How to measure your carbon footprint

While awareness of the Climate Crisis is at a record high around the world, many people still struggle to understand how they can make a difference – and not knowing where to begin can be a major stumbling block for Climate Action.

The best place to start is understanding your own carbon footprint, as this will show you where you could be living more sustainably and how you can make the biggest difference.

What Is Your Carbon Footprint?

Your carbon footprint measures the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of your daily activities – from what you drive, to what you eat, and even the clothes you wear.

The average person on Earth has a carbon footprint of just 4.7 tonnes of CO2, but for people living in the Global North this is typically much higher based on our high-consumption lifestyles.

For example, the average person in the USA has a carbon footprint of 16 tonnes of CO2, while the average person living in the EU has a carbon footprint of almost half that, at 8.6 tonnes of CO2. This is just shy of the typical person living in the UK, who produces around 10 tonnes of CO2 per year.

To hit our collective emissions goals, the average person on Earth will need to lower their carbon footprint to no more than 2.5 tonnes of CO2 if we are to maintain a liveable planet below 1.5°C of warming.

It is important to understand that your carbon footprint is a reflection of the wider society that you live in, and that there is no blame apportioned if you have a high carbon footprint. It is, however, an important benchmarking tool that we can use to track the changes we need to make for a more sustainable life.

Calculating Your Carbon Footprint

There are plenty of carbon footprint calculators available today to help you find out your emissions, although some are more user-friendly than others.

While those that ask more broad questions such as “what fuel do you use to heat your home” are easier to answer, it is worth understanding that they will give a less accurate result – so it may be worth grabbing some quick information such as the amount of energy you use at home (this is available from your energy provider), and the mileage you drove in the last year.

The WWF has an excellent carbon footprint calculator that does not require any supporting data and only takes around five minutes to complete.

At the end it will give you your total estimated carbon footprint, and a quick breakdown of where you create the highest emissions, and clicking on a category such as “Travel” or “Food” will give you some recommendations on how to live more sustainably in these areas.

While less visually stimulating, Friends of the Earth Ireland also offers a simple and easy-to-use calculator that will only take a matter of minutes to complete. While they do not offer suggestions on what you can do to cut your carbon footprint, they do show your total carbon footprint very clearly, as well as providing a breakdown of where your emissions come from.

Finally, we’d also recommend looking at Carbon Footprint’s calculator. This one requires you to have information on things like the amount of electricity you used, the number of litres of oil or amount of wood used to heat your home.

While this can make the process take a little longer, the overall result is a lot more accurate.

Understanding Your Carbon Footprint

Once you have got your results, the next step is to look at the biggest contributing factors to your total carbon footprint.

You’ll likely see that food, energy and travel – especially car use and the number of flights that you take – will rank as the biggest factors.

Here’s where you can make important lifestyle changes that will add up to make a big difference as we all strive for that essential 2.5 tonnes of CO2 target to maintain a liveable planet.

Some potential solutions include:

  • Eat less meat – The production of meat not only creates a lot of CO2 and methane emissions, but also requires a vast amount of land, which reduces Earth’s capacity to offset emissions. Eating meat less often will have an immediate impact on your carbon footprint. Consider only eating meat a few times per month rather than a few times a week
  • Become vegan – It’s not just the meat itself but all dairy products which have a high carbon footprint. Becoming vegan can reduce the carbon footprint of your food by almost 60%, and there are tonnes of amazing and delicious meat substitute options if you miss burgers and sausages
  • Switch to an electric car – Electric cars are considerably greener than their petrol/diesel/hybrid counterparts. Within two years they’ll have offset the emissions from their production, and they’ll offer you both substantial financial and carbon emissions savings
  • Use public transport – Even better than using an electric car is using public transport for your daily commute or travel needs. This is the greenest form of transport outside walking and cycling – so you might want to consider them too
  • Fly less (or stop flying) – Flying is just about the single worst thing you can do, and contributes a huge amount of emissions which worsen the climate crisis. If you can take a train or ferry, or conduct business via Skype or Zoom rather than flying for a meeting, then you’ll instantly make a huge dent in your carbon footprint
  • Insulate your home – This one is so often overlooked, but it can make a real difference by reducing the amount of energy you use to keep warm. Insulation is cheap and many Governments offer grants to help you cover the cost
  • Consider solar – Installing solar panels has never been cheaper, with the cost of solar photovoltaic cells having fallen by 80% over the past decade. Why pay for energy from the grid when you can make it at home for free?
  • Buy less – This is a simple one: consume less. Fewer clothes, fewer smartphones, less stuff. This not only reduces the energy and resources needed to make those things, but it also reduces the emissions from delivering them to you, and the amount of waste that ends up being burnt or in landfill
  • Avoid plastics – Plastic is just oil in a different form, and requires a huge amount of energy to produce, with most of it ending up in landfill. Using plastic creates more demand for plastic, so try to avoid it wherever possible
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