/ Sustainability

How useful are personal carbon footprints?

Personal carbon footprints have been around since the 1990s but did you know it was actually a marketing campaign from BP in 2005 that popularised the term?

The marketing campaign called on people to ‘go on a low-carbon diet’. In effect, it shifted the blame for the climate crisis away from industry and onto individual choices.

No wonder more and more people think it’s a sham, as we are called on to reduce our footprint all the while the government and business work too slowly.

The rise of Doomerism

There’s even a new term to describe this rise in environmental pessimism: Doomerism, the belief that it’s all too late and that there’s nothing we as individuals can do about it.

It’s easy to see why you’d be pessimistic about our future, and more important, what impact we can have as individuals.

There are new headlines everyday spelling environmental judgement day, the latest is that leading scientists predict we will completely exceed the 1.5°C temperature rise target set in the Paris Agreement.

What can we do?

To the naysayers I say: OK, Doomer, but resigning to defeat will only make things worse. We still have the chance to prevent the worst from happening.

Pessimism and lack of action is exactly what the fossil fuel industry wants. It’s our responsibility to do what is within our means to prove the latest doomsday headlines wrong.

Whether by reducing our home energy use, choosing to eat less supermarket red meat or taking fewer long haul flights, we all vote with our choices.

What do you do to reduce your carbon footprint? Are you a fan of personal footprint calculators?


No, I think a personal footprint calculator is a waste of personal time and energy. These things are not measurable in terms of statistics and regimenting ones life style. The way forward is to be mindful of what we do and what we buy and make sensible household decisions that work for us. The government can then promote policies it thinks will be helpful and the food chain can also do the same. Public opinion – as for smoking – can sway the way we shop and live. It should not all be about doing without and living with hair shirts, it should be about encouraging positive change that is seen as positive and improving life-styles. As a diverse society, we can not regiment it as China might, nor, it seems, does this work particularly well anyway. I don’t want to live “painting by numbers” or ” joining the dots” I want to know, factually and honestly, without hype and scaremongering, what is good for our planet and what options are open to me, personally, to help this along. I can then make judgments about what I do, not to look down on the neighbours, but because it makes me happy. One thing that will quickly influence us, is an audit of what is on sale in the shops. If we are being exhorted to avoid red meat, it should not be on the counter to buy. How you square this with the farmers is another problem.

In effect, it shifted the blame for the climate crisis away from industry and onto individual choices.”. I’m really not sure about this sort of statement. In the end it is consumers who consume, and they can make the choices necessary if they are given real information. They can abandon going on overseas holidays, they can choose not to eat red meat, they can make many of their products last longer. It is consumers who will decide the future. Whether their freedom of choice has to be removed is a difficult question. Mind you, much of the world’s population currently do not have the luxury of being able to make such choices.

A balance needs to be achieved. It is often not a case of abandoning, or banning, a particular thing but of moderating its use. That might be more acceptable to most people. For example, a lack of planning means we are going to need fossil fuels for many years to come. But the aim should be to use less of them.

I imagine most people would have no idea of the carbon footprint link to BP.

Our personal carbon footprint was mentioned in an earlier discussion. As Aaron has mentioned, the term was coined by a company that could make a greater contribution than us as citizens.

Most of us should be well aware of how our lifestyle impacts on the environment. I do not know if branding this as ‘carbon footprint’ is useful or not.

I reckon that my carbon footprint is quite small compared with those of friends. I keep products for longer and do my best to repair them if necessary. I have no interest in foreign travel and at present I am driving less than 3000 miles a year. The house is bigger than I need but I heat only the rooms I am using.

Out of interest I have just done the WWF carbon footprint calculator. It gave my carbon footprint as 9.8 tonnes, 93% of my target impact on the world.

– Travel 6% – I have been hardly anywhere in the last 2 years and the lowest I could choose was 0 – 2000 miles a year by car. Was I downgraded for not using public transport?

– Food 19% – I chose eating meat at some meals. It is suggested I eat less meat and dairy, choose sustainably sourced, in season to support local agriculture, and to add some colourful variety to my plate. We don’t eat beef more than once or twice a week.

