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  • Writer's picturebarriewilkinson

Barrie's Carbon Footprint

I'm generally going to be focusing on what big companies can do to help manage down global emissions, but if we flip the discussion around we can also focus on the end users such as myself that drive emissions through the consumption of products and services. Rather than preaching to readers about what they should be doing differently, I thought it might be instructive to measure my own carbon footprint and see if there is anything we can learn from the exercise.

As luck would have it, an old friend and ex-colleague of mine Catherine Long recently co-founded trace, a business which helps consumers and small business to measure and offset their own carbon footprint. I used Catherine's calculator to generate my carbon footprint and you can watch my interview with Catherine below where she walks me through the gory details!

My personal carbon footprint

The below chart shows my summary results coming out of Catherine's calculator. The tool estimates that the average annual emissions of someone living in the UK is around 12 tonnes of CO2-equivalent and my results place me somewhere around that average. To be clear, the average UK number includes the emissions that we import when we consume goods from places like India and China not just the emissions produced inside the UK. To put the 12 tonnes in perspective, I've been reading How bad are bananas: The Carbon Footprint of everything which says that people living in the developed world should all be aiming for a personal carbon footprint of 5 tonnes or below in the medium term. I've got some work to do to get the number down and Catherine gave me some good practical pointers as to how to go about it and also offered advice for how consumers can influence large corporations and governments to play their part.

Goods and services was my biggest category which captures the emissions related to my spending on retail goods, restaurants, clothes, furniture and data-intensive subscription services. Catherine explained that the main levers for reducing this include re-cycling/re-use, reduced packaging and then basically doing your homework on how stuff is being made and where its being sourced from. Of course, there is also the option to spend/consume less.

Air travel made up the second-largest chunk of my pie chart. I'm really trying my best to cut down on this category making use of Zoom meetings rather than in-person meetings. In an upcoming post I'll be speaking to one of Oliver Wyman's aviation experts about the how the airlines and aircraft manufacturers are planning to bring down their emissions through the use of hybrid-electric engines, sustainable aviation fuel and funky new designs for aircraft. In the meantime, you can always check on google flights for flights with lower than average emissions.

From an emissions perspective it's generally better to fly into smaller airports to avoid the plane circling Heathrow for an extra hour and Catherine also mentioned that you should feel better about being on a full flight since then the emissions then get shared across more passengers. If you fly business or first class then you take up more space and therefore get allocated a bigger chunk of the emissions from the flight.

Personally, my ground transport emissions were pretty low because I no longer own a car and most of the transport I use in London is electrified. Catherine and I had some fun playing around with my model of an electric vehicle's emissions below which vary greatly depending on the location where the vehicle is being recharged. If you choose a country from the drop-down list where the power grid is mostly coal-powered then an electric vehicle turns out to be just as bad as petrol vehicle.

There are some fairly well-known levers for Food and Waste related to cutting down on waste, packaging and red meat (particularly beef). I'll be inviting a friend on shortly who has take this a step further and now largely lives off her garden in London and recycles most of her waste through composting which reduces the amount of methane from organic matter ending up on landfill. I've been looking at the data and concluded that if we all lived more off our gardens and used compositing we could massively reduce emissions from transport, packaging, waste and release a lot of farmland back to nature.

The Household emissions in our carbon footprints partly depend on how much energy and space we take up in our homes but also on how we heat our homes and whether we have access to a clean energy grid. Catherine is a big fan of solar panels on your roof particular if you can also use them to charge your electric car. Unfortunately, I live in the wrong part of the world for solar power!

The moving goals posts

The chart below shows the average per-capita carbon footprints for a selection of countries. Most developed countries are significantly over the 5 tonne global average (and the situation would look even worse if we fully loaded their imported emissions). If you move the slider to the right you then see that our target per-capita emissions need to come down as we head towards 2050. I also adjust here for the fact that the population is set to increase by another billion or so people between now and 2050 which puts further pressure on our per-capita budgets.


Carbon offsets

Catherine described how the carbon offsets which can be purchased through her website are now playing a useful role in financing a lot of the big transformational projects across carbon capture, renewables and reforestation/de-forestation prevention. However, she also emphasized that we will need to get our absolute emissions down and can't simply purchase our way to zero emissions through offsets.

In terms of bringing gross emissions down there are increasing demands from commentators for consumers to reign in their lifestyles whereas other voices are putting more emphasis on the role of low-carbon innovation and technology which they hope will come to our rescue. Given the huge gap that needs to be closed to get to net-zero I suspect we will need to make use of all of the above.

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