what does ‘carbon footprint’ actually mean?

Global warming is the phrase on everyone’s lips these days. The trendy buzzword that’s both convincing us the end is near and inspiring us to reduce the waste we produce to just a jarful

I recently had a conversation with a friend about waste reduction and generally saving the planet (#GreenGoals) when she suddenly asked “But what is your carbon footprint actually defined by?” and, well… I couldn’t answer. I know that our lifestyles are unsustainable given the planet’s current resources. And I’ve taken the online test that told me we’d need 3 planets if we all lived like me (ouch). But I couldn’t tell you how it’s actually measured. And isn’t the first step to reducing our carbon footprint actually understanding its components?


I figured; if I’m confused, I can’t be the only one! So here you have it; your no-nonsense guide to what ‘carbon footprint’ really means. You’re all set to confront the awkward Christmas dinner questions.

About a third of our kitchen and garden waste can be composted. If it’s dumped in landfill it turns into methane, which is a big contributor to global warming. The processes for dealing with waste — mainly landfill and incineration — are very energy-intensive.

– The WWF

Your carbon footprint is defined by the ‘amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of your activities’ [1]. It essentially compares our emissions compares to what the planet can renew and is the basis of calculating how many Earths we’d need if we all lived at our current consumption levels.

Your carbon footprint is essentially the amount of carbon dioxide you produce through your purchases etc, but is typically measured in tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) by allowing for various greenhouse gases to be compared on a like-for-like basis, which include: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride [2]. These gases are key drivers of global warming – in fact, almost 100% of the observed temperature increase over the last 50 years has been due to the increase in the atmosphere of greenhouse gases. They act like mirrors by reflecting back heat radiation to the Earth, which would otherwise be lost in space. So, logically speaking, by reducing the amount of greenhouse gases we emit, we can slow down global warming.

There are multiple elements that make up your personal carbon footprint:

  • Transport, such as flying, sea travel, driving and commuting by train or bus
  • Energy, in your home, through heating, electricity and energy efficiency (double-glazing, energy-saving bulbs etc)
  • Food consumption, mostly determined by the amount of meat and far-travelled goods consumed, like avocados and bananas
  • Consumption of new, resource-intensive ‘stuff’, like clothes/textiles, appliances, electricals

Food is of course a huge contributor to our footprint, and one of the most straightforward ways in which we can reduce our emissions. A simple way to think about it is by trying to picture the processes involved in the creation of a given food and how it weighs up compared to other options. A food that requires more machinery to grow/harvest/package/transport is naturally going to have a larger footprint. Meat has a large footprint because of

  • animal breathing (and farting!),
  • the amount of food produced for livestock (and not human consumption directly)
  • the emissions of farms themselves (as a result of their industrial activities)
  • the intensive packaging, transportation and conservation needs 

Meat is a commonly cited culprit of greenhouse emissions – around one quarter of all gases are a result of agriculture! Cattle tends to release a considerable amount of methane into the atmosphere. An 8-oz steak produces as many greenhouse gases as driving 14 miles. But eating locally and more seasonally is another way to shrink your footprint. Food that needs to travel less far and is sold at a market, where it hasn’t been refrigerated for days and isn’t packaged in plastic, is far less resource-intensive. 

One thing I learned from my research is that transport, especially flying, is another top contributor to greenhouse gases for many of us. Traveling is incredible and a super important part of how we spend our free time nowadays, but costly to the environment – my return trip to California this summer contributed 1.65 metric tons of CO2. That’s way more than I anticipated. 

That being said, a typical passenger vehicle emits 4.6 metric tons of CO2 in a year. So shifting your morning commute to public transport may have an even greater impact than giving up your holiday abroad.

Our homes also make us look pretty bad. Low-carbon generation, like wind turbines and solar power, are alternatives to the high emission gas and oil heating in the UK. Switching over could reduce emissions by 79%! [4] And then of course there’s energy efficiency, which is another story entirely – a solar powered home is much more efficient if it’s well insulated. Think double glazing and smart heating systems. Which’ll save you money and the planet!

And finally, recycling properly allows us to reuse materials like aluminum and certain plastics in a far less energy intensive way. Of course, it also reduces the amount of waste and contributes towards a circular economy. But it’s also about minimizing the toxic emissions of producing new ‘things’, like clothes and plastic goods. So our general footprint can shrink by allowing waste to be transformed into something new at only a fraction of the footprint.

There are lots of calculators out there to help you figure out what your carbon footprint is, how you can reduce it and how it compares to our Earth’s current resources (time for a reality check!). 

If you’re not keen on reducing your meat intake (or already have) and are looking for other ways to reduce your emissions, keep an eye out for my next post on tips to reduce your footprint that aren’t going vegan.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_footprint
[2] https://www.carbontrust.com/resources/guides/carbon-footprinting-and-reporting/carbon-footprinting/
[3] https://timeforchange.org/cause-and-effect-for-global-warming
[4] https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/5CB-Infographic-FINAL-.pdf

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