Carbon footprints – can I really make a difference?


30 May 2021  |  by Simon McFarlane

Much of our modern lives are disconnected from what goes on behind the scenes. In our houses many things happen like magic. Electricity comes out of wall sockets, water appears through pipes, waste disappears through other pipes, rubbish goes into a bin and vanishes. Food is always available and neatly lined up on supermarket shelves. We get in cars, turn the key and never think to look under the bonnet.

That’s how I felt about my carbon footprint, disconnected. Does switching off lights really make a difference? How about taking the train rather than driving? Can my changes really make a difference?

How bad are bananas.To get a better understanding of the world of carbon footprints I’ve been reading How bad are bananas by Mike Berners-Lee. Mike first published the book back in 2010 and lots has changed even in that short period of time. He’s a professor at Lancaster University and his research includes supply chain carbon metrics and sustainable food systems. If you want to hear from an expert, Mike is “the expert”.

You might see me mention CO²e below. There are lots of different greenhouse gases such as methane, nitrous oxide and the best know carbon dioxide (CO²) and some are more potent than others. Rather than try and break down all these greenhouse gases Mike compares them how much CO² it would be then uses CO²e – carbon dioxide equivalent.

First thing thing I found out is – from a carbon point of view – bananas are good!* 110g CO²e. High in calories, stacks of vitamins. They are grown in sunlight, minimal packaging needed and transported by boat which is 1% of the CO²e needed to airfreight. * Mike does explain about the environmental downside to bananas to.

The second thing I learned was more of a shock. The average UK annual carbon footprint is 12.7 tonnes of CO²e. Compare that to a citizen of Malawi at 0.2 tonnes, that’s 60 Malawians for one UK citizen. In case you’re not aware, Malawi is one of the poorest African countries and is already suffering from the effects of climate change.

To put the UK carbon footprint into context:

0.2 tonnes CO²e average Malawian
7 tonnes CO²e World Average
8 tonnes CO²e average Chinese
13 tonnes CO²e average Briton 
20 tonnes CO²e average Australian
21 tonnes CO²e average North American

There’s always a lot of talk about China, and rightly so. Currently China produces 24% of the world’s total greenhouse gases, but in reality it’s not quite that simple. Hundreds of millions of  people in China live incredibly low carbon lives compared to western countries. We also need to remember that China is the world’s factory. Look at how much in your home is “made in China”, is that really their footprint?

The UK’s overall yearly greenhouse gas emissions (within its borders) are 435 million tonnes. This is the figure often cited by the government. Unfortunately this doesn’t include anything which happens ‘outside’ our borders. If you include aviation, shipping and imports the actual figure becomes 840 million tonnes, nearly double!

Another thing to consider is how long this has been going on:


What to do…

It’s such a big problem that it’s difficult to know where to start. Like most things I think it’s best to start with things you can control. In this case understanding your own carbon footprint. I’ve talked about “average” people – but in reality there is no such thing. A good example is flying, half of the UK population NEVER take a flight. At the same time 70% of flights are taken by 15% of the population.

The graph below shows a breakdown of this “average” citizen and is really useful to work out what to target personally.

Pie chard showing breakdown of the average UK footprint.

Some things are so important that they need to stay, such as “health, education and public sector services”… but look at the food section – 25%. There are lots of ways to lower this, from cutting out some / all meat, to sourcing locally and making sure you avoid food waste. Maybe join our community food growing group – you can’t get much more local!

Of the massive 27% which relates to travel, 9% is personal flights and 14% is personal vehicles. Trains, buses and other transport are only 2% and are already running whether you are on them or not! A simple switch to public transport or active travel for some of your journeys will take a chunk out of of that 14%.

Household fuel and electricity make up 16%. How about switching to a renewable fuel company, or improving your insulation? Mike has calculated that insulating a loft can save one tonne of CO²e a year. You will see your investment paid back in 3 years of reduced bills alone. Saving money and the atmosphere, what’s not to like!

What did I learn?

There is so much information in the book it can seem overwhelming, but by looking in so much detail at things we just take for granted it can really change your perspective. It also helps to hear from an expert – the final 30 pages of the book are notes & references!

If you want to make a change a good place to start is with a Carbon Footprint Calculator:

The WWF offer a really quick and simple calculator:

There is a really in depth calculator here:

You need to remember though that action isn’t just about cutting your own carbon footprint, it’s also important to push for change. It’s good to remember that when you make a change you are also making it easier for others to do the same. Who would have thought Gregg’s would have a famous vegan sausage roll or IKEA would be selling second hand furniture. This also helps to prove to politicians that this is what ‘the people want’.

Below are four of my favourite facts from the book. If you would like to borrow the book it will be in the SEA Hub library:


Cut flowers

A 50-litre tank of petrol…

In the UK we use 50 billion litres every year (so 196kg x 1,000,000,000)

A wind turbine

A wind turbine has a net (including manufacture etc) saving of 81,538 tonnes CO2e over a 20-year lifespan.

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