Reducing Carbon in Our Lives – Where to Start?

December 9, 2018

The need for action to reduce carbon and fossil fuel usage (keep it in the ground) and prevent climate change is urgent; in fact, the trajectory of emissions would need to turn around in the next year and begin declining in a large way, continually, reaching about 50% decline (on average, globally), meaning much more for us in the US, by 2030, to stay below the 1.5 C limit endorsed by scientists and all nations as part of the Paris agreement in 2015.

Can we do something about climate change?  Yes, definitely!  As Pope Francis says, don’t wait for someone else to go first!  You, your voice and leadership are needed in your community, in whatever groups you are present!  Leadership will need to come from everywhere at once, to bring about the needed change.  Any way you find to be happier with a smaller carbon footprint is good!  In Nov. 2017 he also suggested that we avoid 4 perverse attitudes, not only denial and indifference, but importantly: resignation and trust in inadequate solutions!  Any individualistic approaches are inadequate.  We need to focus on system change and taking responsibility for the carbon intensity of our local electricity systems for example – getting those shifted off fossil fuels ASAP.  As people always wonder about the personal end though, here are things to consider.

Consumption and where to start

Buying anything usually involves production and transport (as well as the time spent earning money), to buy it.  It is quite difficult to spend money without raising carbon levels.  Buying and wasting food is particularly costly, in terms of both money and carbon emissions.  So is buying new clothes.  New vehicles should be electric and will save you money in the longterm.


The IPCC estimated the world is producing GHGs at around 50 gigatons (that is, 50 billion tons) of CO2e a year and rising.  Some impacts should be counted as more now though, as the impacts of some pollutants are stronger over different timescales.  For example, although we usually look at the impact of different gases over a 100-year time span (that is, up until 2115), climate change will wreak havoc much sooner than that, making it worth considering the impact over shorter timescales as well.  This changes the relative impact of the different gases: those that are powerful but short-lived become more important relative to the weaker but very long-lasting CO2.  Methane and refridgerants cause the most damage this century.  On a 50-year timescale, for example, the non-CO2 emissions caused by agriculture, refrigeration, and air-conditioning would immediately become roughly twice as serious.  Black carbon is also shorter lasting (instant benefit from cutting!) and has a big effect.  In the US this comes from transport (mainly diesel), and about 10% comes from coal-fired power stations. The good news about black carbon is that it lasts only a few days in the atmosphere. In other words, if we can reduce the amount we create, the benefit will be instant.

Around half of methane releases come from agriculture (especially livestock at 5% of global emissions, but also rice cultivation at 1.5% and other farming). The rest of the methane comes mainly from the extraction and processing of coal, gas, and oil; from landfill (2% of the global total – recent estimates indicate this could be higher); from the treatment of used water; and from other wastes. Nitrous oxide results mainly from the spreading of nitrogen fertilizer and manure, although there are also contributions from fuel combustion, industrial processes, and waste treatment. The F gases, at 1.1 percent, result mainly from refrigeration and air-conditioning.

US per-person CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and cement are 17.3 tons vs, 7.8 in the UK, 5.4 tons for China, a world average of 4.5 tons, 1.4 tons in India and .1 tons in Ethiopia.  The US continues to produce 20-25% of the human-caused carbon with just 4-5% of the population.  See all countries The best measure of current responsibility for climate change may be the total carbon footprint of the average person in each nation.  Based on 2008 data published in a paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US) are 20.2 for the US, 11.5 for the UK, 4.3 in China, 2.1 in Brazil, 1.3 in India, etc.

The relative historical emissions of each continent are depicted below.  Country sizes in this map show CO₂ emissions from energy use 1850-2011. These historical (or “cumulative”) emissions remain relevant because CO₂ can remain in the air for centuries. Europe and the US dominate, having released around half the CO₂ ever emitted.

Africa and Asia have outsize numbers of people at risk.  Country sizes show the number of people injured, left homeless, displaced or requiring emergency assistance due to floods, droughts or extreme temperatures in a typical year. Climate change is expected to exacerbate many of these threats.  These maps show that broadly, the countries that have contributed least to the problem of climate change are home to the most people at risk and have the least financial capacity to respond.

