Notes from an Open University Course – Carbon Footprints and Me

My carbon footprint vs the national average

Dear Readers, part of my assignment for November on my OU Open Science Degree revolves around looking at my personal carbon footprint, and what I can do about it. The average for a UK resident is 14.6 tonnes of CO2e, but mine comes in at 15.86 tonnes. What to do? Plus, even the average is still way above what would be needed to actually keep our projected temperature rise at under 2o going forward.

In some ways, we are in good shape. We don’t own a car, and we are good about recycling, repairing and re-using our goods. I’m not one for fast fashion, and we walk and use public transport for the majority of our journeys. I waste very little food, and we are 99% vegetarian.

That’s where the good news stops, unfortunately.

Our home energy consumption is 2.3 tonnes compared to 2 tonnes on average.  One of our problems is that we live in a Victorian house, with original windows, gaps in the floorboards and various howling draughts that come from we know not where. At some point we will undoubtedly have to replace the windows, but I love the glass, some of which dates back to when the house was built. You can get double and even triple-glazed units in timber these days which will echo how the place currently looks, but we will have to save up like crazy because these are far from cheap.

We have had draught-proofing down already, but still the draughts persist. This is not an exact science, as anyone seeing my husband crawling under his desk with a joss stick to see if he could see where a particularly noxious chilly breeze was coming from would attest. The other option would be external cladding, but there are problems with this too – retro-fitting can cause damp and condensation, and the terrible events at Grenfell testify to the fire-risk from some products.

All of these are quality problems to have. However, they really do point up one of the weaknesses of carbon calculators generally, which is that many, many people do not have control over where they live, either because they are renting, because they are sharing a house with other people, or because they simply don’t have the money to even consider new windows or cladding. Various schemes have been used to encourage the uptake of insulation or energy-efficient appliances, such as new boilers and light bulbs, and this must be part of the way forward.

Another big difference is in flying, where we use 2.2 tonnes of carbon compared to the average of only .54. So much for feeling smug about not having a car! This is largely due to our transatlantic flight to Canada every year to see my husband’s mother and his Aunties and friends, but as regular readers will know, there’s often another long flight (such as the one to Borneo earlier this year) and our regular trip to Austria. We can’t do much about the Canada trip, but I foresee a lot more train travel in our future, particularly for our European trips. This will actually be a nice way to get around if and when the pandemic eases and we retire. Again, this is a quality problem, with many people not being able to afford to travel internationally at all. At least with the advent of remote technology I stopped travelling abroad for work a good fifteen years ago.

And then, there’s the chunk for goods and services, where we have 6.39 tonnes of carbon equivalent per year compared to the average of 4.55 tonnes. Try as I might, I couldn’t get this down, largely because the bulk of it relates to your household income. We aren’t rich, but we are both working, and this section assumes that when you earn more, you spend more. Also, even if you squirrel your money away, at the end of the day it contributes to someone else’s expenditure. The richer you are, the larger your carbon footprint, on both a national and international level. I dread to think what the Queen’s footprint looks like.

So, after promising to fit new windows, draught proof the house, fit external cladding and reduce my flying I managed to get my carbon footprint to 14.78 tonnes, still above average but only just. What could I do to actually get anywhere close to a proper saving?

Well, I could stop work. That would lower our household income and automatically our carbon footprint would come down to 12.1 tonnes. Whilst I would probably enjoy swanning about, blogging and observing the bird life, this isn’t going to happen in the short term. It does point up both the strengths and weaknesses of carbon footprint calculators however. There is no doubt that richer people should make larger sacrifices because their standards of living are already higher, but this goes beyond just a bit of tinkering with your house.

