Travel may be good for the soul, but it certainly isn’t for the environment. I’ve been waiting for someone to call me out for the carbon emissions I created on my latest trip to Stockholm – I travelled by plane – and then realised I should really call myself out.
There’s no point feeling guilty about flying – especially if you’ve already taken the trip – but there is something you can do to compensate the extra pollution you’ve caused.
And it’s not just flying that causes carbon emissions…
What Are Carbon Emissions?
Carbon emissions are carbon dioxide waste that is released into the atmosphere as a gas. They can also be called greenhouse gas emissions, referring to the gases that get trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere and heat up the planet as a result. They are caused by the burning of fossil fuels, including oil, coal, and natural gas.
When you think of carbon emissions, do you think of big industrial plumes of smoke? I do. It makes me feel very far removed from the problem, when really, everything we do creates emissions. In fact, 72% of greenhouse gas emissions stem from private consumption choices according to Spark Sustainability.
The main activities that create carbon emissions are:
- Heating/cooling your home
- Driving a car
- Travelling by airplane
- Eating a meat-heavy diet
- Buying lots of products and clothes
The positive in this is that we are in control of reducing these, and we can start doing that now.
How To Calculate Your Carbon Emissions
I’ve found the easiest way to calculate emissions is by using an online carbon emissions calculator. My favourite is by Spark Sustainability, a Finnish organisation whose aim is to empower and inspire people all around the world to be part of the solution to climate change.
Their carbon calculator takes into consideration the:
- Size of your home
- Distance you drive per year
- Number of hours you travel by airplane
- Typical diet that you eat
- Amount that you shop
When I used the calculator, I’ll be honest, I was quite staggered at my score. Despite being conscious of my impact (i.e. no car, shared home, less than 10 hours of air travel per year, pescatarian and dairy-free diet) I create an estimated 6000 kg of carbon dioxide emissions per year. That’s the equivalent of driving 38,000 miles, or flying for 63 hours straight!
When compared to the UK average of 11,000 kg per person per year, it’s not bad. But we can all do better.
Also, it’s worth noting the wider context of your carbon emissions too. Carbon calculators were actually the brainchild of the fossil fuel industry, rooting individual citizens in their own impact, rather than the wider impact of this industry and society as a whole.
How To Reduce Your Emissions
The first step to reducing your emissions is to refuse certain particularly wasteful activities. Following the same 5 R’s model that zero waste warrior Bea Johnson prescribes, I’ve created a new model for carbon emissions. Meet the 3 R’s:
- Refuse high-emission activities
- Reduce our normal/essential CO2 emitting activities
- Offset the Rest (see what I did with that R there?)
21 Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Emissions
You could make a big reduction in your own carbon emissions by doing any of the following:
- Turning your thermostat down by one or more degrees
- Reduce the amount of time you use air conditioning
- Insulate your home to reduce the need for heating
- Use textiles strategically to keep the heat in your home
- Reduce energy consumption (and save money)
- Switch to a renewable energy provider
- Move to a smaller home or flat-share
- Drive your car less
- Walk or cycle when taking small journeys
- Use public transport more
- Change your car to a hybrid or electric vehicle
- Take a local holiday rather than abroad
- Travel by train rather than plane
- Reduce the amount of meat in your diet
- Adopt a vegan or vegetarian diet
- Buy less and buy better clothes or homewares
- Purchase clothes from sustainable brands
- Buy second-hand or vintage items
- Invest in good quality items that will last longer
- Curate a capsule wardrobe
- Rent outfits for special occasions
How To Offset Your Emissions
If you want to offset your remaining annual emissions, the most popular option is to donate to a carbon offsetting charity. According to the Guardian’s guide to carbon offsetting, you should pay an average of £8 per 1000 kg of carbon emissions. For me, that equates to £48 donation for my 6000kg total annual carbon emissions.
Some reputable carbon offsetting charities include:
- Atmosfair (Germany)
- Carbonfund (USA)
- Climate Friendly (Australia)
- Climate Wise (UK)
- Cool Earth (UK)
- My Climate (Switzerland)
- Native Energy (USA)
Traditionally, carbon offsetting involved planting trees, but that in itself isn’t a sustainable model. These days, charities will support clean energy projects, such as funding wind farms, or the distribution of energy-saving light bulbs to developing communities.
I chose to make my donation this year with Cool Earth, a UK-based charity working to prevent deforestation and protect rainforest communities. Their work protecting our existing ecosphere made a lot of sense to me: why plant trees, when we can prevent the existing ones from being chopped down?
(And obviously, it’s up to you who you choose and how much you donate – I’m just here to provide options!)
Do Businesses Offset Their Emissions?
Carbon offsetting appears to be an activity that some businesses do, but have no requirement to do so. It’s frustrating that many businesses selling high carbon emitting activities don’t see themselves as responsible for their output alongside their consumers – and this needs to change. Airlines, shipping companies, automobile manufacturers, and large FMCG businesses should be required to monitor their emissions (or have a third-party regulating their emissions) and offset them. In an ideal world, all businesses that don’t use clean energy should do so.
It’s worth mentioning that there are some businesses who do offset their emissions. Good examples include Google, Marks & Spencer, Neal’s Yard, and Sukin. You can also identify independently-certified carbon neutral businesses by looking for the Carbon Trust footprint (right) or by checking if they are members of Carbon Neutral Framework, but there is no centralised list or regulatory body.
In my opinion, businesses shouldn’t have to elect to offset – it should be necessary by law. Currently, emissions trading (a form of carbon offsetting for businesses) is being contemplated as part of the Kyoto protocol, but it’s still an optional practice rather than a requirement.
Is It Possible To Be Carbon Neutral?
I’m going to be frank: almost everything we do these days creates emissions. Products on shop shelves have used a certain amount of energy to be created, freighted there, and spend time under those bright white shop lights. Ordering from an online shop? Just viewing websites is creating emissions, let alone the cost of creation, storage, and shipping to your door. Writing emails, streaming films, even reading this blog (although my blog is hosted on a wind-powered server!) creates emissions.
So it’s unrealistic to say you can live a carbon neutral life – especially if you plan to do so by refusing all things that create emissions. Not only will you have to give up flying, driving, or travelling anywhere, but you also can’t buy anything, live in a home, or eat any food. We all have to exist, and with that comes an impact on the environment.
However, by following my three steps to reducing your emissions, you can even out the balance somewhat. Refuse the high-impact activities and products. Reduce your carbon-emitting activities where possible. And for the rest: offset it.
It’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Another great article with thoroughly thought through advice and tips!
Thanks for the kind words Karl!