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Here’s what anyone can do to reduce their carbon footprint

The Government has unveiled new plans to help the UK limit its environmental impact but there are steps anyone can take to reduce their carbon footprint.
Image credit: Safia Osman/Flickr

The climate crisis will affect us all. Average temperatures are already beginning to increase, sea levels are rising, and experts warn we need to adapt to a greener, more resilient economy to stave off the worst effects. 

The Government has announced plans to ban the sale of most new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 as part of a £12 billion “green industrial revolution”. Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed the “10-point plan” would create 250,000 highly-skilled green jobs and protect thousands more. 

But critics, including Green MP Caroline Lucas, have questioned whether the plans are bold enough.

“When you set the whole package in the context of the urgency of the climate emergency, the nature emergency, and the growing employment emergency that we’re going to face, there’s nothing like enough boldness and urgency in this package,” she told Sky News.

But no matter the “boldness and urgency” needed from those in charge, individual action will also be needed, with everybody having to play their part. 

So what are the everyday things we can do to reduce our impact on the environment? 

Bringing down your carbon footprint 

The Cambridge Carbon Footprint (CCF) charity says that almost everything people do creates carbon dioxide which can damage the environment. 

CCF has its own carbon footprint calculator, which shows exactly how many tonnes of carbon a person’s habits produce. The charity then suggests practical steps that can help you reduce this figure. 

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Alana Sinclair, a manager at CCF, told the Big Issue: “If you’d like to reduce your carbon emissions then calculating your carbon footprint is a good place to start.

“It can help you better understand where your emissions are coming from, and where you might be able to make a change.”

Hotting up: Household energy consumption

Looking at how we power and heat our homes is also a good first step in reducing our individual carbon footprint. 

It’s important, if you can, to only heat your home when needed, and at lower temperatures.

Friends of the Earth says over 90 per cent of homes are heated by a gas or oil boiler, which contributes massively to emissions. 

If you own your home, you can do an energy assessment to identify insulation options and reduce reliance on gas. Windows, walls and any loft space can be insulated to keep the warm in. 

You can also switch to a 100 per cent renewable electricity tariff, which can even save you money in the long run.

How much water you use when washing might also be worth considering, with showering the most environmentally friendly. CCF says bathing accounts for 20 per cent of household water usage and can use up to 88 litres of water a time. 

The Government had committed to a “green homes grant” to make UK homes more energy efficient. 

This would have provided homeowners with vouchers worth up to £10,000 to make green improvements to old homes that were difficult to keep warm and wasted energy. 

But reports have claimed that the flagship scheme only reached a small fraction of its 600,000 household target and faced the axe as builders and installers failed to sign up.

Green MP Caroline Lucas said it was “shameful” there was no mention of the Green Homes Grant at the March 2021 Budget

There is a mixture of positive and potentially worrisome news on the energy consumption front more widely.

In 2019, renewable energy sources generated more electricity than fossil fuels for the first time, an impressive feat. 

But while renewable energy sources worldwide are increasing, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has urged caution. 

The Agency has predicted a surge in CO2 this year as the world gets moving again following the Covid-19 pandemic. 

While renewable energy sources like wind are helping in the UK, the use of coal in Asia could make a marked difference to worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. 

“Global carbon emissions are set to jump by 1.5 billion tonnes this year – driven by the resurgence of coal use in the power sector,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director.

“This is a dire warning that the economic recovery from the Covid crisis is currently anything but sustainable for our climate.”

How shopping can impact your carbon footprint

We all need the occasional retail therapy and many of us might have rushed to the shops as they open for the first time since lockdown. 

But many people are unaware of the damage shopping habits can cause. 

Across the world, 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions arise from the things we buy. 

Simple changes, such as purchasing fewer brand new goods, can help lower your carbon footprint. 

CCF also recommends recycling old products, such as clothes or children’s toys, and buying items that are refurbished or second hand. 

Learning how to mend and make things can be a massive help as well because items can be repaired rather than replaced. 

If you do prefer to buy things brand new, you might be able to help out by taking a break from shopping. A shopping free month is an effective way to cut down on your environmental impact and it might even help you re-evaluate the things you actually need. 

Reducing the carbon footprint of the food we eat 

Adjusting our diets is one of the biggest things we can do to bring down our individual carbon footprint. 

Livestock is a significant contributor to food-related emissions due to the highly powerful methane animals release during digestion. 

