What can I do about Climate Change? Try using a Carbon Calculator

Continuing our Climate Conversations series Diana Wilkins show us how to calculate our carbon footprint. This is one of the acts we can all do to help combat the climate crisis. Dr Diana Wilkins gained a DPhil in Biological Sciences from the University of Sussex and worked on climate change and other environmental issues from 1991 to 2014. She is a volunteer at the Booth Museum.

Climate change is an urgent threat. However, it’s not always clear what we can do about it as individuals. A good place to start is to find out how much our everyday activities are contributing to the problem.

Fitting solar panels, photo: Stephen Yang/The Solutions Project (CC BY 2.0)
Fitting solar panels, photo: Stephen Yang/The Solutions Project (CC BY 2.0)

Climate change is largely driven by the use of fossil fuels. When petrol, oil, gas and coal are burned they release carbon dioxide – the main gas that causes climate change. Yet we use these fuels all the time to heat and light our homes, to travel and to produce the things we buy. Its these activities that we need to target if we want to make a difference in our daily lives. A carbon calculator can help us find out how to reduce our impact on the climate.

WWF provide an easy-to-use carbon calculator online. By entering information about how you get to work, how often you fly, what you eat and what you buy, you can estimate your ‘environmental footprint’. You can compare your footprint with that for an average person in the UK and with what’s needed to avoid dangerous climate change over the long-term. Some examples are shown below.

Amount of Carbon Dioxide emitted per person per year

19 tonnes: Person A: Includes a return flight to Asia, driving a diesel car, higher spending & well-insulated home

10.5 tonnes: UK average in 2020 (WWF figure)

8.2 tonnes: Person B: No flights, electric car, solar panels, lower spending, well insulated home

1 tonne: Goal for Global average in 2050 (WWF figure)

(Icon made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com)

The WWF calculator gives you a broad idea of how carbon-intensive your lifestyle is. It is particularly useful for showing the relative contribution of different activities such as travel, home energy, purchases and food, as well as the contribution from the things that we all use such as hospitals and schools. However, it doesn’t break down the numbers in great detail. If you want to find out how to reduce your footprint even more, you need to run the WWF calculator again with different assumptions about things such as your car use.

Alternatively, you can investigate what difference you can make by looking at the biggest sources of carbon dioxide emissions. WWF describes flying as “the single most climate-polluting activity an ordinary person can do; even a single flight can dramatically increase your carbon footprint”. This is one reason why person A has more than twice the footprint of person B in the table above.

There are several websites that give more information on the impact of flying and how to reduce it by, for example, swapping to cleaner forms of transport. For example, travelling from London to Paris by train rather than by plane reduces emissions by 90%. Choosing sustainable transport has much more effect than small steps such as not using disposable coffee cups. As we can see from the table below, a person would need to avoid paper cups for nearly seven years to make up for one flight to Paris. Carbon calculators show us that some sources of emissions are simply much bigger than others.

Comparing different sources of emissions (tonnes of carbon dioxide)

Flight to Paris 0.064

Train to Paris 0.004

Car use for a year (12,000 km) 2.33

Paper coffee cup 0.00004

(images and reference from https://climatevisuals.org/ )

It’s also possible to make big savings in carbon dioxide by improving your use of energy at home and by choosing a cleaner type of car. The Energy Savings Trust provides details of how to do this and also includes information on financial costs and savings.

You can even look at how the UK can reduce its emissions. The government’s 2050 Model (to be updated soon) allows you to choose different pathways for radically cutting back emissions from the energy sector – one of the major sources of carbon dioxide.

The climate crisis is so severe and urgent that countries need to make great efforts to clean up their economies. The UK, for example, is committed by law to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Meeting this target will require significant action by government and businesses. Individuals can also make a contribution through the choices they make. Using a carbon calculator can help us make more of a difference.

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