What is a carbon footprint, how can it be measured, and what can you do to reduce your carbon footprint?
Carbon footprint is one of those terms that has gradually — over the last 10 years or so — moved its way from the obscurity into everyday conversation. But what, exactly, does it mean? What is a carbon footprint, how can you measure yours, and how can a carbon footprint be reduced?
What is ‘carbon’?
While carbon is an element, any discussion around carbon footprint refers to one particular compound: carbon dioxide, or CO2. Carbon dioxide is released when fossil fuels are burnt, like the petrol in your car, or the gas in your oven, for instance.
The problem is that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas — as it builds up in the Earth’s atmosphere it traps sunlight being reflected back out into space, heating up the earth. This is what people refer to when they say ‘global warming’, and the potentially harmful effects of a hotter planet.
That’s why the UK, along with countries across the world, has agreed targets to reduce carbon emissions and slow the rate of global warming. The current targets are to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 80% lower than they were in 1990 by 2050.
What is a carbon footprint?
You may have heard the phrase a lot but still find yourself asking ‘what is a carbon footprint’? It is simply your total carbon emissions, or how much extra carbon you put into the atmosphere through your actions and choices.
Anything and everything can determine your carbon footprint, from the transport you use to the food you eat, so quantifying it can be difficult at best, impossible at worst.
But while there are no hard and fast rules agreed upon, there are some common factors and measurements that you can use to determine your carbon footprint.
This is important because, once you measure your carbon footprint, you can use it to compare and hopefully reduce your carbon output. According to the Energy Saving Trust, domestic properties account for 30% of the CO2 produced each year, so less CO2 from households will make a big difference to our overall carbon footprint.
How can I measure my carbon footprint?
Luckily it has never been easier to measure your carbon footprint thanks to a snazzy tool on the DirectGov website. Their ‘carbon calculator’ is an intuitive way for you to estimate your output by going from room to room in your home.
All you need to know are some details about your home (like when it was built, how it is heated and how many light bulbs it has), your appliances (what type of freezer or oven do you own), and your transport habits. The whole process will take under 10 minutes.
How can I reduce my carbon footprint?
Reducing your carbon footprint depends entirely on the nature of your carbon use, so your best bet is to run through the carbon calculator and see the recommendations.
But there are some common tips and tricks that can help you make a quick and lasting dent:
In the home
Depending on how much you travel, the home is often where you can make the biggest, lasting impact on your carbon footprint. Start easy. Do you have draught-proofing in place? Any gaps around windows or under doors means wasted heat, and filling those could save you carbon as well as money.
Are all of your light bulbs energy efficient? Is your thermostat set at the right temperature? If you are not sure try turning it down by just one degree and see if you notice the difference.
Then there are the big savers such as insulation, particularly easy-to-install loft insulation, and double-glazing on your windows.
You should also consider looking at our guide for energy saving tools and gadgets for heating your home.
Finally, have you considered switching to a 'greener energy plan'? Although not always the cheapest deals on the market, they do guarantee a certain amount of your energy is produced using sustainable methods.
In the home, your kitchen will be the main carbon culprit, so start your savings there. Start with your daily routine — don’t boil a whole kettle’s worth of water for one cup of tea.
When it comes to drying your washing don’t just pop it in the dryer, hang it outside, weather permitting, of course. The age of your appliances will also have a huge impact, as the older the gadget the bigger the likely carbon footprint.
And, while replacing them can be expensive you’ll make a huge saving on your household bills. When it comes to reducing your carbon footprint it often pays to think of long-term impact, rather than short-term cost.
Then there’s the appliances around you home. A laptop will use less energy for instance, as long as you don’t leave it on standby all the time, and there are big differences in energy consumption between different types of televisions.
The biggest carbon culprit with travel is flying, so staying at home is an easy, if not the most appealing, way to cut your carbon footprint. However, on a day-to-day basis using public transport, or better yet, walking and cycling, can go a long way.
Finally, once you have made a few changes around your home don’t forget to check your progress after a year. There are few better feelings than realising you have not only saved a lot of money, but you have helped the environment, too.
And, when you check your energy for the year why not run a comparison? We recommend checking whether you're getting the best deal for your gas and electricity once or twice a year. Just use an annual energy statement and run a comparison on our main page using your annual consumption details in kWh. This will give you the most accurate quote. Once you find a cheaper deal it takes just five minutes to process your switch.