Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Our carbon footprints

Climate change is a serious and urgent issue (report on the latest science here). Carbon emitted faster than it is absorbed is causing it. Thus the rising focus on carbon footprints as an indicator of environmental impact. We can both assess the scale of the problem and then monitor progress towards target low emission levels. The average personal carbon footprint in the UK is currently 12 tonnes per year (in the USA its 20 tonnes). A key provision of the UK’s Climate Change Act 2008 is a cut in emissions of at least 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. To achieve sustainable UK emissions, allowing for rising population, we are talking about between 1 and 2 tonnes per person each year.

Its not just carbon in the form of carbon dioxide emitted when fossil fuels are burned that is counted. All emissions that add to the greenhouse effect and cause climate change are converted to their carbon dioxide equivalent and expressed in tonnes or kilograms of this gas (a footprint in tonnes may seem odd but that’s because the name is drawn from the ecological footprint). Gases converted to their carbon dioxide equivalent include methane, nitrogen oxides, various hydrocarbons.

Carbon emissions arise through fuel use for heating, lighting and transport. These are direct and we have reasonable control over them. Emissions also arise less directly because they are embedded in the products and services we use, from the production and disposal ends of their lifecycle. Its harder to have control over these though of course we can alter the type and number of products and services we consume.

Picture a system boundary around a city, a person, a house, factories, offices, a country, group of countries – the carbon footprint of each can be assessed. A boundary can be drawn around various products, say beef or cars, and the carbon footprint of the product’s lifecycle assessed. Organisations want to know their carbon footprint for energy and/or environmental management purposes, prioritising and quantifying effective, efficient and economic action. Growing numbers use the data in corporate social responsibility reports, responses to customer and investor requests. Organisations as diverse as Ipswich Town Football Club and Marks and Spencer have carbon neutral policies. Carbon footprint figures are appearing on a range of products, including Walkers crisps, Innocent Drinks smoothies and Boots shampoo…to enable informed consumer choices.

The carbon footprint concept is itself inevitably a simplification of reality. The computer models used to calculate footprints are further inevitable simplifications. This is both a plus and a minus of course. As with all measurement and calculation, care and preparation is needed when establishing and reporting figures. Independent verification may often be appropriate. Caution and checks are needed to ensure fair comparisons. Footprint standards are bringing methods closer together, making data more consistent and comparable.

Carbon footprints relate to one key environmental impact - climate change – and according to the Global Footprinting Network amount to half the ecological footprint (and not all types of environmental impact can be converted to the land area ecological footprints establish). This is a very significant proportion of the ecological footprint and so it is essential to establish it. However, we must not forget the other ways we are breaching environmental limits as measured by: overfishing; socio-economic effects; deforestation; species extinction; our water footprint; the spread of monocultures; deaths due to toxic pollution; quality of life reduction from noise and visual impacts, and more.

Sustainability is a whole system phenomenon. Types of impact are interrelated. If we don’t take a whole system approach to finding solutions our actions may be ineffective or cause further damage through effects we did not intend or anticipate. The dash for biofuels provides a timely lesson for us. Carbon footprinting is an excellent tool for awareness raising, getting a sense of the overall scale of the problem and progress made toward reduction targets but we must combine it with other measures and make good judgements on how problems interlink.


  1. Hi Glenn- Thanks for this. I work with a carbon footprint calculator as part of the Carbon Advice Group (www.carbonadvicegroup.com).

    I appreciate your assessment of the positives and negatives of a calculator- they can't take every variable into account, but they also offer a valuable approximate snapshot into our personal effects on the environment.

    The Carbon Advice Group is an affiliate network that empowers individuals to start their own sites and earn commissions on carbon offsets that they sell- a great way to take personal responsibility for our carbon footprints and to fund clean energy alternatives.

    Glenn or anyone on this site who would like to contact me with questions about carbon offsets or the Carbon Advice Group can do so at:

  2. From the comments on the Times article, Glenn, it looks like people are getting tired of the constant climate change predictions. Interesting points made about earlier predictions of a coming ice age and ozone depletion, both subjects seem to have been dropped.

    Frankly, those like me on the fringes of "green" politics and who try to keep an open mind are beginning to not know what to believe.

  3. Well, on ozone depletion we had a landmark international agreement back in the late 1980's, The Montreal Protocol, now signed by hundreds of governments and, whilst nor perfect, a serious environemtal situation has been addressed pretty well. If only we'd done the same for climate change at that point!!

    My view is that people accept the truth of climate change without accepting its implications. Its a kind of knowing and not knowing simultaneously.

    The enormity of the problem is hard to handle. Many are waiting for someone else to act, subsuming individual responsibility into the collective (both individuals, companies and governments are waiting). There is also internal conflict in people which results in: angry outright denial; scapegoat seeking; deliberately being wasteful or advocating wastefulness; projecting of anxiety onto something else; or just shutting out all information and suppressing thoughts - which is probably a very common reaction.

    Campaigners can overcome this but need more than the correct facts. They/we need to: build numbers and demonstrate that there is a large movement and that growing numbers are taking action; organise activity, debate, protest...that is both informed and has an energy/charge that engages people; present meaningful alternatives to those clearly damaging the environment.

  4. Socialism From AboveThursday, February 19, 2009

    I just discovered that the hippy up the road doesn't believe in climate change, or peak oil - he thinks that it's all religious?!

    He also doesn't believe that viruses can cause diseases... needless to say, I don't happen to agree with him on any of these points... 'twas interesting though, as until now, I haven't met anyone who wasn't a Randroid who expressed these kind of ideas. He loves his beaten up car though; I suspect that he, like many people, believes what they want to believe, regardless of the evidence.

  5. I still have an open mind. I believe, for instance, that climate change is happening, and I believe it's stupid to believe that humans have no affect on it. However I believe that scientists themselves still don't really know for sure what's happening, and there's too much political influence: e.g. any research paper questioning man's influence on it is funded by Exxon Mobil and any paper supporting man's influence on it is funded by the government/EU as it gives them opportunity to arbitrarily tax people more. I think many people share this belief.

    However where my views change from others is that I am absolutely sick and tired of having climate change alarmism rammed down my throat - TV and newspaper adverts telling me that if I don't switch my TV off standby and unplug mobile phone chargers I'm killing the planet. This is just completely inaccurate. Modern TVs on standby take a matter of milliamps (it is for this very reason that you cannot turn q lot of new TVs fully "off" without unplugging them), and mobile phone chargers (which are regularly replaced due to the fast-paced world of mobile phones) for YEARS now have been Switch Mode Power Supplies (SMPSUs) which don't draw any current when they're not plugged into anything.

    There are real things people can do which will make a difference - cycling rather than driving for example, but if we pollute the advice with this ridiculous misinformation attempting to make people feel like criminals if they don't unplug their TV, then the apathy I have will grow exponentially as others get sick and tired of it.

  6. Dave - what are your thoughts on my earlier comment about people's thinking and reactions to the climate issue??


Genuine, open, reasonable debate is most welcome. Comments that meet this test will always be published.