– Stuff 24% – One new laptop that was not strictly necessary, new toaster to save on electricity for the grill (not had one for a while), replace 1 worn out TV bought in 2008, replace worn out bread machine, replace broken kettle, replace worn out clothing. Ok, we have bought other things when we wanted and mostly had a need for, but we don’t live in a ‘disposable’ household.

– Home 51% – Loft insulation, double glazing but no cavity wall insulation. I answered ‘didn’t know’ for the question on whether our gas/electric was from a sustainable source. Just looked it up and at least some of it is. I am advised to ’embrace new technology’ as SMART technology can help limit the impact my home is having on our shared home.

I realise farming has changed over the years, but I asked a long-retired dairy farmer about their dairy farm. I stayed there as a child and sometimes helped get the cows in from the fields for afternoon milking.

Their cows lived in the fields except for very bad weather so ate a diet of mostly grass. They grew their own mangles, hay and straw for winter feed and bedding. They also made their own silage that the cows apparently went mad for. They were only fed bought cow cake when indoors in the winter. The milk went to a nearby village for processing and landed on doorsteps in the local town and villages the next morning.

How does that compare with all the new land required for growing plant-based foods much of which will require trees to be cut down, fertilizers, water, processing and travel miles across the world? I think far too many products claim to be from sustainable sources, they can’t all be telling the truth.

I consider smart meters a waste of money and resources as perfectly good meters will be scrapped to be replaced by technology with a limited life. I don’t agree with them limiting our impact as we would take no notice of one and already try not to waste energy. We read our meters daily and notice our usage has gone down as we have replaced more power-hungry electrical items.

Recently, our stock of halogen bulbs for outdoor lighting were failing too quickly and we were pleased to see floodlights have improved greatly so have all new outdoor lighting that uses much less energy. Replacing old but working items was justifiable on this occasion.

There is a useful Wikipedia article on carbon footprint: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_footprint#Ways_to_reduce_personal_carbon_footprint

It’s probably more balanced than many articles and, of course, anyone can improve it.

There is some information about water use in meat and crop production here: https://waterfootprint.org/en/water-footprint/product-water-footprint/water-footprint-crop-and-animal-products/

Alfa – I have been looking for information related to land use for production of crops and meat. There is a useful article here: https://ourworldindata.org/agricultural-land-by-global-diets

What must be kept in mind is that some land is only suitable for grazing.
Around 10% of England is built on, much now using land suitable for growing food. The UK has 23 million gardens so, if things get tough, there is plenty of scope to grow food, keep chickens and a pig, a few rabbits…….. just as many did in WW2. Organisation and cooperation would help those new to the game, as well as subscribing to Which? Gardening https://signup.which.co.uk/wlp-gardening

There are many factors that can affect use of land. For example, sheep can graze on hilly land that is unsuitable for growing food crops. I don’t think this negates the evidence that, overall, meat production uses more land than growing plants as food.

It wasn’t intended to negate the facts, just a relevant observation. It is, perhaps, a good way of using land unsuitable for other purposes. Hill grazing has had a profound effect upon the landscape. Sheep may safely graze on salt marsh and produce delicious meat.

Not being a nutritionist, I am not sure how land use per 100 g of protein gives a representative view of land use. Sure, the Americas have a protein-rich diet, but do we need to eat that much protein for a healthy diet? Do we need to substitute eating beef for tofu, or could be get by with eating less protein-rich foods?

And does the land use take account of protein from animals that obtain their food by eating foods harvested as grain, e.g. barn chickens and eggs, or is it just the size of the barns – or worse – that makes chicken better than lamb?

What about other nutrients? Wouldn’t land use per calorie paint a different (but not necessarily more informative) picture?

If we add dark chocolate and coffee, they have land requirements similar to beef. Should we give up those?

I’m not being critical here – just analytical of the facts presented.

Many of us in the western world do eat far more protein than we need and those in third world countries often have a diet with insufficient protein, which may be the reason for the this being a criterion for comparing land use. With regard to carbon footprint there are many other factors, and being able to cut down on transport and water use are important. I believe that it is most important for the UK to be more self-sufficient in food and energy production.