Where you can accomplish the most

In Peter Kalmus’ book Being the Change recounts his and his families journey to a healthier, happier life and more connected community while reducing his carbon footprint to about 10% of what it was.

The rest of this post draws from Mike Berners-Lee’s research reported in How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything.  By talking through a hundred or so items and areas of consumption, Mike Berners-Lee sets out to give us a carbon instinct for the footprint of literally anything we do, buy and think about.

Some takeaways, Berners-Lee recommends a focus on re-thinking the big things like flying for a business trip when it can be done via teleconference, or high-impact habits like eating out or eating meat often, or driving a gasmobile.

Easy Wins

Water, Energy

  • Insulate. Putting 10-inch attic insulation in homes that haven’t got any saves $2.80 for every $1 invested. Upgrading where you already have 2” also produces savings/makes CO2 reductions.
  • Eliminate bottled water. Bottled water is more than 1,000 times more carbon intensive than tap water. The bulk of the emissions come from packaging and transport.
  • An aerated showerhead reduces water and the energy to heat it by about half.


  • Deforestation – Be aware of the dynamic and how you contribute to demand (e.g., Starbucks continues to be a palm oil hold-out, as of this writing). Developed countries’ ag and resource demands drive deforestation.
  • Get rid of junk mail in less than 30 seconds at In the US, citizens receive an average of 41 lbs of junk mail per year and 44% of this ends up in landfill. Opt out of email direct marketing too

You might be using more GHG online, than you think…

  • Landlines take a third of the carbon of cell phone calls. On the cell network, texting saves carbon over calls.  Our computers and networks take a lot of energy and data centers are growing fast, along with our expectations for speed.
  • Getting your news online reduces your impact by half (only half, after production of the computer, running of your network, and the electricity consumed by all the hubs and servers around the world that support the websites you browse).
  • Food & Drink comprise 20% of footprint (or 30% with deforestation). 12% is just for those groceries bought at stores. Two-thirds of the impact is on the farm. A lot of the rest is from transportation. Consider local vs. flown in vegetables. Food from animals turns out to be more carbon intensive than food from plants, simply because animals are an inefficient way to produce food for humans.  Animals eat plants and then spend their lives using energy by walking around, keeping warm, etc. It is far more efficient for people to eat plants directly. Beef and lamb are doubly high in carbon because they are belching ruminants. Around 85% of dairy’s footprint is generated on the farm, but transport, packaging, and refrigeration also play their part. Because milk is heavy, keeping it local (and not trucking it hundreds of miles to and from distribution centers) is a good idea. Most of the impact of egg production comes from the farming itself (in this case the rearing of birds and growing of their feed) rather than the packaging or transport. NOx is the main contributor to the GHG footprint of the final product.

Communications – larger than you might think

Landline and cell phone calls

Landlines offer carbon savings because it takes about one-third of the power to transmit a call over a fixed landline network than it does when both callers are on a cell phone.  A one minute on a cell phone is about the same CO2 as an apple, most of a banana, or a very large gulp of beer.  Three minutes by phone is similar to the impact of sending a letter on recycled paper by post.

Texting is much lower carbon than cell phone calls.  The footprint of the energy required to transmit your calls across the cell network is about three times all of this put together, a best estimate of 94 kg (207 lbs.) CO2e over the life of the phone, or 47 kg/yr.   Nearly half the world population has a cell phone. On this basis, cell phone calls account for about 125 million tons CO2e, which is just over one-quarter of a percent of global emissions.

Data Centers

The world’s data centers currently account for one-quarter of the energy consumed around the world by the information and communication technology sector, according to IT advisory company Gartner.  That’s around two-thirds as much as all the computers and monitors in the world. On current growth trends, however, the power draw of data centers is set to at least double over the coming decade to over 1% of total emissions. Meanwhile 1% is about the proportion of the U.K.’s footprint accounted for by printing and paper-based publishing.  The point is that digital information may not be lower-carbon than the paper-based world of 20 years ago.   Not only is global data growing incredibly fast, but so is our expectation that we can interrogate it or process purchases at a moment’s notice.

