Ten ways to start reducing your carbon footprint

Image source: Taiga Company. 1) If you buy just one new appliance in 2010, make it a really efficient fridge-freezer. The improvements in the energy use of the best fridge-freezers have been really impressive in the last few years. If you have an old refrigerator, it may be responsible for as much as a sixth of your electricity bill. A good new machine might use less than a half as much power, particularly if it is not too large. A second benefit is that by choosing to buy a really efficient refrigerator you will be sending a clear signal to the manufacturers that energy consumption matters. An impressive new web site – www.energytariff.co.uk – allows you to compare the electricity used by almost all the appliances currently in UK shops. You can make well-informed choices from your computer.


2) Buy fewer, better clothes that are easy to wash. The worldwide textile manufacturing industry is a major user of energy. Additionally, growing natural fibres such as cotton or wool creates substantial volumes of emissions. A light woollen sweater might be responsible for over 40 kilograms of emissions before it gets to the shop. Even a T-shirt can embody over 6 kilograms of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. The average Briton buys seven of these a year. Could you make do with buying fewer, and making sure that they last longer? Buy organic cotton and you also know that your garment hasn’t added to the serious problems of pesticide pollution in central Asia. Can you switch to man-made fibres for some of your clothing? These fabrics generally last longer and can be washed at low temperatures, using less energy.

3) Think about trading in your car for membership in a car-share club. If you are typical, you use your car for one hour a day but pay for all 24. A car sitting at the kerb has to be insured, financed and maintained even if you hardly use it. Commercially run ‘car clubs’ are growing fast in many cities. They offer rentals from as little as £3.95 an hour or cars can be hired by the week from locations within a few minutes’ walk of your home. Car clubs reduce the cost of motoring for many people and each rented vehicle takes several private cars off the road. If there are no clubs in your area, simply sharing a car with neighbours may be a good alternative.

4) Look at the costs and benefits of putting solar panels on your roof. In April next year the government is introducing a new scheme to persuade us to generate our own electricity from photovoltaic panels. For every unit of electricity produced, the householder will get paid over 36p, around three times the price we are currently paying the electricity company for the power that we use. Solar panels are also coming down in price, meaning that on south-facing roofs in southern Britain you can expect a financial return of about 7% a year on your investment. It isn’t riches, but it certainly beats the interest you can get in a bank. Equally important, families that generate their own electricity seem to become more conscious of their energy consumption and focus successfully on cutting all their utility bills.

5) Eat less beef. The intensive rearing of cattle is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. These animals produce methane in their digestive processes and slurry heaps also generate large amounts of this powerful global-warming gas. What’s more, cows on most farms are fed large amounts of maize and other feed during the winter months. Growing these grains took energy and considerable amounts of artificial fertilizers. And as more and more of the world’s population demands meat in their diets, the pressure to cut down forests to create open pasture land increases. Perhaps 20% of the average Western carbon footprint is created in the food production chain and reducing the amount of beef eaten is an important step you can take to reduce this figure.

6) Try the new energy-efficient lights – LEDs. Many homes have replaced all their larger bulbs with energy-efficiency fluorescent lights. But many homes still have tens of halogen bulbs in kitchens and bathrooms. They use a lot of power and regularly need replacing. A new technology – LED lighting – uses only tiny amounts of electricity and directly replaces the small halogen downlighters. It’s only really in the past year that LED lights have become realistic alternatives. Before, they tended to have an unattractive blue colour and not produce enough light. But after recent improvements, now is the time to try some in your kitchen. They’re not cheap, but they’ll save significant amounts of electricity and will last for decades.

7) Keep your electronic devices for longer. Some of Apple’s fancy new computers have footprints of about half a tonne of CO2. This may be substantially greater than the CO2 produced generating the electricity that the computer uses in its lifetime. This could also be true for your new phone or your laptop. Although no one argues that you should waste power by unnecessarily leaving your gadgets on, the main focus should be on keeping them for longer. Doubling the average lifetime of our PCs and mobile phones would have a much more important impact than always turning them off at the mains socket.

8) Get better central heating controls. We all know that houses should be better insulated and have more efficient boilers. But for some households it may be simpler and less expensive to improve the heating controls. Check that all the household radiators have thermostatic valves. Make sure that they are turned off in rarely used rooms. Should your central heating be programmed to turn off earlier in the evening? Can you install a new computerised thermostat, such as the Dataterm (www.warmworld.co.uk), which will intelligently work out when your heating needs to be on or off? Running your heating with more care can save at least as much as investing in a new boiler. It doesn’t necessarily require you to run your house at a lower and less comfortable temperature.

9) Use the train to get to your holiday. Why not catch a train to the Mediterranean rather than driving or flying? The trip from London to Marseille can take as little as six and a half hours and you get to see something of France on the way. Book in advance and the one-way price is only £62, no more than a typical air fare. It’s similar with train travel in the UK. Going to popular UK holiday destinations by rail will almost certainly save you time and money and you can usually hire a car at the resort when you need it. Not flying to your holiday destination will probably reduce your carbon footprint by at least as much as any of the other choices in this list.

10) Grow some of your own food. Enthusiastically cultivated, a standard urban allotment can provide all the vegetables for a family of four for half of the year. In our household, we’re still eating home-produced tomatoes and lettuces grown under cover. If these vegetables had been grown in a heated Dutch greenhouse using large amounts of artificial fertilizer, shipped in a refrigerated lorry to a huge warehouse and then sold from an open chiller cabinet in a supermarket to which we’d driven, the carbon cost would be a thousand times greater. The advantages of local food are sometimes exaggerated: the greenhouse gas cost of South African apples may be no greater than English fruit kept in a cold store for months. But the footprint of seasonal produce that you grow yourself is tiny, and may even help wean your family off processed food.

11) Support international agencies trying to decrease the worldwide growth of population. The world now has over 6.7bn people, probably rising to well over 9bn by 2050. Each additional person adds to the strain on the planet’s ecology. Mike Berners-Lee, a leading researcher on carbon footprints, says in his new book, How Bad Are Bananas?, that a baby born today will add almost 400 tonnes to the UK’s emissions over his or her lifetime, even if we reduce greenhouse gases as fast as the government intends over the next decades. Cutting population growth is a vital part of any global strategy for averting the worst effects of global warming. In countless places around the world it has been shown that improving women’s education and giving easy access to family planning helps reduce the number of children in each family. As well as reducing fossil fuel use and minimising forest loss, we must therefore help women in poorer countries manage their own fertility.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on 29 November 2009.