Looking at barn chickens and eggs raises valid concerns about animal welfare, as does intensive meat and dairy production.

I wish you had not mentioned coffee, Em. I might have something to declare!

Eating less may be the secret to a longer and healthier life – https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170601-the-secret-to-a-long-and-healthy-life-eat-less. I sense many, whatever part of the world they come from, eat for pleasure if they have the means, and eat more than they need to sustain their bodies and perform work.

While this may save daily food the downside is the longer we live the more food in total we consume and the greater the world’s population.

However, with food prices increasing, energy costs depriving many of the ability to eat what they choose, it may be we learn to live with less quantities and healthier foods. I see nothing wrong with eating meat, eggs and other food derived from animals in principle; we can still enjoy the variety they add to our diet and taste buds but we can choose to eat smaller portions.

Meanwhile, I am growing potatoes, sweet corn, beans, and other vegetables to eke out my pension. I’d quite like some chickens to grow some eggs but can’t guarantee them the daily attention they would need.

It is very difficult to find genuine objective data when it comes to anything to do with climate change and food production.

I don’t buy into the mantra that rainforests are being destroyed to grow more soya for animals.

Why do we need to grow more soya for animals when the number of cows and pigs in the world has decreased over the years. Meanwhile the number of vegans has increased and more soya will need to be produced to feed them as it is in many foods and processed to make tofu, milk and even artificial meat.

Intensive agriculture is very bad for the environment, whether it is livestock or crop farming so we need more smaller grazing farms like the one I wrote about above that probably didn’t even consider the science behind their farming methods.

I found a very interesting but long article on why we need more ruminants (includes livestock) to create and maintain healthy soil that supports an abundance of plant life, bug life and adsorbs water and greenhouse gases.
An excerpt:
. . . . Animals primarily contribute to this system by eating plants, depositing manure where they go, and in doing so prune plants and fertilize the soil. The pruning stimulates regrowth both above and below-ground (some root biomass sloughs off and regrows anew) and removes extra leaf material that may shade out new plants trying to come up underneath. Some of these new plants may get nipped too, and that also helps in weeding out extra plants so that even more new ones can come in. Animals’ wastes from faeces and urine provide nutrients that both plants and microbes need to help break down decomposed material, build organic matter (and maybe some soil), that can’t be obtained from the decomposing plants themselves. Of course, animals do much more than this, such as digging, rooting, scratching, trampling, and other actions that disturbs the plants and the soil surface, stimulating more growth, more life . . . .

And another from the other side of the debate:

I agree, Alfa. It is a complex topic without an easy answer. Animals have been a large part of life on the planet from time immemorial (whether we have replaced all those we exterminated with domesticated versions is a question I don’t know the answer to). They are like other life forms, an essential part of the balance (in my view).

In the UK we should ensure that land suitable for food production, whether plant or animal, should be preserved, not built on. We may need to use it to help sustain our way of life. Food and energy are essential to our future. It is time we got to grips with the latter, including using tidal power, and – dare I say – looking for other sources of fossil fuels to tide us over until we get more nuclear power (or fission) even if that means fracking.

I agree with you both.

Alfa wrote Intensive “agriculture is very bad for the environment . . .” and I would add: . . . especially when the population exceeds Earth’s capacity to feed its people. I don’t know whether there ever was a reasonable balance because in ancient times premature mortality was prevalent and there were ice ages and other natural controls affecting development.

We can debate all these other factors of crops versus cows, and so on, but the real problem that no one seems to be able to tackle is the continuous growth in population with a parallel expectation that the standard of living of everyone on the planet is entitled to be more or less level. Global levelling-up is going to put more pressure on our resources and a sustainability agenda by the ‘first world’ nations won’t compensate fully for that uplift [but that doesn’t mean we should not persevere]. However we look at it, more people means more food production, more material exploitation, and more pollution and destruction.

These are questions that the United Nations and other forums [G7, G20, Commonwealth] have persistently funked. I don’t know how we can change things and I don’t think Extinction Rebellion is going to achieve that either, although I do think they have raised awareness of the major issues even if I don’t like their tactics.