Food & Drink – 20% of footprint (or 30% with deforestation)

Food and drink, often underestimated, come in at 12% just for those groceries bought at stores. If we include all the food and drink served by hotels, pubs, cafés, schools, hospitals, and so on, we’d get to about 17%. If we also added in the emissions from cooking at home, traveling to the stores, and the emissions from food waste sent to landfill, the total footprint of the stuff that goes into people’s mouths comes to about 20% of the U.K.’s footprint. It’s roughly the same percentage for the world as a whole. All these numbers are without considering the impact of food demand on deforestation.

Two-thirds of the impact is on the farm. Supermarket operations make up about one-ninth of the total picture.  Whereas CO2 is the dominant greenhouse gas overall, it accounts for only 11% of ag emissions; the rest is nitrous oxide (53%) and methane (36%). Nitrous oxide is 296 times more potent per pound than CO2 as a climate-change gas, and on farms it results mainly from the use of fertilizer but also from cattle pee, especially if there is excessive protein in their diet, and from the burning of biomass and fuel.  Methane, which is 25 times more potent than CO2, is mainly emitted by cows and sheep when they belch. Some is also emitted from silage. The CO2 comes from machinery but also from the heating of greenhouses to grow crops out of season or in countries that just don’t have the right climate.


Bread is half the GHG production of rice.  Just over half the emissions of a loaf of bread come from the actual growing of the ingredients. About 1/6th is the baking. Transport is typically 1/7th, and the supermarket itself adds about 1/9th. The bag is a very small consideration and well worth it to keep the  bread fresh for longer, to reduce waste.  Bread is 1/50th as energy intensive as beef, per calorie supplied.


Consider transportation and energy production when consuming vegetables (locally grown, in season are best).  For more info on seasonal foods, see:

  • Local vs. flown in. If you live in New York and your entire diet were as carbon intensive as long-haul asparagus, your food footprint alone would be more than the entire footprint of the average North American. When produce is being moved, a mile by air has more than 100 times the climate impact of a mile by sea. This is because it takes a lot of energy to keep a plane in the air—and also because engine emissions tend to do more damage at high altitude than they do at ground level. Asparagus grown in season in your own country cuts out a staggering 97% of the footprint.  Favor local veggies or those nearer by.  At the end of local seasons there are periods when covering the vegetables or a small amount of heating makes the crop viable.
  • Greenhouses in winter are very carbon intensive. It is best to stick with in season vegetables or canned. If you do want to buy fresh tomatoes outside the local growing season, it is almost certainly preferable to buy them from Mexico, California, or another warmer place rather than choose local versions produced in heated greenhouses.
  • Maritime transport. If you live where food can be shipped in through maritime transport, that is much less energy intensive. Ships can carry food around the world around 100 times more efficiently than planes; they account for less than 1% of the chain’s total footprint.  Land-locked or otherwise truck-dependent states and countries depend more on fossil fuels.

Meat, Eggs, and Dairy

Food from animals turns out to be more carbon intensive than food from plants, simply because animals are inefficient devices for producing food. They eat plants and then spend their lives using energy by walking around, keeping warm, etc. It is far more efficient for people to eat plants directly. Beef and lamb are doubly high in carbon because they are belching ruminants. Chicken is a bit better because  they live less long and thus less energy goes into their feed.  Dairy has all the same problems of ruminant meat production, so there is little point in switching from beef to cheese. A kilo (2.2 pounds) of cheese comes in at around 13 kg CO2e, compared with around 17 kg for beef. Milk is 1.3 kg per liter.


About nine-tenths of this footprint comes from the beef farming itself. Using animals to produce food tends to be inefficient compared with eating crops, and cows have the added problem that they ruminate, producing enough methane to roughly double the climate change impact of farming them.

Less widely discussed than the methane are the nitrous oxide emissions, which account for about 30% of the footprint of beef farming. This gas is released when nitrogen fertilizer is applied to grass and other fodder crops and when the grass is silaged.  Last, there is the CO2 itself, at around one-fifth of the farming footprint from the tractors, other farming machinery, and energy required to make fertilizer.


Around 85% of the milk’s footprint is generated on the farm, but transport, packaging, and refrigeration also play their part. Because milk is heavy, keeping it local (and not trucking it hundreds of miles to and from distribution centers) is a good idea.

