There are about 7.74 billion people globally, and every day we engage in activities that cause greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions cause global warming, which has already resulted in disastrous consequences in various parts of the world. To help fight climate change, we've all got a role to play. A great place to start is knowing how to reduce your carbon footprint.
Reducing your carbon footprint makes not only your home and lifestyle more eco-friendly but also supports sustainable development. If you care about climate change and your part in it, this article contains some practical steps to help you make things better.
A carbon footprint measures all greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing, transportation, use, and disposal of a product or service. You acquire a carbon footprint by engaging in activities that require these products or services. Things like driving a car, using a washing machine, air conditioning, cooking, and shopping directly or indirectly generate greenhouse gases.
Greenhouse gases include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, fluorinated gases, and nitrous oxide. These gases trap heat in the atmosphere, creating a greenhouse effect that keeps the earth warm. However, since the Industrial Revolution, the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere has become a cause for concern. Furthermore, we have witnessed an accelerated contribution of manufactured greenhouse gases over the last four decades.
The rise of global temperatures to a dangerous level is causing unfavorable changes in climate conditions. We attribute melting ice caps, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, increased extreme weather events, and changes in precipitation patterns to climate change8.
Carbon dioxide has the highest volume of all greenhouse gases, accounting for two-thirds of emissions. Human reliance on fossil fuels is the highest contributor to CO2 emissions.
Climate change is a global problem. The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement was a crucial moment in the race to reduce carbon emissions, bringing world leaders together to commit to combat the problem. The goal is to limit global warming 1.5-degree Celsius by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The highest contributors to your carbon footprint are your mode of transportation, energy consumption, food, and shopping habits. For most of us, these are essential activities as we go about our modern way of living. However, you can take actions that reduce the carbon emissions quota you tally up when you buy products and use services.
Here's a list of things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint
If you want to reduce your carbon footprint, you must prepare to make some lifestyle changes. The good thing is you can start with small steps like reducing meat consumption to big decisions like insulating your home or shunning air travel. Or occasionally taking a bike or public transportation to work to forgo car ownership altogether. Below are some actionable steps for life and home to produce less CO2 emissions.
A healthier human consumption rate is good for you, but it is also good for the economy and the planet. Having more than you need usually results in waste. This is because manufacturing consumes resources like water, energy, land, and so on. An increase in demand leads to increased production that puts pressure on water usage and other resources, directly impacting the environment.
Avoid buying fast fashion goods, as they most often make them without considering the environment and the people who make them. Fast fashion goods may be cheap, but they are not durable, and so you end up buying more to replace items you just bought not too long ago. Globally about 80% of clothing is thrown away. People are sending clothes to landfills too quickly for the environment and its resources to keep up.
Shopping comes with costs beyond money; if you drive to the store, your car emits CO2, and if you get them delivered to your doorstep, it still comes in a carbon-emitting vehicle. Buying one cotton shirt increases your carbon footprint, the same as driving a car for 35 miles.
Buy with purpose, versatility, and long-term use in mind; this way, you don't need to replace your items so often. This principle applies to clothing and every product we shop for, including food.
To ensure that you don't have to replace an item very often, avoid cheap, shoddy products and choose the best quality instead.
Buying pre-loved items is one of the ways people can drastically reduce their carbon footprints. Every time you buy second-hand, you only acquire a small part of the footprint of the original buyer, and the product may come to you with less than half of the carbon cost of a new item.
This is because second-hand shopping allows you to share the carbon burden with the previous owner. Today, you can browse a growing range of online thrift stores to help pick up fashion items second-hand, and you'll find a range of everything else and more on marketplaces like eBay and Craigslist.
When you shop for second-hand goods, you keep items out of landfills. You also give people a chance to recycle old stuff. Someone else's trash really is someone's treasure. Research by WRAP UK has shown that extending the life of a clothing item by three months7 can result in a 5-10% reduction in its water, carbon, and waste footprints.
Because the average home's clothing generates carbon emissions equal to 6,000 miles of driving per year, such a reduction is significant. Even if the previous owner has never worn the item, you still accrue 5-10% less carbon footprint than if you bought a new one.
Second-hand goods help conserve raw materials, and slow down and reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing. A report by Schibsted and Adevinta states that people saved 20,700,000 tonnes of carbon emissions in 2020 by shopping for second-hand goods on their platforms. This points to the potential of second-hand shopping to help in the fight against climate change.
Reusable products are a great way to significantly reduce your carbon footprint and protect the planet. When you choose reusable items over disposables, you eliminate the need for a replacement requiring manufacture. This choice reduces the pollution from manufacturing and helps to conserve resources.
Take the plastic bottle, for instance, made from chemicals derived from fossil fuel, a nonrenewable resource and one of the highest contributors to carbon emissions. We use most PET bottles only once and then throw them away. Due to their chemical structure, these bottles can not biodegrade; instead, they become microplastics. Microplastics are one of the greatest threats to our oceans and marine life.
