What Is A Carbon Footprint & How Can You Reduce Yours?

You've probably read in the news recently that the Earth is warming and that we all need to reduce our 'carbon footprint'. Here's everything you need to know about what is meant when we talk about a 'carbon footprint' and why this is important in tackling climate change.

What is a 'Carbon Footprint'?

Humans are causing climate change by releasing certain gases into the atmosphere in quantities too great for the Earth to absorb naturally. These gases accumulate in the atmosphere and trap in heat. This causes the global temperature to become warmer, just like in a greenhouse.

There are many different greenhouse gases which contribute to global-warming, with carbon dioxide (CO2) being the most important.

A ‘carbon footprint’ refers to the amount of carbon dioxide that is added to the atmosphere as a result of a particular activity, e.g. flying, driving, or heating your home.

Other gases that contribute to human caused climate change are Methane (CH4) which is mainly produced by the agricultural industry and is even more potent than CO2, Nitrous Oxide (N2O) and refrigerant gases.

Breakdown of Greenhouse Gases that cause Climate Change

Breakdown of Greenhouse Gases that cause Climate Change


How can we measure a carbon footprint and is there a sustainable level per person that we can aim for?

An exact carbon footprint is difficult to calculate as there are so many variables with regard to food production and manufacturing processes.

What is considered to be an achievable and sustainable carbon footprint varies for different communities around the world, but in Europe at the moment an annual ‘Ten Tonne Lifetstyle’ has been suggested. This is considered to be a responsible carbon footprint per person per year.

Due to factors like home heating, food production, and existing infrastructure it is considered to be extremely difficult for someone in the UK to get below this level under current circumstances.

However, a common sense approach can help people to understand the impacts of their actions and to make sensible decisions based on what we know.

Walking or cycling to work will result in a significant reduction to your annual carbon footprint

Walking or cycling to work will result in a significant reduction to your annual carbon footprint


How can you reduce your carbon footprint?

Looking at the bigger picture is the best way to make decisions when trying to reduce your carbon footprint. Choosing to do something that requires no fossil fuels instead of choosing something that does is clearly the more ecologically sustainable choice.

  • When doing your weekly food shop, try to buy local ‘in season’ fruit and vegetables instead of going to a big supermarket which will probably have items that have been transported by plane from countries all over the world.

  • Similarly, a dairy- and meat-free diet will help significantly help to reduce your carbon footprint due to the many greenhouse gases involved in the livestock industry.

  • The type of regular transport you choose is another fairly obvious factor that will have a significant impact on your carbon footprint. Riding a bike or walking are the clear winners here. If driving is essential, you could consider getting an electric vehicle and powering it with renewable energy from the grid or straight from your own solar panels.

  • The big one to avoid wherever possible is flying. According to the excellent book by Mike Berners-Lee ‘How Bad Are Bananas?’, just one return flight from London to New York will exceed the annual carbon budget for one person for the whole year.

  • Switching lighting to energy saving LEDs is also a quick and easy way to achieve a huge reduction in energy use and corresponding energy bills.

    Switching your energy supply to one that provides 100% clean renewable electricity is one of the easiest and quickest ways that you can make a big reduction to your carbon footprint. For more help and advice about switching to a green energy supplier please take a look at BHESCo’s ‘Clean Up Your Act‘ campaign page.

In his book, author Mike Berners-Lee looks at the ‘Ten Tonne Lifestyle’ as a realistic target which Europeans may aim toward in order reduce their carbon footprint to a sustainable level. Adopting a 10 Tonne Lifestyle would mean reducing emissions to one third below the current UK average footprint of 15 tonnes per year.

If you’re interested in measuring your own carbon footprint then you can use the carbon calculator to discover the true impact of your actions on the planet.



Melody Billings is a volunteer at BHESCo developing content and increasing the reach of their messages. BHESCo are leading the community energy revolution by delivering clean renewable energy for people not for profit.