Going vegetarian

Generally, using animals to produce food tends to be inefficient compared with eating crops.  Going vegetarian can greatly reduce your land use and carbon footprint; however, it wouldn’t reduce your impact if you simply swapped cheese for meat (nor save you money nor make you healthier).  Think of cheese as a meat and therefore a treat.  Also consider transportation and energy. (See Vegetables)


Most of the impact of egg production comes from the farming itself (in this case the rearing of birds and growing of their feed) rather than the packaging or transport. Chickens don’t ruminate, so methane isn’t much of a problem. But nitrous oxide is the main contributor to the footprint of the final product.  From the perspective of climate change—organic eggs come out about 25% worse than those from battery farms. If you care about animal welfare as well as climate change, buying fewer eggs but making them organic might be a sensible compromise.


Paper and cardboard are often more carbon intensive than plastic packaging, mainly because making paper is so energy intensive but also because it emits methane if it ends up in landfill.

Plastic bags that preserve food or that weigh less in shipping than glass can save fossil fuels.  As packaging plastic is environmentally nasty as either landfill or litter because it hangs around for so long, but it is typically not quite as energy intensive to produce as card packaging and has the advantage, from a purely carbon perspective, that when you put it in landfill, you are just sending those hydrocarbons back into the ground where they came from for long-term storage. In the days when supermarkets routinely gave out disposable plastic bags, they accounted for around one-thousandth of the footprint of a typical shopping trip. Biodegradable plastic can be a well-intentioned nightmare, clogging up recycling processes, with the potential to ruin a whole batch, and in landfill it rots, emitting methane.

Glass is energy intensive to make (or recycle), and its weight adds to the transport footprint. Cans of beer are better than bottles, as are cartons or boxes of wine. Incidentally, bottles are absolutely no better for storing wine than the more climate-friendly alternatives.

Steel and aluminum are carbon-intensive stuff, but you don’t need a great weight of them, and they’re easy to recycle. It takes only about one-tenth of the energy to recycle aluminum compared with extracting it from ore in the ground.

Food waste

In the developed world we are thought to waste about one-quarter of the edible food we buy. This figure depends partly on your definition of what was edible in the first place. Do you think of the potato skin as just packaging, or do you think of it as the tastiest and most nutritious bit? In any case, a huge and expensive proportion of our food gets left on plates, goes bad in the fridge, isn’t scraped out of the pan properly or isn’t picked off the carcass. It is slightly better to compost waste food than to throw it into landfill, but the carbon footprint of that food has still been needlessly incurred.

Food storage/refrigeration

Fridges use electricity, and it takes energy to make them in the first place. On top of that is the problem that traditionally they have relied on the use of refrigerant gases that have a global warming potential several thousand times that of CO2. This stuff tends to leak out of large commercial fridges, which need topping up regularly. At Booths, this leakage from within the stores and warehouse accounted for around 3% of the total footprint. And refrigeration accounts for about half of all electricity usage in stores. When all considerations are taken into account, refrigeration probably accounts for around 6% of the footprint of supermarket food. New techniques may allow this footprint to drop dramatically.  In the meantime save and use leftovers and check what is in your fridge and cupboards.  Eradicating waste is worth a 25% savings for the average shopper.  Especially reduce meat and dairy.


For a typical bottle, just over a third of the footprint comes from the production of the wine itself.  By buying wine boxes or cartons, you can reduce the footprint of the packaging by a factor of about five and reduce the weight, so transport emissions can also be slashed by one-third, without loss of quality.

Fertilizer manufacture

Depending on the efficiency of the factory, making 1 ton of fertilizer creates between 1 and 4 tons CO2e. When the fertilizer is actually applied, between 1 and 5% of the nitrogen it contains is released as nitrous oxide, which is around 300 times more potent than CO2. This adds between 1.7 and 8.3 tons CO2e to the total footprint, depending on a variety of factors.  The science:  all plants contain nitrogen, so if you’re growing a crop, it has to be replaced into the soil somehow or it will eventually run out. Nitrogen fertilizer is one way of doing this. Manure is another. Up to a point there can be big benefits. For some crops in some situations, the amount of produce can even be proportional to the amount of nitrogen that is used. However, there is a cut-off point after which applying more does nothing at all to the yield, or even decreases it. Timing matters, too. It is inefficient to apply fertilizer before a seed has had a chance to develop into a rapidly growing plant.,,,



It takes so much more energy to make a brand-new aluminum can or plastic bottle than it does to make a new one from an old one, recycling is important.  When you are standing with 1 kg (2.2 lbs.) of something in your hand, if that is aluminum, it is most important that you recycle it. The next most important per kilo are textilesKitchen waste is a key area because of the large amount of methane it produces when it rots underground. And wasted food steals from the poor says Pope Francis.


