Why do we talk about carbon footprint?
This is because of the link (which 99% of scientists agree upon) between climate change and greenhouse gases. The most important of these gases is carbon dioxide because this is being released in larger quantities than ever before by the burning of fossil fuels.
The average UK citizen has a carbon footprint annually of about 10 tonnes. This is low compared to many developed countries, but some would say that we cheat the system by no longer producing many of the goods we consume here in the UK. However, as we still buy and use these items, we are clearly responsible for the carbon produced elsewhere in their manufacture (and transport). Though it's not counted in our national totals, we still get the benefit of the products.
So, on the surface, the UK is actually doing quite well in it's reduction of carbon (it's down about 40% on 1970 levels). However, there is still a long way to go, as we need to reduce this by a further two thirds by 2050 to meet our carbon emission targets. This is particularly true if you factor in our "imported" carbon emissions.
- STOP PRESS - UK Government is now calling for us to be carbon neutral (or net zero emissions) by 2050. This last point is important, as some carbon will be produced, which can be offset by planting trees, extracting carbon from the atmosphere, or (controversially) buying carbon credits from overseas countries.
In reality what does this all mean.
So how is our carbon footprint made up?
Finding figures to show what the average person in the UK contributes to this has been tough. We hope to have some more information soon - but essentially it is made up of:
Manufacture of goods and services
Leisure / Holiday activities
As we always say, we are not suggesting we return to the stone age lifestyle, but a little look at how we might do things a bit better in each of these areas could add up to a big change overall.
As was shown when we evaluated our own carbon footprint transport is the biggest single element nationally contributing to this (formerly it was power generation, but this has got significantly cleaner in recent years.
Whilst planes and cars are often vilified, the effect on carbon dioxide of all forms of transport is great affected by the number of passengers. A full plane is much more efficient per mile than an bus with low occupancy (we've all been on buses with only 3-4 other people on there). A car literally doubles it's carbon efficiency per person when there is a single passenger.
Flying is very carbon heavy, but primarily due to the long distances travelled, so it is all a matter of perspective. The basic take home message is try to travel in full modes of transport to lower your carbon footprint (we doubt this is any consolation to commuters on packed trains in the rush hour!).
It is also important for designers off all means of transport to work on try to increase their ecofriendliness. Electric vehicles, particularly trains are very good from this point of view - but in our view the biggest change will come when there is full adoption of electric cars (ideally powered by electricity from renewable sources) as the ease of travelling at your convenience is always going to be very popular (then we just need to fix the traffic jams....)
What does carbon neutrality look like?
To be honest, this is a big ask and does require some very major changes. The aim will be to still have the same standard of living (or better) than currently, whilst changing the way we source much of our energy, in particular.
1 - Transport will need to be electric and charged by renewable (or at least non-carbon - eg nuclear) sources
2 - Heating and cooking will need to cease to use gas, and switch to renewable electricity (or other sources, such as air or ground source heating)
3 - Air travel will have to change dramatically. Either we'll have to cut back massively on this, or planes will need to be electric as well (this is currently a major problem as large planes simply will be too heavy to fly whilst carrying all the batteries needed.
4 - Diets are also likely to need to change to meet this goal - the consumption of meat and diary is likely to have to be reduced.
5 - Building must be net zero carbon, this means both in the building and maintainence. It is very likely new technologies will be required to see this happen.
Is this all feasible?
Yes - BUT, it is going to be painful and there is going to be a lot of push back against it. It is very important that technology is designed / invented to help alleviate the pain, or consumers are going to find it very hard to buy into all the changes needed.
Transport is one of the biggest creators of greenhouse gases, so we'll have a look at what you can do to reduce your impact.
By this we are thinking those journeys that are longer than you can walk (realistically), but don't require an overnight stay before returning (so quite a range!)
This could be a trip to the shops or a work trip several hours away.
The options are car, train, bus or in some cases bicycle.
If we assume that cycling is the most environmentally friendly and that we should do it if feasible (and safe), then next we look at other forms of transport and their impacts
Flights use lots of fuel; there is no getting away from this. So within our aim of trying to be able to live a 21st Century lifestyle, whilst still doing our bit for the planet, we have some tough choices.
1 - Just take less flights - go on less distant holidays, do less business travel (more video conferencing etc).
2 - Try to find ways to reduce the carbon footprint of your flight
(a) Get on full planes (ie fly airlines that generally fill their flights) as per passenger the impact is less
(b) Use carbon offsetting. This is the payment of an extra fee, which assuages your guilt for all the carbon you are responsible on the flight! Seriously, it is a fee that is invested in carbon reducing projects, such as solar panels, tree planting etc.
The problem is often that we don't have enough information about how this money is being spent, whether it really offsets the affects of the flight we've taken and who is accountable to ensuring it all works properly. We've done some investigating and many of the sites offering such services look great and we don't doubt the great work they do - but consumers probably need much more information much easily available at their finger tips.
(c) Try to fly on planes / airlines that are more fuel efficient (ironically this can be the cheaper ones as demonstrated by this artcle on the BBC). In the future it is likely we'll be able to fly in electric planes, which can use renewable sources.
The problem at the moment is that the batteries are simply too heavy - new, more energy dense batteries will need to be invented to cure this. Currently, electric flying is really only feasible with very small planes, flying at slow speeds (much in the same way as drones work). Electric planes (probably preceded by hybrid ones) will develop as batteries improve and experts predict we'll see significant short-haul flights within 10 to 20 years.
(d) Virtual Travel - heard of it? There are some thoughts that VR headsets could mean we can "visit" destinations from the comfort of our homes. Whilst this might be fun, will it really catch on in a significant way?
Flying will remain important for many people and this should be recognised as draconian actions will meet greater resistance and therefore be counter-productive. It could be that airline duty needs to change, so, for example, it might be that governments impose greater taxes the more an individual fly - but this is just one of many possible scenarios.