Another way to reduce my carbon footprint would be to live with someone else. Our house isn’t enormous but it’s way bigger than the house that I grew up with, where five of us plus dog, cat, mouse, budgie and hamster lived in a two-up, two-down railway cottage in Stratford. If our household was three instead of two, we would reduce our footprint to 13.47 tonnes. We bought a house that was a little larger than we needed originally because we assumed that friends and family would be staying on a regular basis. Well, ‘family’ for me is now mostly gone, and the pandemic has put paid to visitors, but it is something to think about when things ease.

The third way to reduce my individual footprint would be to reduce my income, but indirectly. For example, an increase of 1% on income tax (to be used to pay for the costs of decarbonisation) would reduce our annual carbon equivalent to 8.6 tonnes. Or, I could voluntarily commit to a decarbonisation offset of 1% on my annual income, and that would reduce my footprint to 10.17 tonnes. The problem with this second idea would be to find decarbonisation schemes that actually make an impact – my experience so far has been with the schemes that are sometimes offered when you book flights so that you don’t have to feel guilty about all the carbon dioxide that you’re pouring into the atmosphere, and I am deeply dubious about whether they actually help. However, a proper accredited scheme might be something to consider, for sure.

All in all this was a fascinating exercise, and it makes me think that the changes that we’ll be required to make if we don’t all want to fry, get washed away or starve will be way beyond what governments are ‘fessing up to at the moment. I heard a climate change activist talking about how he’d been invited to speak on a programme about what would be required for us to become carbon neutral. He sent in his ideas – limits on flying, banning of all petrol-driven cars, heating by hydrogen, an increase in nuclear/wind/solar power – and was told that that wasn’t what they wanted at all. No, what they wanted was for people in the supermarket to know if they were better off buying a mango or a banana.

I think that the climate crisis is rather like a bereavement: as we start to come to terms with the fact that the way that we’re living is not sustainable, there’s all kinds of denial and bargaining going on. For example, China, who plan to become carbon-neutral by 2060, are apparently pinning their hopes on technology which will clean the carbon out of the air, and which doesn’t actually exist yet. On the other hand, I am heartened by Joe Biden’s election this weekend – at least he isn’t an out and out climate change denier like the previous incumbent. We live in interesting times, my friends. It will be fascinating to see how things play out.

6 thoughts on “Notes from an Open University Course – Carbon Footprints and Me

  1. FEARN

    Well done for confronting these issues head on. Have things come any way since Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful? Nothing exists (politically or in the scientific world) until it is measured, so I guess carbon calculations serve a real purpose. Now, can I feel smug for the first time since retiring early?

  2. Anne

    This is interesting. I am not sure about the assumption that the higher one’s income the higher one’s carbon footprint would be, but I suppose there is a formula that works this out. There are so many families that actually need both partners to work in order to make ends meet! You have provided an honest assessment here – it makes me wonder what my carbon footprint would be.

  3. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    Like Anne, I’m not sure how they equate larger income to a larger footprint. Surely that’s included in what you spend your money on – like flights, home heating or whatever. Perhaps everything should come with a carbon footprint ‘score’ – either on the packaging (like ingredients) or at the point of sale for cars or white goods for example. People might then think twice about buying one item versus another.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I agree – I imagine that they take the carbon emissions of the whole population and then allocate them according to income, but it’s a very rough and ready method, and a bit disheartening when you actually want to reduce your carbon footprint and discover that there is a big chunk of it that’s actually out of your control.

      1. Alittlebitoutoffocus

        It must also be quite variable, because some people prefer to buy ‘local produce’ (if and where they can) while others will spend their money on things which have been ferried half way around the world. New Zealand lamb and Aussie wine perhaps being 2 examples. (I prefer Italian, as Swiss wine is too expensive and nowhere near as good!) 😊

      2. Bug Woman Post author

        I think you are absolutely right about there needing to be a way of weighing up the options rather than scratching your head and trying to decide whether a tomato raised in Spain in the open air and transported by lorry is better than one raised in a polytunnel in the Isle of Wight in the depths of winter. No wonder so many people shrug their shoulders and go with what they fancy…

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