The wealthy have more appliances, both within and across countries.  Refrigerators are one of the most energy intensive and the most important.  In the US, many are twice the size of European versions.  In India, refrigerator penetration is 21% in 2015, vs. a global average of 85%, despite the hot climate (AC is 3% in India vs 60% globally) and washing machines 8% vs. 70% globallyIndia’s consumer spending is set to double by 2020 and average daily caloric intake is set to rise after staying flat or even declining in rural areas over previous decades.

Dishwasher – Heating the water is the largest impact.  Running a dishwasher twice a week on the economy setting comes to 80 kg (176 lbs.) per year, equivalent to a 110-mile drive in an average car.  A dishwasher simultaneously helps the planet, your health, and your lifestyle. When you buy one, choose a make that will last, maintain it, try to always run it full, use the economy setting when possible, and run it in the middle of the night if you can, because the electricity is less carbon intensive then.

Bathroom, showers and bathing

Showers where the hot water comes from gas will work out as using less energy than a bath though, unless bath water is shared.  In winter you can reclaim about half the heat from bath water simply by leaving the plug in until it goes cold.

Toilet paper is three-quarters of a percent of the 10-ton life, according to Berners-Lee, who reflected that seems high for such a simple and brief part of our lives, and a sense of economy may be in order.

Clothes washing

For a typical 40°C (104°F) wash nearly three-quarters of the carbon footprint comes from the drying rather than the washing.  The other quarter is caused by the supply chain of the fuel: getting it out of the ground, flaring off the gas, shipping it around the world, refining it, and getting it to the pump.


Considerable emissions are involved in growing of the fuel crop and the process of turning it into fuel.


Yet another reason to conserve freshwater is that droughts are on the rise with climate change and desalination is notoriously energy intensive.  Supplying all domestic water by sea water desalination would increase the United States’ energy consumption by around 10%, about the amount of energy used by domestic refrigerators.  Energy is the largest single variable cost for a desalination plant, varying from one-third to more than one-half the cost of produced water. Because of its high energy use, desalination creates or increases the water supplier’s exposure to energy price variability.

Emissions per liter vary hugely depending on the efficiency of the process and the carbon intensity of the electricity used.  (A new plant in Sydney is also powered by coal.) Spain doubled its desalination between 2000 and 2004.  At the low-carbon end, Seawater Greenhouse claims to have developed a technique for using solar heat to desalinate water for greenhouse-cultivated crops in arid regions. In theory the desalination itself is just about carbon neutral.  Apart from greenhouse gases, another nasty by-product of desalination is the brine concentrate that is returned to the sea, increasing the salinity and messing up marine ecosystems.


Walking, cycling, and staying home are best.  Air travel and SUVs are the worst.

For all the road vehicles, the exhaust-pipe emissions make up about half of the footprint. About one-third lies in the manufacture and maintenance of the vehicle itself, and the remaining one-sixth is the supply chain of the fuel.  Emissions of the car per passenger mile are often ignored or underestimated. Whatever the precise difference (and it will of course vary widely depending on the particular vehicles), the train also lets you get some work done, read a book, or sleep instead of arriving at the other end stressed and frazzled.  Cars are typically more efficient with multiple passengers.

Light rail or urban underground

A mile and a half journey on light rail is equivalent to a cup of milk.  Urban underground can be very low-carbon, per passenger mile, despite stopping often mainly because people are packed in so tightly.  Other reasons are relatively slow travel, all-electric, and lighter trains.

Buses beat heavy rail trains

One reason that the bus/coach beats the train is that it travels more slowly, which is significant because the energy needed to overcome air resistance goes with the square of the speed. Another reason is that although a bus or coach is heavy, the weight per passenger is much less than it is for a train.