Slashing the amount of meat we eat is something we can do to cut our carbon contribution and experts have called on food to be labelled with its environmental impact

CCF says we can reduce our footprint by wasting less food and disposing of food waste properly. 

In Landfill, food scraps are broken down by bacteria to produce methane. Love Food Hate Waste figures show the UK discards almost one million tonnes of milk, bread and potatoes every year, the equivalent of a million kilos. 

The big one: The carbon footprint of travel 

Re-evaluating the way we travel in motor vehicles is another key step society needs to take to offset the effects of climate change. 

In England, 60 per cent of short distances of one or two miles are made by motor vehicle

The UK Government recently announced a £175 million fund for local authorities to be used for long term cycling and walking schemes but despite this push, only around a quarter of current journeys are made by foot. 

Chris Bennett, Head of Behaviour Change and Engagement at Sustrans, the walking and cycling charity, told the Big Issue: “With the majority of the UK’s population living in towns and cities, our country’s future lies in urban planning and action. 

“Walking and cycling for shorter journeys, such as to the shops and school, can play a vital role in helping to tackle the climate emergency. Transport is the only sector where CO2 emissions are rising, as our reliance on motor vehicles continues to grow.” 

In addition to carbon emissions, vehicle travel can cause air pollution, which has a knock-on effect on our health. 

Brum Breathes, an initiative funded by Birmingham City Council and delivered by Sustrans, is working with the community to raise awareness. 

The project is trying to find ways to improve the quality and has commissioned an interactive map that highlights the average levels of harmful Nitrogen Dioxide in the atmosphere. 

The initiative will also offer training sessions and support to groups across Birmingham. 

This includes air quality monitoring walks through local neighbourhoods to help residents keep track of air pollution levels and find out how to reduce their own environmental impact.

Talking to people and raising awareness

Experts agree that one of the most important things we can do to consider our impact on the environment is to talk to each other.

Many people are not aware of the damage our actions can have on the environment, and the knock-on effect this has on our health due to things like air pollution. 

Sustrans say this is happening to an extent, and there is a greater public appetite to travel more sustainably. It is now up to the government and councils to invest and support new ways of making trips. 

Bennett added: “If we are to help everyone travel more sustainably, and reduce harmful emissions, we need to make it easier for more people to replace trips made by car with walking or cycling.”

This was echoed by Sinclair, who said while reducing your own carbon emissions is important, leadership was also needed. 

She added: “Of course when it comes to climate change these types of personal carbon reductions aren’t the whole story. Reducing emissions requires action across the board.

“Climate leadership is important too, and this includes things like engaging with politicians on climate policy, speaking to friends, family and colleagues about the environment, and getting active supporting change at a community level.”

What progress are we making in reducing our carbon footprints? 

Lockdown has had an evident impact on our ability to move around our cities, countries and the world.

When the first lockdown came, many of us were told to work at home where possible. This meant trains and tube carriages emptied and cars sat on driveways unused. 

Travel – the most significant contributor to most people’s carbon footprint – has reduced massively. 

In April 2021, research conducted by WWF, the environmental organisation, found Covid-19 played a large part in reducing carbon footprints mainly due to a decrease in flights. 

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But, in welcome news, they found that the average carbon footprint per person had decreased across all areas of lifestyle, which indicates an appetite for more sustainable living.  

They found a 17 per cent reduction in the average person’s carbon footprint from 15 months of data between February 2019 and October 2020 as Brits led more eco-friendly lifestyles

There was almost a doubling in the numbers of people switching to 100 per cent renewable energy tariffs and a 25 per cent increase in people adopting plant-based diets and turning vegetarian or vegan. 

Dr Stephen Cornelius, chief climate adviser at WWF, said: “The doubling in take-up of 100% renewable energy tariffs is particularly positive as this can be a cheap and easy way for people to make a real cut in their emissions.  

“Travel is another important area for carbon savings and as we come out of lockdown, making deliberate decisions to walk, cycle and safely use public transport are small choices that make a big difference. 

“In this critical year for environmental action, it’s vital that people also use their voices to ask businesses and government to commit to the scale of transformation needed to tackle climate change and limit warming to 1.5C.” 

The Big Issue’s Today for Tomorrow campaign aims to tackle the climate crisis, poverty and pandemics with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill. Support the Bill by emailing your MP today: bigissue.com/today-for-tomorrow/