Humans are only one of millions of life forms on the planet: do they have a unique and overriding entitlement to survive above all others?

I agree with your analysis John, though as you suggest, nature has a way of levelling up simply by denying us the resources we need and killing off excesses through famine, drought and other severe weather and earth movements. We as an intelligent life form and with the ability to alter the planet in a way no other species can do, do our best to live in the space we have. Most other animals are just looking to protect their immediate environment, type and family, without regard to what is happening outside their area of inhabitation. They don’t care about politics, except in regard to the leader of the pack or the queen bee. None has the capability of building a nuclear power station or a bomb. Since we are unique and way above the functioning level of everything else (though many other species have bits of them that are superior to ours -hearing, navigating – special sight – enhanced smell capability) we have a duty to use that advantage wisely, and, one thing that seems built into the human psyche is our ability to destroy our habitat and each other. We don’t seem to be able to break the bond between comfortable living and excessive use of resources either.
We don’t think hard enough about those less fortunate than ourselves. They are over there in their mud huts and we toss a few coins in their direction and worry about the latest mobile phone and the internet. This has been going on since before the Crusades! Our ability to think and translate thought into action and architecture has led to the divide in world politics. This power struggle also seems to be built in to the human race, and as we are more sophisticated, it causes more damage than the alpha male animal does in the World around us.
So, we are at a disadvantage when it comes to dealing with the present World climate and resource crisis. Our natural instincts as human beings fight against our intellectual reasoning that tells us we are “messing up big time.” World divisions also deny us the ability to work together. One country’s fossil fuel ban is another’s way of catching up and getting ahead. One country is far more involved in being the alpha male, than in working with neighbours to save the planet, and that is a World phenomenon and not just “them and us”.
We really need to combine our efforts and work together. This is the major problem to be solved. Do that and the natural World will thank us and recover as a result. Forget all the individual measures and doomsday messages, and concentrate on a World policy that everyone adopts. Immediately one sees the enormity of that challenge in this unequal World of ours.

It would be good if nature could compensate for the impact we have on the planet, but there has been a considerable loss of biodiversity as a result of human activities. Wikipedia might be a good place to start: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodiversity_loss

As John has pointed out: “…the real problem that no one seems to be able to tackle is the continuous growth in population with a parallel expectation that the standard of living of everyone on the planet is entitled to be more or less level.” Capitalism and consumerism have a lot to answer for.

As we are individuals we will never control population. That will be left to other forces. So I suggest no point in looking to that as a solution. It may be that the world is destined to gradual extinction. 🙁

On the other hand 🙂 it may be that we reach some natural balance. ”Growing at a slower pace, world population is expected to reach 9.7 billion in 2050 and could peak at nearly 11 billion around 2100https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/world-population-prospects-2019.html

There is plenty of scope to ditch unnecessary consumption, whether of food, possessions, travel, or whatever. Many poor countries, or sections of the population within other countries, show that life goes on without the luxuries we feel entitled to.

There was a great loss of biodiversity 60 million years ago when the asteroid hit. That lead to where we are today……..

Ali Bath says:
1 June 2022

Yes we need to live responsibly. Fly less, eat less meat and dairy and just buy less stuff. But we can’t leave the fate of our civilisation to the personal consumer choices of billions of people. ‘Doing our bit’ means putting pressure on politicians to put planet before profit – to invest in renewables and public transport, insulate homes, resist the pressure from the huge fossil fuel lobby for new oil and gas, enact laws that make companies act responsibly (no more shoddy unrepairable goods, no more dumping of sewage, no more treating people and ecosystems as expendable), to ignore greenwash from companies and listen to scientists rather than corporate donors. It’s not easy because our whole system is organised around profit; nothing has value unless it can make money, and politicians have little power compared to the huge corporations. But we have to try, and increasing numbers of climate and environmental scientists are calling for non-violent direct action as our only way forwards.

I agree. What many of us do tho help can be seen as a bonus but to make real progress we need to tackle the issues you mention and more.