Exploring Your Carbon Footprint

We all leave our mark on the world. Living Lent challenges us to think particularly about the carbon emissions we cause by our lifestyle choices, and the impact they will have on climate change. We can measure this ‘carbon footprint’ by adding up the emissions of the different energy-consuming activities which are part of our lives, resulting in a figure that is usually expressed in tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Our carbon footprint includes the direct emissions created by burning fossil fuels to create electricity and gas to heat and power our homes, and to power our cars, flights and other forms of motorised transport we take. It also includes the indirect emissions generated in producing the items we consume and the activities we participate in.

There are different ways of calculating the average annual carbon footprint of a person in Britain, which produce figures of between 6 and 15 tonnes each. However, it has been estimated by energy consultancy Carbon Footprint Ltd that to combat climate change, a sustainable yearly CO2 quota would be just two tonnes for each person on the globe.

A number of free online tools and calculators are available to enable you to explore your carbon footprint. I tried out a few to see which were the most useful and how they might help.

WWF: footprint.wwf.org.uk

Usability: This is an attractively set out calculator, which leads you through a number of basic multiple choice questions about your lifestyle and activities relating to four areas: food, travel, home and ‘stuff’. Alongside the questions are related graphics and facts about why that area is an important contributor to your carbon footprint.

What do I need? No detailed information is required, and it takes just a few minutes to work through the questions and get your result, so it might be a good calculator to start with if you have limited time.

Output: It shows your carbon footprint in tonnes, but also as a percentage of the average figure necessary to achieve the UK government’s 2020 target for reducing national emissions. You can click through to breakdown your emissions for each of the four areas, and what these equate to in flights or car journeys. Tips are offered on reducing your footprint in each area, though these are not tailored to your answers.

My result: It said that my footprint was 11.4 tonnes, below the UK average but still more than would be necessary to reach the 2020 target. The biggest share of this, 32 per cent, was from my home energy use, followed by 25 per cent from travel.

Drawbacks: Some of the questions don’t allow for much nuance in your answers – for instance, if you have an electric car or buy mainly second-hand clothes, this isn’t factored into your result. This means that it will produce the same footprint figure even if you make certain changes to your lifestyle, which might be discouraging.

Carbon Footprint Ltd: http://www.ecocongregationscotland.org/materials/carbon-footprint-calculator/

Usability: This is a more thorough calculator, which asks for information across six main categories: house, flights, car, motorbike, bus and rail and secondary (indirect emissions). The detailed data it requests – including the precise make and model of your car – should mean fairly robust results for energy and transport use, but it took me rather longer than the WWF tool to complete.

What do I need? You will need to have specific figures available for your energy use, travel and spending on different areas over a specified period.

Output: At the end, your carbon footprint is shown, alongside data on average footprints for people in the UK and other places in the world. There is an invitation to use the company which provides the tool to offset your carbon emissions, but it does not offer any other suggestions for action you might take to reduce your carbon footprint.

My results: This calculator said that my footprint was 12.96 tonnes, which was very high compared to other calculators I have used, and to the quoted UK average figure of 6.5 tonnes. More than half of this was from secondary impacts: it suggested that I generated a massive 4.9 tonnes of CO2 a year from my food and drink consumption alone.

Drawbacks: Because the calculator measures secondary impacts based solely on the value of your spending, it has to make assumptions about your habits. It cannot reflect buying choices which can have a major impact on your carbon footprint, such as buying local and organic or being vegetarian – hence this foodie’s very high figure for food and drink. The calculator also does not enable you to say if you have a renewable electricity supplier, which seems a significant omission, and was another reason why my result was so high.

footprintr.me: www.footprintr.me

Usability: This tool is powered by the carbon offsetting charity, Climate Stewards. It asks for information about your air travel, ground transport, home energy use (and if the source is renewable), and various lifestyle questions, including how much meat you eat. You can use a slider to identify how ‘green’ you are in your daily habits, compared to some example pen portrait characters from ‘Low carbon Lisa’ to ‘Carbon-hungry Harry’, to produce more true figures for consumption and secondary emissions. It also allows you to add any specific emissions that you have calculated elsewhere.

There are some basic tips and information about each category of emissions. You have to remember to click the button to add your emissions from each section to count towards your overall footprint.

What will I need? As with the previous calculator, you will need to provide precise figures for energy use and travel, though it is quicker to complete.

My results: It said my carbon emissions were just under 7 tonnes, with the biggest percentage coming from travel, especially my daily rail commute. The figures for my home and food were lower than the other calculators, as it factored in the more environmental choices I have already made in these areas.

It was interesting to see that it also includes the one tonne of emissions that we each unavoidably take on through living in the UK and taking a share of the CO2 of national infrastructure and government services.

Drawbacks: The results page doesn’t offer any specific advice for reducing your emissions, or comparisons with other people. But overall, I found this tool offered the most useful balance of usability and accuracy of the three.

What next? Moving from calculations to commitments.

There is an adage in management practice that ‘what gets measured, gets done’. While none of these tools can ever be totally comprehensive, using one can help us to be better informed about our carbon footprint, and especially the things that contribute most to our CO2 emissions.

When we first did a thorough carbon footprinting exercise as a family, through a ‘low carbon living’ programme in my local community, I was surprised by what a significant proportion of my carbon footprint was caused by my work commute, by train from Oxford to London. But even this was overshadowed by the impact of a single transatlantic flight. I was also struck that having a renewable electricity supplier meant that our emissions were significantly lower than those of many of our neighbours.

However, the greatest benefit of calculating our carbon footprint was in understanding the changes that we could make that would reduce our impact on the planet. Although I’d thought we lived in a fairly environmentally responsible way, there was lots more we could do at home, from ensuring 100% of our lightbulbs were low energy ones to adding more insulation to the loft. But the biggest single change we could make would be to avoid going on holiday by aeroplane.

Having made commitments to doing those things nearly a decade ago, it was encouraging to see how they have had an impact when revisiting my carbon footprint today. But I’ve also been spurred on to see if I can do even more, and taking up a Living Lent challenge seems a good place to start.

Simeon Mitchell joined JPIT in January 2018 as the Secretary for Church and Society for the United Reformed Church. He has a background in enabling Christians and churches to respond to issues of global poverty and injustice, and was previously Deputy Chief Executive of All We Can, the Methodist relief and development charity. He lives in Oxford with his wife and three young children, where he is a preacher and lay leader in his local church.