and exports.
Individual emissions emerge largely from activities pertaining to transportation, food related needs and consumption emissions.
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This footprint largely emerges from five sources, detailed below.
Transportation and automotive needs: At 3.1 tCO2e per capita, transportation accounts for the largest part of an individual’s carbon footprint. Emissions from personal vehicles make up close to three-fourths of this category, with plane emissions being the second largest culprit. Replacing vehicle usage by bicycles (0.32 tCO2e) and carpooling (0.27 tCO2e) form the two most effective measures to reduce this footprint. Those wishing to go further can channelise their inner Greta Thunberg and stop travelling by plane. Using trains for long haul travel emits 99% fewer per capita emissions than a comparable distance by car or plane.
Food related emissions: This makes up the second large chunk of an individual’s carbon footprint at 2.8 tCO2e. Nearly half of this share is associated with meat consumption. Fisheries make for an interesting exception, with a lower carbon footprint than the dairy and poultry sectors, or the fruit and veg sector. In this regard, adopting a completely vegetarian diet would cause a significantly positive impact on the environment (1.12 tCO2e). Similarly, switching to locally produced food would reduce emissions by a sixth of a tonne (0.17 tCO2e).
Housing related emissions: The impact of our heating, lighting and fuel needs stands at 2.2 tCO2e per capita. More than three-fifths of this figure pertains to heating and fuel needs, with the rest being made up of emissions from construction, electricity and waste management. Reducing heating to a cozy 19° C (0.16 tCO2e) and making up the shortfall by wearing an extra layer or two is a valuable first step in this regard. Meanwhile, a complete switch to LED lighting has a fairly minor positive impact (0.02 tCO2e).
Consumption emissions: Activities pertaining to recreation, telephony, clothing, banking etc. emit roughly 1.9 tCO2e per capita. Reducing purchases of new clothes (0.22 tCO2e) or committing to buying refurbished tech products (0.16 tCO2e) are important steps towards reducing this impact. More indirectly, switching to banks with a record of preferring environmentally friendly investment projects would contribute to reducing consumption emissions.
Public services: A significant chunk of the carbon footprint (approximately 1.7 tCO2e per capita) is made up of emissions pertaining to public administration, defence and infrastructure spending. Due to the relative inability of individuals to directly affect such emissions, this portion can be considered as ‘non compressible’ emissions.
By adopting the full set of suggestions proposed by Greenly, we observe that the average UK resident can reduce their emissions by 3.3 tCO2e, substantially reducing the individual carbon footprint by 28%. However, such a reduction would be far from sufficient to meet the objectives set in the Paris Agreement, which requires the per capita carbon footprint to fall to 2 tCO2e. Therefore, large scale changes at the systemic level are essential to arrive at a long term solution to the climate crisis.
According to Tommy Catherine, carbon methodology expert at Greenly, ‘While it is true that individual actions can go some way in reducing our carbon footprint, this study demonstrates the systemic factors contributing to the climate emergency at hand, which have long been ignored in the discourse surrounding climate change. Time is running out! Social actors such as corporations and the state must urgently find common ground to decarbonise essential sectors such as industry, transport and agriculture to achieve a sharp decrease in our energy consumption. As demonstrated by the recent positive news on the repairing of the ozone hole, such collaborative solutions are eminently possible, and must be pursued with urgency.’