Gas-powered cars

As a rule of thumb, about half of the carbon impact of car travel comes out of the exhaust pipe itself. A few percent come from the processes of extracting, shipping, refining, and distributing the fuel. The rest, typically 40% of the footprint, is associated with the manufacture and maintenance of the car.  Big, expensive new cars have more of their embodied emissions attributable to each mile of driving. But it’s not just what model you drive that matters. Here are 10 good ways to reduce the carbon footprint of your car use:

  • Use the train, bus, or bike if traveling alone. Typical savings: 40-98%.
  • Put more people in the car. This could make it better than train travel, provided that the others were otherwise going to drive separately. Typical savings: 50-80%.
  • Join a car-sharing service.
  • Drive a small, efficient car. Typical savings: 50% compared with the average car.
  • Look after your car so that it will do 200,000 miles in its lifetime and it runs as efficiently as it can. Typical savings: 30% compared with the average.
  • Accelerate and decelerate gently, avoiding braking where possible. Typical savings: up to 20% in urban conditions.
  • Drive at 60 miles per hr on highways and freeways. Typical savings: 10% compared with 70 mph.
  • Keep the windows up when driving fast, and the air-conditioning off. Typical savings: 2%.
  • Keep the tires at the right pressure. Typical savings: 1%
  • Avoid rush hour. (See Congested car commute.)
  • Drive safely. (See Car crash.)

Driving in traffic

Driving in traffic is more energy intensive than many expect; i.e., 22 kg (49 lbs.) CO2e per five miles of crawling each way in an average car.  Doing this every working day for a year would be 4.8 tons CO2e more than flying from LA to Barcelona and back.

A congested drive can cause three times the emissions of the same drive on a clear road.  Driving in a traffic jam very roughly doubles your fuel consumption per mile. However, that’s only half of the story. By adding your car to the mass of belching motors, you also make a lot of other people line up just a little bit longer. It turns out, via a bit of simple queuing theory, that the extra emissions you force everyone else to produce (when you add them all together) is about equal to the extra emissions that you produce yourself as a result of having to line up instead of being able to drive straight through. In other words, if your journey is congested, by choosing to do it you cause about three times more emissions than you might expect. The queuing theory logic also works for the time that gets wasted. If you make the assumption that the journey is many times longer than it would be if there were no traffic, then the time you waste in the line is about equal to the sum of the extra time you make everyone else waste. In other words, the hassle and anguish that you experience is equal to the hassle and anguish that you inflict. So when deciding whether to drive through a busy area at rush hour, picture your own pain and double it. All of this adds to the case for traveling by bike, bus, train, foot, or ride share wherever possible. It’s also a useful reminder that all motorists should treat cyclists with the respect they deserve for helping to cut everybody else’s journey time.

Train travel

Light rail and train travel avoids creating traffic and is better than air travel.  Eighteen miles on a train is equal to one cheeseburger.  The weight of the train per passenger seat is around twice that of an average car (assuming each seat is filled in each), due to train travel, which is already over 100 times safer than driving, being over-engineered for safety (R. Kemp).  As a result, twice as much energy is required to get our trains moving every time they leave a station as for other vehicles.

The number of first-class seats are around half the number in a standard-class carriage, which means that the weight being moved per person is doubled again — now up to the weight of four cars per seat.  Furthermore, many first class carriage seats are often empty, suggesting that the real weight being hauled per first-class passenger may be even higher.  Even two people traveling together are better off driving an efficient car than traveling first class.

Flying – a gigantic portion of global GHG emissions by a small number of people

Flying is a gigantic portion of global GHG emissions, especially when considering that it is a small portion of people in each country that produce it.  Aviation comes to 3% of the world total once the effect of altitude is factored in.  Air travel for private purposes is a staggering 8% of the total GHG footprint in the UK. If you include business travel and air freight as well, flying comes in at around 12% of the U.K.’s footprint—much higher than the figure usually quoted.  Further, air travel is the fastest-growing major emissions source in the country.   Many people never fly at all. Then again, for some people, flying accounts for the overwhelming majority of their total footprint, and trying to cut carbon in other areas might simply be a misdirection of attention, distracting them from what matters.

