Time to assess your carbon budget

We all need to start somewhere in the fight against climate change. One way to get going is to calculate your personal carbon budget

Home Life Sustainability Time to assess your carbon budget

Climate change remains the single biggest challenge the world faces. We know what is happening, the question is what to do about it.

Yet change is always difficult – especially for individuals. Big companies have big resources: they can afford to buy expertise and data, and they can invest in expensive new low-carbon technologies. These things are out of reach for an ordinary household.
As an individual you might buy an electric car – but electric cars still tend to cost more than the average vehicle and it can take 15 years or more for the savings to offset the additional expense to the owner. You could switch from gas central heating to an electric heat pump, but again the upfront costs are high. You could work on transitioning to alternative heating fuels such as hydrogen, but only when they become available – which is not yet.

Change your thinking on carbon

But maybe this is the wrong way to think about carbon and climate change. Instead of concentrating on the costs and difficulties of reducing climate emissions, it might be better to start with the emissions themselves. After all, if we don't know the facts about our personal contributions to the atmospheric carbon load, how can we know what to do to change them?

This is where carbon budgeting comes in. If you can gain more detailed knowledge about your role in climate change, you may start reaching for solutions instead of thinking about obstacles and problems.

Most people approach carbon emissions in a piecemeal way. We might have some idea what a journey by air means in terms of carbon and how much it would cost to offset it (because the airline probably tells us). We might know something about our auto emissions (because the government lets us know through the taxes that high-emissions cars attract). But do we add it all up to understand our carbon footprint? And if we did, would we alter our behaviour?

Calculate your emissions

In fact, there are some easy ways to make these calculations via the internet. There are several free personal carbon-emissions calculators available online, including those from, WWF and The Nature Conservancy. If you have basic data on how much electricity, gas and other fuels you are using at home every year the calculators will do the rest for you. They draw on standardised measures of how much carbon is emitted by your ‘primary' activities (such as household heating) and how much ‘secondary' carbon you are responsible for (things like carbon emitted by the companies who make the things you buy).

The results will hold up a mirror to the way you live – and help you make choices. For example, using a carbon calculator to estimate the carbon emitted annually by a two-person household shows you might expect to send almost four tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere just from average amounts of heating and lighting, while driving will add yet more – all things that could change with the right carbon-aware psychology.

Be carbon aware

Other changes could follow. Once you know that a typical household food budget of £100 a week accounts for around 3.5 tonnes of carbon annually, you might consider switching to a diet that would almost halve those emissions. And travelling 10 miles by bus every working day adds another 0.41 tonnes of carbon, but go by bicycle and that falls to zero. Spending £50 a week on clothes and shoes (and many spend more) accounts for one more tonne of carbon, yet second-hand clothes at least reduce emissions.
Once you perform all these calculations, the scope for personal change becomes more apparent. And while everyone must make their own choices, the underlying figures on what we do and what we need to do are there for all to see. The average EU individual footprint is currently 6.4 tonnes of carbon a year and the target for 2050 is zero.

Whether you are a company, a government or an individual, there is only one way to get to that target: make a carbon budget and stick to it.