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

The climate crisis can feel overwhelming – but there are plenty of things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint.

By now, most people are aware of the threat that climate change poses to our lives.

Temperatures are rising, flooding is more frequent and wildfires have ravaged many parts of the world. Earlier this year, an IPCC report sounded a “code red” alarm for humanity, warning that drastic action on climate change must be taken immediately. 

Oil companies and high-polluting industries like animal agriculture are largely responsible for the carbon emissions driving the climate crisis, making a systems change vital for lowering carbon output. 

Governments also have a responsibility for implementing regulations and laws to lower carbon emissions, and in the wake of COP26, many have made pacts to do just that.

In the UK, the government has made a commitment to reaching net zero emissions by 2050, banning the sale of most new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and pledging to power the UK solely with clean energy by 2035.

Environmental campaigners and organisations have warned, however, that government measures may not go far enough to fix climate change. 

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The final agreement made at COP26 will not be enough to limit global temperature rises to the 1.5C settled on as part of the 2015 Paris Agreement, meaning further action is now needed from world leaders to drive this down. 

While the actions of governments and large polluting companies will be key in a transition to a greener world, behaviour change will also play a part, meaning individual actions do have a role to play. 

Many people worried about the climate crisis wonder what they can do to help – so we’ve outlined some of the key ways you can reduce your environmental impact, and encourage others to do the same.

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Bringing down your carbon footprint 

Unfortunately, most of our everyday activities like shopping and driving produce carbon emissions – however small – which contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. 

One place to start if you want to reduce your impact is to work out what your “carbon footprint” is; a measure of your impact on the environment. 

The Cambridge Carbon Footprint (CCF) charity 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. 

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.”

Household energy consumption

Whatever your opinion of campaign group Insulate Britain, the protesters have drawn attention to the issue of carbon emissions generated by home heating in poorly-insulated houses.

A whopping 40 per cent of the UK’s emissions come from homes, so it’s key to find ways to bring this figure down.

One of the first steps for reducing your own home output is to only heat your home when needed, and at lower temperatures.

Poor insulation makes a home energy inefficient, meaning it takes more energy to heat and thus generates more carbon emissions.

One way to reduce this impact, if you are a homeowner who can afford it, is to have your home properly insulated. 

If you have the cash, you can also install low-carbon measures like solar panels to power your home. There is some government support available for this: the smart export guarantee was launched by the UK government on January 1 2020 to pay back small-scale electric generators for the power they contribute to the national grid.

You can also swap to renewable energy to reduce your impact, choosing a company which generates electricity via renewable sources. 

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

Swapping to a heat pump, as the government is encouraging with their new Heat and Buildings Strategy, can boost your home’s green credentials. They can be costly to install – one Octopus Energy estimate reckoned it could cost around £2,500 upfront for installation – which is why the government is offering a £5,000 grant to cover the cost. But they tend to need less maintenance and have a longer lifespan than traditional boilers.

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. 

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How shopping can impact your carbon footprint

Worldwide, the items we buy contribute around 30 per cent to global greenhouse gas emissions.

This means that being considerate about what you buy, and where from, can help to reduce your impact on the environment.

Generally speaking, simply purchasing less is the best way to reduce your carbon footprint.

You could also buy second-hand, which avoids a new item being produced and generating more carbon emissions.

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, there are ways you can use your money in sustainable ways. Outlets such as the Big Issue Shop only stock items made by retailers with an ethical or environmental impact, meaning you can shop guilt-free.

Reducing the carbon footprint of the food we eat

A study conducted by Oxford University in 2020 estimated that practicing a vegan diet could be the single most effective way of reducing individual impact on the environment, reducing a person’s carbon footprint by up to 73 per cent. 

Animal agriculture is an enormous contributor to global emissions due to the amount of methane animals release during digestion. 

Going vegan is a great way to reduce your impact on the planet, though this isn’t always accessible or feasible for everyone.

If so, simply cutting down on meat and dairy can have a hugely positive impact on the planet. 

One way you can also reduce your carbon footprint is 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 carbon footprint of travel 

Travel is another large contributor to global carbon emissions, with aviation and diesel and petrol cars particularly bad for the environment.

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. 

As such, re-thinking what journeys you take by car is one way to reduce your carbon footprint. You could consider walking or cycling, or even car-pooling with others to lower your impact. 

Flying also has a large environmental impact – so before you fly, you should think about whether the journey is necessary, and whether it could be taken by train. 

The majority of emissions generated by flights come from frequent fliers, meaning a frequent flyer levy would be one way to tackle emissions from aviation.

As well as reducing your own flights, you could write to your MP or join a campaign group to lobby for this kind of tax. 

Spreading your impact 

Of course, individual actions can only go so far to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

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. 

Making as many people as possible aware of the crisis we’re facing will be key to tackling the emergency.

Beyond awareness, joining a local campaign group or writing to your MP about environmental issues is an effective way to help reduce overall carbon emissions, rather than only focusing on your impact. 

Public pressure can be hugely effective in forcing politicians and governments to act on climate change where they might otherwise be too slow.

What progress are we making in reducing our carbon footprints? 

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. 

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. 

While travel habits have largely returned to normal, there has been a large shift towards sustainable diets, and climate assemblies and surveys have consistently shown the public have an appetite for sustainability.

Many surveys show that members of the public would be willing to change their own habits and see legislation introduced to tax things like flying in order to tackle the climate emergency.

This puts the public’s attitudes ahead of the government, who have traditionally been reluctant to introduce measures like frequent flyer levies and taxes on meat. 

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/

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