Plastics are not the only things we can reuse. You can apply the idea of reusing too many different products we use in our everyday life. The takeaway is understanding that a reusable product will result in a lesser carbon footprint. Even with its maintenance costs considered, a reusable item has less environmental cost compared to disposables.
In the UK, Wales was the only country that exceeded the EU's 50% household waste recycling target. It did so in 2017, the same year the UK's household waste recycling rate rose to 45.7%.
Not every item in the landfill has lost all value, and some could be useful as recycled material. This means that people are throwing away materials that we could use for new products. And since human needs are inexhaustible, manufacturers have to source virgin raw materials to fill in the gap that recycled materials could have filled.
It's important to recycle your items as they come to their end-of-use stage, and it is a great way to keep useful waste off the landfill.
Recycling can happen in different ways. You can pass it on to other people who will find it useful or put it in the curbside recycle bin. Items in the curbside recycling bin get taken to recycling factories, where they process them into new material. Unfortunately, not everything can be recycled through the curbside bin.
Fortunately, there are special recycling programs for almost every recyclable material. You only have to make a little extra effort to get some items to the correct recycling centers.
When you recycle, you help to reduce the demand for virgin production materials. The environmental cost prevented by recycling includes CO2, wastewater, and pollution.
Read more: How does recycling help climate change?
If you wanted to buy a t-shirt, you would find a vast number of products on the market. Rather than the cheapest, trendiest, or most eye-catching, you should choose the most eco-friendly product.
We need to factor in a range of considerations before we can call a product eco-friendly. One of those things includes a measure of negative and positive impacts on the environment. The effects of its sourcing, production, and distribution determine how eco-friendly a product is.
Since your personal carbon footprint includes a share of the carbon footprint of a product, picking one with the most negligible environmental impact is best.
Recognizing an eco-friendly product is more straightforward when brands have adopted the use of certificates like Fair Trade, WasteWise, Forest Stewardship Council, USDA Organic, and a lot more. These certificates are issued by independent organizations that have examined the practices and production of the products and found them eco-friendly.
Find out for yourself what practices your favorite brands follow and see how much carbon footprint reduction it offers.
Remember that it takes more than one quality to tag a product as eco-friendly and avoid greenwashing. So you will do well to give your product choice more than a cursory glance at eco-labels.
Purchasing carbon offsets is a way to make up for your carbon emissions. It is a simple system that places a monetary value on your carbon emissions and lets you donate the amount to any organization involved in promoting sustainability. Carbon offsetting is based on the idea that reducing CO2e anywhere has global advantages.
The projects sponsored by carbon offsets funds work towards global greenhouse gas reduction. They could be tree planting projects to reforest, renewable energy projects, or even sustainability research. Some platforms allow you to choose the projects you want to support, and some don't. It is best to do some basic research on where your money will go before selecting the company to buy offsets from.
It is important to note that buying carbon offsets may reduce your carbon footprint, but it does not eliminate the effects. Therefore it is pertinent that people do not use carbon offsets as an excuse to shirk environmental responsibility in their personal lives.
Related: 21 brands that plant trees
Food waste is almost unavoidable. In America, residents waste about 40% of their food. However, if we compost food waste, it can serve as soil-enriching material. Keep in mind that the primary aim of farmers is to produce food for your consumption and not as compost material. Therefore, you put the most value on their efforts and resources when consuming food as intended.
There are many tips you can follow to avoid wasting food. First, plan your meals to prevent spoilage and waste. Also, ensure that you store leftovers properly and eat them on time.
Another important thing is to take stock of what you have and what you need before going to get more food. Make sure you don't fall into the trap of bulk buying food you don't need because it's selling cheap. You will also save money and food if you take home excess restaurant servings. Donate fresh food you do not need to those who do.
Trees sequester carbon and are one of the earth's defenses against global warming. Cattle farming consumes a lot of water, feed, and land. Ranches take up extensive areas of deforested land to allow grazing.
Livestock is responsible for 14.5% of human-caused emissions. Therefore, when livestock farmers cut down trees, they release tons of carbon into the atmosphere. About 65% of the carbon emitted from livestock comes from cattle alone3. They produce methane, a greenhouse gas that is harmful to the environment. The energy provided by fossil fuels along the meat supply chain makes up 20% of its greenhouse gas outputs.
Your choice of meat is also an important consideration. As a commodity, beef has the highest CO2e at 41%, followed by pig's meat at 9%, and chicken and small ruminants contribute 8% and 6%, respectively. So, eating red meat will leave you with a higher carbon footprint than other available options.
In a 2017 study, researchers found that the impact of red meat on the environment can be 100 times that of plant-based food1. Other foods with high emissions are dairy and fish.
Environmental health experts recommend eating low on the food chain, which translates to eating many plant-based meals. They recommended filling the nutrient gap with beans and pulses5. The 2018 study found that the world needed a 90% reduction in beef consumption.
