It’s hard to get a feeling for how big our personal carbon footprint really is. It’s also hard to know exactly how drastic an extra few tonnes is when you look at the big picture.
One of the biggest problems, when we consider how much we emit, is that we are in the developed world. For us to keep living ‘luxuriously’ within the worlds carbon budget, we would need no-one in the global south to become wealthier. Wealth is pretty directly correlated with carbon emissions. We would need to stop people in areas that are growing in affluence from taking weekend city break flights or going on yearly holidays to see loved ones. We’d have to keep them doing little which is ethically not ok.
Why am I talking about wealth? Well, if we support the development of people in the global south, we need to be even more stringent in cuts to our carbon use. As people in the global south become more affluent, their footprint will naturally increase as they start to ‘own more stuff’. So ethically we have to factor in an allowance that we want development in the world. Therefore the relative impact of our personal emissions are more important than a lot of the stats that consider the UK in isolation.
How much carbon footprint is ‘OK’?
In his book ‘How Bad Are Bananas’, Mike Berners-Lee recommends that we strive for the 5 tonne CO2e per year approach. This is a revision from the 10 tonne per year target which he now believes to be not drastic enough. Look at the picture below for a slightly better idea of what this means in context.
The average UK carbon footprint is around 13 tonnes (these are all estimates but its good enough for the general picture). For the world average to be 7 think how much smaller than the UK USA and Australian the majority of people in the world emit.
So with a target if 5 tonnes per year in mind…lets have a look at my personal carbon footprint in the year 2019 and compare it with that in the year 2020.
What makes up your footprint?
Your carbon footprint is a mixture of the carbon used in creating the stuff you use and the carbon used to create the stuff you own. I have a post on footprint vs emissions here to refresh on the difference.
I eat mainly vegan, I buy a lot of stuff second hand and don’t own a car. Here are some of the lifestyle habit I have which I put into the carbon calculator.
In 2019 I flew to Melbourne and worked in hospitality in the city for 5 months. I bought a car and drove up the east coastline with a lot of scenic stops and holidays along the way. During my short stay in Sydney I took a weekend trip to Alice springs to visit Uluru (in central Australia) I flew to Indonesia for a month to travel there for a while before flying back home via a last couple of weeks in Melbourne. I ate mainly vegan foods (though was flexible while travelling) and was travelling on a budget so usually cooked for myself rather than eating out or takeaways.
In 2020 came the pandemic. I didn’t travel much and didn’t go out much. I also generally don’t eat many takeaways, usually less than once per month.
Aside form the travel I generally consider myself to live a fairly low-key (/low-carbon) lifestyle. Here’s my results:
My thought’s on my carbon footprint results
The first thing is that flights are the main, massive difference which I expected. It’s not great, I justify to myself that it’s a one off year which is partly true but also doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of the planet.
The second thing that stood out is that the baseline footprint was still relatively high. I had low emissions in 2020 (no flying, no car), but there is still a huge amount of carbon relating to the everyday things we own and use.
What calculator did I use and how accurate is this?
There are a number of sources online and some are much easier to use than others. This is a link to the WWF site I used. None of these answers will be ‘correct’- they’re big estimates. But, they’re definitely good enough to get the level of detail we need to know.
I compared results of a few calculations just for sanity. Here you can see some of the differences that came out. They all ask different questions and have different ways of calculating footprint. But the point is: it doesn’t really matter. Since we don’t have an intuitive concept for what a tonne of CO2 is anyway, they all show roughly the same thing.
How can we sit with this- should we feel guilty?
As I’ve already said above, there is a huge amount of carbon emissions that just exist because of our lifestyles. These can be hard to reduce. And it’s hard to consider having to stop flying or doing the things we love for a reward we’ll never see.
Climate change is a matter of inequality. It is the richest people in the richest countries that are behind most of the world emissions. It’s these people with the biggest power to change them.
It’s hard to know where the line is between what we can easily do and what we really need to restrict ourselves on. What is an ok amount given the circumstances we live in? What is too much?
When I try to understand scenarios I do it in mental pictures. This is my take on our personal reaction and responsibility for carbon footprints:
It’s easy to look up and sideways. Sideways is our competition and upwards is our goals and what we’re aspiring to. When you’re surrounded by (what seems like) EVERYONE flying all the time- it’s demotivating to not book a holiday because of carbon guilt. When we feel hard done by the best thing we can do is look down. For the people at the bottom on the pyramid, every flight we don’t take is a blessing. And there are a lot of those people. To keep living our lives as we do, we need those people to never fly. So if not flying is honouring them, to me, it’s an easier call.
The same goes for all the things that we might view as ‘sacrificing’ in the name of saving carbon. If we flip the coin we’re not ‘sacrificing’, we’re requesting the people below us in the pyramid never experience the same joys as us, and reduce ours in solidarity.
What do you think?
Thank you for reading! This was a long post. Do you have any thoughts or reactions of comment? Please post if you do.
See you next week, Daniela x