John is currently attached to the new ZERO Institute, Oxford. Recently with the Environmental Change Institute, and the Oxford Martin School Integrate programme. Former Chief Economist, UK Electricity Council.
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What is the single
biggest thing an individual can do to reduce their carbon footprint?
An ECI colleague was
recently asked to give a short overview of renewable energy and
climate change issues to school sixth form students.
They presented in advance a dozen quite interesting and difficult questions, to
which a number of colleagues contributed suggested answers. It was a smart set of
questions and the answers may be of interest to a lot of adults too. So in my
next few postings I intend to summarise some of our collective wisdom. This is
the first of those questions.
The English writer
Sydney Smith: “It is the greatest of all
mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little. Do something.”
Al Gore: “Use your voice, use your vote, use your
The above quotes raise
some profound questions to which I hope to return, but let’s start with the
simple question of personal carbon footprint. The answer may be very different
for different people, as no two people start from the same position, have the
same tastes or have the same opportunities. For example if you are a
vegetarian, cutting down on meat is no longer an opportunity for you to make
further reductions. And if you always go on local cycling holidays, there is no
point suggesting you cut down on your flights. Similarly your daily transport
choices will depend on where you live. So the right answer is to work out what
is best for you, consider the biggest impacts of your own lifestyle, and
prioritise what things you want to change. The most significant personal reductions
are likely to come from food, travel choices, home energy use (especially
heating); and consumer products, so I'm going to make several different suggestions.
None of these incidentally are intended to make your life a misery or imply return
to some pre-industrial fantasy world. Nor do most of them require expensive investments. But they are intended to be about a more
clever use of resources.
Eating less meat is
potentially one of the biggest ways to reduce our carbon footprint. The
calculations suggest that beef has a higher footprint than pork, which is
higher than chicken. Of course reducing food waste and excessive packaging is
If you are already
vegetarian and fly a lot for holidays, then fewer long-haul flights will mean a
pretty large reduction in your carbon footprint. Driving, especially when with
passengers, is a lot better than flying, if you have the time and inclination. Taking
the train is better still. If you are using a petrol or diesel car, we can note
that the biggest sources of excess fuel use are generally taken to be speed and
If we turn to other
everyday activities then there a lot of small savings that people can make. But
it’s worth bearing in mind that one of the biggest consumptions of energy in
the home is for heating. Turning your domestic heating down by one degree C, if
you can do so without discomfort, has been estimated to reduce consumption
by up to 10%. Not heating the house when you are not at home will help too. And
if your house still has an old-fashioned gas boiler then you should convert to
a condensing boiler as soon as possible. It can cut your bills and your carbon
footprint for heating by up to a third. Last but not least, there may be some
major savings to be achieved by reducing the heat loss in your home,
draught-stripping of windows and home insulation (if you have’nt already
applied these measures).
Of the other substantial
energy uses in the home the next most important are in the kitchen – cooking and
refrigeration. Obviously there are small easy changes you can make which will
reduce consumption, like making sure your refrigerator is not set too cold, or
not over-filling your kettle. But when you come to change your appliances, pay
attention to their energy efficiency ratings.
Still in the home, another
simple but substantial energy saving is switching to LED lightbulbs. The energy
saving compared to old -fashioned incandescent bulbs is over 80%. Again it is a
simple step which both saves money and reduces your carbon footprint.
Finally there is the
indirect impact of the energy and carbon emissions associated with the various
consumer goods we buy. If we all reduced our consumption of manufactured goods,
but especially those that have a high carbon content, then that would certainly
be an important impact. This is a much more complex and contentious subject and
I hope to address this and related issues in later postings. It is not always
easy to tell which are the worst industries in causing emissions, but one recent
report by the World Bank has claimed that the fashion industry is responsible
for 10% of global emissions, more than aviation and shipping combined.
You should expect to
see more public discussion on this in the future.
the next question will be: Do individual actions have an impact or do they just
help us feel good?