You may not like the idea of banishing meat from your home altogether, but you can still make a difference. Eating less meat by going a day or two without can reduce your carbon footprint by 8 pounds6. If you have a meat-free meal two days a week, you lose 16 pounds of carbon footprint. Although scientists are not entirely sure what kind of meals are best for the environment, most experts agree that reducing red meat consumption is good for the planet.
Having your car is one so-called indicator of wealth and a seemingly essential trapping of our modern lifestyles. Car ownership, however, can cause a significant increase in your carbon emissions.
About 30% of the EU's carbon emissions come from the transport sector. Road transportation is responsible for 72% of the transport sector's contributions. An average car produces 4.6 metric tons of CO2 emissions in a year.
Emissions from cars alone make up 60.7% of road transport emissions. In 2017 the global transport industry had a higher carbon dioxide emission value than the electricity sector.
Traveling without a personal car for a year could save around 2.6 tons of CO2 emissions2. You can get around using public transport like the train or bus or riding a bike.
If you need a vehicle all to yourself, try renting one. This is financially and environmentally cheaper than buying a new car. If you have a car, you can rent it out occasionally to help borrowers reduce their carbon footprint. And if you must travel by car, consider car-sharing to reduce overall trips on the road.
If you must buy a car, choose the most ethically manufactured and energy-efficient option you can find. Electric vehicles that are sustainably manufactured and charged with clean energy may have a tiny carbon footprint.
Many manufacturers today are seeking innovations to improve their vehicles' fuel economy, and environmental, and carbon footprint. If you do not have access to car charging facilities in your city, consider getting a high-mileage electric vehicle.
Driving better, smarter, and keeping your vehicle in good shape also helps. Using cruise control on a long drive will improve your car's energy efficiency and save gas. Also, avoid weighing down your car with luggage and keep your tires properly inflated.
Flying less will also reduce your carbon emissions. However, if you are a habitual flyer, you can buy carbon offsets to make up for your flight's carbon emissions. Further, choosing economy class costs the environment less than the increased footprint of larger businesses and first-class seats.
Where you buy your goods and where they make them are important in calculating a precise carbon footprint. This is because shipping vessels use fossil fuels which emit CO2 and contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions.
When you shop, choosing locally made food and other items that have not traveled miles and miles ensures that the emission quota is passed on to you because that purchase is tiny. Not to forget that buying products manufactured in your locality helps boost the community's economy.
Also, eco-friendly alternatives of an available product are better than overseas purchases that have to be shipped thousands of miles to get to you. So before requesting shipping of that 100% organic food item from China, check the farmer's market near you first. You would be amazed at the quality and abundance of local products if you took the time to search for them.
The energy sector is one of the highest contributors to climate change, as most systems depend on coal, natural gas, or fossil fuels. Changes in energy usage can go a long way toward reducing your carbon footprint.
Make your home or office energy efficient and replace incandescent light bulbs with LED or fluorescent alternatives. You'll also find these simple changes help you save electricity at home and some money to boot. You could also consider using wind power, installing solar panels, or using other types of solar power to run your home. These are green energy sources that have minimal ongoing impacts on the environment.
Other things you can do to minimize your energy use include turning off electronics when they are not in use. Use the water heater fewer times and use less air conditioning during the summer and more of the electric fan.
One way to make your home consume less energy for heating is to insulate it properly. Look out for trouble spots like windows, doors, and the attic, and seal them properly. If you are unsure what changes to make in your home to increase energy efficiency, get an expert to carry out an energy audit.
Also, if you have equipment and vehicles that use fuel, ensure that they are fuel-efficient. This is not difficult to do; adequately inflated tires can increase your vehicle's fuel efficiency by 3%.
When purchasing electronics, look out for the Energy Star mark; it is an energy efficiency certification.
Using water carefully in the home is another way to reduce your carbon footprint. Also, using unheated water for your laundry and washing in full loads saves energy and conserves water. You should consider line drying as well; it would cut out the energy needed to power a dryer.
Reversing the present course of climate change calls for global action. One person, one organization, or a single country can not do it alone. However, every individual has a role to play, especially if we all take steps to lower our average carbon footprint.
Reducing your carbon footprint will go a long way in supporting global efforts. Keep in mind that every action is important in fighting climate change.
Micheal Clark and David Tilman (2017) Comparative analysis of environmental impacts of agricultural production systems, agricultural input efficiency and food choice. Environmental Research Letters. 12 064016.
Seth Waynes and Kimberley A. Nicholas (2017) The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions. Environmental Research Letters. 12 074024.
Gerber, P. J., Steinfeld, H., Henderson, B., Mottet, A., Opio, C., Dijkman, J., ... & Tempio, G. (2013). Tackling climate change through livestock: A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
Springman M., Clark M., Mason-D’Croz D. (2018) Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits. Nature 562.
Renee Cho (2018) The 35 easiest ways to reduce your carbon footprint. Earth Institute. Columbia University.
|WRAP, Valuing Our Clothes: the cost of UK Fashion, July 2017.|
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.