Flying from Los Angeles to Barcelona return 3.4 tons CO2e economy class 4.6 tons CO2e average. Three economy trips are a whole year’s worth of 10-ton living. One trip is equivalent to 340,000 disposable plastic carrier bags. In other words, for your plastic bags to have the same footprint as just one trip from L.A. to Spain, you would have to go to the supermarket every single day for 10 years and return each time with 93 disposable bags.

Almost one-third of the total weight on take-off is fuel. As the fuel burns, it creates three times its weight in CO2. But the impact is worse still because high-altitude emissions are known to have a considerably greater impact than their low-altitude equivalents.

Ultimately, then, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that most of us need to fly less. But that needn’t make our lives any worse. Make your flights count: go for longer but less often, and do things you really couldn’t do at home. For the rest, try local trips, which involve less travel time and therefore more vacation.

Land Use and Community Resources 

Deforestation (17% of all man-made emissions)

Amazingly, an acre of deforestation is equivalent to a car driving around the world more than 10 times.  Globally we are cutting down or burning about 32 million acres of rainforest per year. That’s about the size of Alabama or Mississippi. (UN ‘State of the World’s Forests’ report)  Interestingly, North America now has more than 32 million acres of lawn under cultivation, occupying more land than any single crop, including wheat, corn, or tobacco.

Deforestation results in about 9 billion tons CO2e or 17% of all man-made emissions.(4)  Most of this deforestation total (about 22 million acres or 6 billion tons) involves clearing forest to make way for livestock and other agriculture. One estimate is that 20 to 25% of rainforest loss is due to cattle grazing, 35 to 45% to small holdings, 15 to 20% to intensive agriculture, 10 to 15% to logging, and perhaps 5% to other causes such as urbanization, mining, roads, and other infrastructure.(5)

Anything that increases the land we need for agriculture drives deforestation. Included in this list are high-meat diets, cut flowers, and biofuel crops.  In Brazil, where deforestation accounts for 70% of emissions, rates had been falling since 2004 until a spike in beef and soy prices brought on a further increase. Halting deforestation is potentially one of the easiest climate change wins, if only we can find the mechanism.  Preserving indigenous land rights saves forests.

Swimming pool

A swimming pool uses 400 tons CO2e per year, the same as 40 people living the 10-ton lifestyle or just over the expected lifetime footprint of a child born in the U.K. today.  Most of the pool’s gas is consumed in the process of heating the water. Electricity was used mainly for pumps, air extraction, and lighting. Most visitors traveled a fair distance by car to get there, and that accounted for 20% of the footprint.  Around 30% could be prevented just through simple improvements in efficiency.

Cemeteries and burial vs. cremation

On top of the carbon, cremation sends significant amounts of mercury into the atmosphere. Burial sounds like a more climate-friendly solution, but can turn out to have 10% higher carbon once you take account of cemetery maintenance for the next 50 years.  Benedictine monks are buried directly in the ground, which must be the most low carbon.


At a university, gas and electricity between them accounted for 45% of the total. Staff air travel came in at 10 percent, and staff and student car travel came in at about 7% each. Everything else that the university buys made up the remaining quarter of the footprint: IT equipment (5 percent), building maintenance (5 percent), paper based stuff (1 percent), and so on.

IT in total accounted for about 12 percent, with nearly half of that being due to the electricity consumed by computers themselves and a sixth to the power consumed by servers and other computing infrastructure, including the air conditioning to cool it all down. The remaining third was due to the embodied emissions in the equipment itself, with a little bit for services such as Internet access and software.  The sums here don’t take account of students and staff traveling to and from home, for example.

Manufacturing and consumption 


The average U.K. person has a clothing footprint closer to 225 kg (496 lbs.) per year, or more than 400 kg (882 lbs.) including laundry.  The Aral Sea is drying up partly because of cotton plantations in its catchment and the clothing and textiles industry produces toxins that find their way into water supplies.

Some tips for keeping the total impact of your clothing to a minimum:

  • Buy second-hand.
  • Repair things rather than throwing them out.
  • Donate or recycle clothing rather than putting it in the trash.
  • Buy stuff that is easy to wash and dry.
  • Buy stuff that is built to last.
  • Wear it and use it until it falls apart, or pass it on.
  • Favor synthetic fibers over natural ones.

