A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted by an individual, group, event or product. Greenhouse gases are gases that trap heat in the atmosphere and make the Earth’s climate warm. They include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O).
The main way we produce carbon dioxide is by burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. Burning these fuels releases the carbon dioxide that has been stored in them for millions of years.
Other ways we produce carbon dioxide are through deforestation, landfills and cement production.
Methane is produced when organic matter decomposes without oxygen present (anaerobically). This happens in landfill sites, where methane is produced as the waste decomposes. Methane is also produced by agriculture, particularly from livestock farming.
Nitrous oxide is released into the atmosphere from a variety of human activities including agriculture (fertiliser use), combustion of fossil fuels and industry.
The UK’s carbon footprint
In 2016, the UK’s total carbon footprint was 556 million tonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). This was made up of:
– 423 Mt from consumption of goods and services (imported and domestically produced)
– 133 Mt from the UK’s share of international aviation and shipping
– One Mt from land use, land-use change and forestry
The way we produce and consume goods and services (our ‘lifestyle’) is the biggest driver of our carbon footprint. The largest contributor to the UK’s carbon footprint from consumption is emissions from road transport, which made up around 29% in 2016. This was followed by emissions from housing (19%), food and drink (17%) and electricity, gas and other fuels (9%).
The UK’s carbon footprint has decreased since 1990, largely as a result of reductions in emissions from the electricity sector as we have moved from coal to less carbon-intensive generation sources such as gas, nuclear and renewables. However, emissions from other sectors have not fallen as much, and our carbon footprint from consumption has actually increased since 1990.
International aviation and shipping make up a relatively small proportion of the UK’s total carbon footprint (5% in 2016), but they are growing quickly. Emissions from international aviation increased by 70% between 1990 and 2016, while emissions from international shipping increased by 25%.
What can I do to reduce my carbon footprint?
There are lots of things we can all do to reduce our carbon footprints. Some changes will save you money as well as helping the environment.
– walk or cycle instead of using the car
– take the train or bus instead of flying
– eat less meat and dairy, or switch to lower-carbon options such as organic, local or free-range produce
– waste less food
– insulate your home to keep it warm in winter and cool in summer
– buy energy-efficient appliances
– compost your food waste
– buy products with less packaging
– reuse or recycle unwanted items instead of throwing them away.
You can also support organisations working to reduce emissions, such as renewable energy providers or carbon offsetting schemes.