Our Carbon Footprint

Our Carbon Footprint

A carbon footprint is the amount of CO2 that an individual, or a group of individuals, or an industry, releases into the atmosphere in a year. 

Calculate your own carbon footprint

Each link below take you to a different online carbon footprint calculator. It's interesting not only to use them to calculate your own footprint, but to use them to see how changes you could make would affect it. And it can be amusing to imagine yourself to be , for example, a Range-Rover driving frequent flier, or a vegetarian who travels only on foot, and calculate the resulting footprint. 

                     The Nature Conservancy                                            World Wildlife Fund                                            CarbonFootprint.com

Image from Coalpoint Progress
Image from Coalpoint Progress

How much is the average UK Carbon Footprint ?

 Internet research turns up a surprisingly wide range of answers. Your Carbon Footprint is how much CO2 and other climate-warming gases you are responsible for releasing into the atmosphere, by your consumption, by heating your home, by driving your car, and so on. The world average is about 4.7 tonnes per person per year. According to Ovo Energy, the average carbon footprint for UK citizens is 6.7 tonnes per year. Our World in Data has an interactive graph that gives the 2020 figure as 4.85 tonnes. And Pawprint says it's an astounding 12.7 tonnes CO2e. (The "e" at the end stands for "equivalent", and means that emissions of other gases like methane and CFCs are taken into account.) Which of these, if any, is right? Pawprint's figure is nearly three times Our World in Data's. 

What can account for this discrepancy? A World Wildlife Fund report, Carbon Footprint-- Exploring the UK’s contribution to climate change, published in March 2020, and available online, gives an enlightening answer. The key difference is between the emissions we produce in this country, our "Territorial Emissions", and the emissions which result, in this country and abroad, from producing goods that we consume. These are our "Consumption Emissions". The WWF report shows graphs of these two categories of emissions, in the period 1990-2016. From their data, we get two estimates of the average UK personal carbon footprint, 
in tonnes per person per year, shown in the following table.
                                                                                                                                     1990    2016     
                                                                                  Territorial Emissions             13.97    7.32
                                                                                  Consumption Emissions     16.59   12.20

Warwickshire Climate Alliance

Which is a better estimate?

Each person’s carbon footprint is a measure of how much carbon (or, more precisely, CO2e) we are personally responsible for. Where the emissions take place is not really relevant. We shouldn’t attribute to other countries the carbon emitted through the manufacture of goods that they sell to us. It is us who are responsible for those emissions. If we didn’t want the goods, they wouldn’t be produced. It is possible that if we made them ourselves, we might do it less carbon-intensively, for example by powering our factories by renewables rather than coal. So if you are desperate to reduce your estimate of your carbon footprint, you can knock off a tonne or so and blame it on other people’s outdated manufacturing processes. But honestly counted, the average UK carbon footprint is above 12 tonnes. The world average is 4.7 tonnes. We have a long way to go. (In case you are wondering which category of emissions the figure of 4.7 tonnes measures, the answer is that at the global level, both averages are necessarily the same.) 
The image above, unfortunately without numbers, shows the emissions per capita by locality and not just by country. Within each country there are very large variations.
Warwickshire Climate Alliance

Government data

The UK government prefers to talk about Territorial Emissions. They are a lot less than Consumption Emissions, so make us look better. And they are coming down a lot faster than our Consumption Emissions: the figures in the table above show that in the period 1990-2016, our Territorial Emissions footprint dropped by 48%, versus 26% for our Consumption Emissions footprint. This matters a lot! We are not doing as much for the climate as we like to imagine. A 26% reduction is only half as good as the 48% reduction the government likes to talk about; to really do as well as the government claims we are doing, we all need to work twice as hard, replacing fossil fuels by renewables and reducing our consumption of fossil-fuel produced goods from abroad. And government needs to tell it like it is, and not lull us with misleading statistics. The difference between Consumption Emissions and Territorial Emissions is called "Embedded Emissions" -- CO2 emitted abroad making goods that we import. The contribution of Embedded Emissions to the average UK footprint was 2.62 tonnes in 1990 and 4.88 tonnes in 2016. It went up rather than down (and continues to do so)! How can government deal with this? Isn't it just down to consumer choices? To some extent it is, and we, the consumers, need to reflect on our own responsibility to the climate and to the welfare of the planet. But one reason why Embedded Emissions are going up is that it is cheaper to produce goods in countries where there is less effort to reduce emissions (and, probably, to reduce other environmental costs, and to protect workers’ rights) than in the UK. To remedy this, governments can impose a "carbon border adjustment" -- tax the import of goods produced in climate-unfriendly ways, so that their price to the consumer here is what it would be if their manufacturers paid the same taxes on emissions as we do. But further raising prices to the consumer here, at a time when prices are already rising, would hardly be a vote-winner! We all have to make difficult choices here.

Further reading: Thriving within our planetary means -- an excellent report from WWF.