Steel, by location

A report for the U.K. government estimated that the emissions associated with the manufacture of 1 ton of steel in China were typically three times those for steel made in the U.S., where production is carried only two-thirds of the footprint per ton of steel made in Denmark or the U.K. only half. India came out worse than China, and Nigeria is worse still—at over 11 times more carbon-intensive than for U.S. production.  According to another recent study, Chinese steel mills emit as much as 12 times more carbon dioxide per ton as more modern mills in the U.S. and elsewhere.  The latter are mostly so-called mini-mills — small, relatively low-cost steel mills that rely entirely upon scrap metal and run on electricity instead of coal. In most of the world, scrap-metal recycling now accounts for almost 40% of steelmaking (in the U.S., it’s more than 60 percent). Mini-mills offer several advantages, including the fact that they can be customized and turned on and off easily. (Traditional blast furnaces must run constantly, often for years.) That allows producers to manage output more readily.  Thirty years ago, China wasn’t generating enough scrap metal to justify a transition to mini-mills, but they are now.

PV panels (this has come down since 2010 data here – thin film solar is also much less resource intensive)

Photovoltaic panels 3.5 tons CO2e producing a solar roof capable of generating 1,800 units (kilowatt-hours) of electricity per year 50 tons CO2e lifetime savings—that’s 5 years’ worth of 10-ton living.  That gives the panels a footprint of 3.5 tons. If we assume that the electricity generated all replaces output from coal-fired power stations rather than the grid average, then the carbon savings per year is about 1.8 tons, and you’d pay back the carbon in about 2 years.  Wind can be produced at a lower CO2 cost at the time of this writing.


The model tells us that in the typical shoe about half of the carbon footprint is due to materials, around one- quarter is due to energy used in shoe manufacture, 15% is transport, 5% the shoe box, 5% other.

A new car

A new car 6 tons CO2e Smart car, basic specification 17 tons CO2e Ford Taurus 35 tons CO2e Land Rover Discovery, top of the range.  A new gas guzzler could eat up three and a half years’ worth of 10-ton living before you even drive it off the lot. (It’s not as much as this if you trade in your old car for resale.)

House construction

A new house is 80 tons CO2e, equivalent to five brand-new family cars, eight years of 10-ton living, or 24 economy-class trips to Los Angeles to Barcelona.


Construction comprises 6% of total emissions and includes domestic repairs, new houses, and all new commercial construction work.  Building re-use is the most efficient option.

Making concrete results in a staggering amount of CO2e: around 4% of the world’s total GHG footprint, largely because the chemical process that turns limestone into cement gives off large volumes of CO2 directly and takes a huge amount of energy. About 40% comes from the burning of fuel to drive the reaction and about half from the chemical reaction, leaving about 10% for supply chain.  Cement makes up about 12% of the footprint of the U.K. construction industry, so other potential ways of reducing its impact are to use different materials, to build to last and build less, and to refurbish in preference to knocking down and building anew (see House).

Eco-Cement, Advocates claim not only that this product requires half the energy input of conventional cement but also that it reabsorbs CO2 from the air as it hardens (around 400 g CO2e per kilo). There are also claims that it is easier to incorporate waste materials into the mix than with normal cement and that it is easier to recycle. The product is based on magnesite.

Production of electrical goods

Production of electrical goods–household computers and appliances—comes in at 4 percent of total GHG emissions, almost half as much as the electricity they consume in use.

Public administration, defense, education, health care, and social services

Public administration, defense, and social services cause a significant 11% of emissions. A common misconception is that there is nothing we can do about this as individuals. To cut your share of these emissions, how about preventing crime; encouraging schools, universities, and businesses to manage their carbon; staying as healthy as possible; and voting with climate change in mind?

War is very costly in very many respects and roundly condemned by Pope Francis and many religious leaders.  With regard to carbon emissions, the war-and-carbon discussion starts to get distinctly uncomfortable (and methodologically just about impossible) at the point where we start factoring in the indirect emissions impact caused by the death toll and indeed the broader economic impacts of the war.