There may be actions for reducing your own personal carbon footprint that have a differing impact.
Below, we’ve listed actions (referenced from a specific study) that might between a higher impact, to moderate or lower impact (on lowering a personal carbon footprint)
We also include a list of other actions that may help lower an individual’s carbon footprint.
Summary – Most Effective Ways To Reduce Personal Carbon Footprint
Firstly, What Might Be A Sustainable Individual Carbon Footprint To Aim For?
Before looking at ways to reduce an individual’s carbon footprint, it might be helpful to know what a sustainable carbon footprint might be to aim for.
Potential ‘High Impact’ Ways An Individual Might Reduce Their Carbon Footprint
From one specific study, some of the high impact ways to reduce an individual’s carbon footprint might be considering the following factors
We’ve also included some of our own feedback on some factors:
– Number of children
Each extra person has their own set of emissions
But, whether or not this increases total emissions might depend on the lifestyle and consumption choices of each individual person. The country they live in can have an impact on this.
An increasing population, or having more children doesn’t always lead to higher emissions. We’ve discussed this in further detail below.
– Driving in a personal vehicle more vs using other modes of transport
An individual’s carbon footprint might be higher if they use their personal vehicle more, compared to walking, riding or catching public transport
– Consider other transport factors
More fuel efficient cars, and cars that use cleaner energy/fuel (such as cleaner electricity in electric cars vs older petroleum cars), can have lower emissions
Cars that have to brake less, and cars that have features like regenerative braking may also have lower emissions
– Number and length of plane trips per year
Taking less plane trips a year might reduce carbon emissions
– Use more cleaner, lower carbon energy in the home
Using cleaner forms of energy for the house’s electricity and other forms of energy, such as a renewable energy (like solar for example), might lower the carbon footprint compared to using coal, gas, and other fossil fuels
– Consider what your food diet looks like
Meat, and animal based products (like dairy) and processed foods all tend to have a high carbon footprint than plant based diets.
It’s also worth noting that the highest offending carbon footprint meats tend to be beef, lamb, and pork. Chicken usually has a smaller carbon footprint.
– Overall consumption rate
Total consumption (how much you consume in total), and consumption rate (how often or how fast you consume) also impact an individual’s carbon footprint.
How efficient you are with the things you use and consume (how much use or value you get out of them, how long you use or keep them for, and so on) are also a factor in consumption over the long term.
– Other miscellaneous factors
Another interesting note from the information below is that divorced families may have larger carbon footprint.
Splitting up their footprint across two or more households might have a larger carbon footprint compared to sharing one household.
Also, additional pets in the household also increase the carbon footprint – they emit gases, and their diet (especially if meat based) has a footprint too.
High Impact, Moderate Impact, & Low Impact Actions For Reducing An Individual’s Carbon Footprint
There’s been research done into what the best actions to reduce an individual’s carbon footprint are.
Implementing these actions reduce CO2e (kg of carbon dioxide equivalent).
What was found was that there’s a clear difference between ‘high impact’, ‘moderate impact’ and ‘low impact’ actions.
Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas (iopscience.iop.org, and phys.org) outline high impact, moderate impact and low impact ways to reduce carbon dioxide in terms of approximate CO2e reduced per year (in kg).
A paraphrased list of those actions, and the estimated reduction in CO2e reduced per year (in kg) alongside them are:
High Impact Actions
Have one fewer child – 23, 700 up to 117, 700 CO2e reduced per year (kg)
Live car free – 1000 up to 5300
Avoid one long range flight per year – 700 up to 2800
Purchase green energy – less than 100, up to 2500
Reduce effects of driving – 1190
Eat a plant based diet – 300 up to 1600
Moderate Impact Actions
Reduce food waste – 370
Eat local – 0 up to 360
Eat less meat – 230
Conserve energy – 210
Recycle – 210
Better home heating/cooling efficiency – 180
Reuse – 5
Install solar panels/renewable energy
Use public transportation, ride a bike, or walk
Buy energy efficient products
Reduce consumption in general (of products)
Low Impact Actions
Plant a tree – 6 up to 60
Eliminate unnecessary travel
Purchase carbon offsets
Reduce lawn mowing
Keep backyard chickens
Buy Eco labelled products
Calculate your home’s carbon footprint
Influence employer’s actions
Influence school’s actions
You can read their full analysis of the climate mitigation gap at iopscience.iop.org
Is Having Less Children Really The Best Way To Reduce An Individual’s Carbon Footprint?
A growing population might generally result in increased emissions.
But, per capita emissions of each new person that comes into the world (as well as those already living) are an important factor to consider alongside population growth.
This means that having more children might come with an asterisk when it comes to carbon footprints.
It’s worth noting that some of the biggest cities in the world have managed to peak and decrease their emissions recently despite population increase and economic growth. There’s several actions they’ve implemented to do this.
Factors Other That Population Growth That Might Impact Emissions
Population growth might be only one of several factors that increases total emissions.
Some of the others might be:
– Rate of economic growth and industrialization
– Consumption rate and total consumption
At least at the city level – it’s been suggested by some that reducing consumption is a better strategy than simply using more renewable energy and electric vehicles
– The energy mix of a country
Is coal the primary energy source used?
Natural gas tends to be cleaner than coal, and renewables and other energy sources cleaner than fossil fuels
– Energy sources used for electricity generation and power (heating, cooling, lighting, etc.), and the efficiency of electricity/power generation
– Energy sources used for transport are, the total number of vehicles (mainly cars and trucks) being used, and how efficient transport methods are per passenger (e.g. mass transit vs personal vehicles)
– The general carbon intensity of different activities (the rate of emissions from each activity)
Other Ways Individuals Might Lower Their Carbon Footprint
Other than what is listed above, some of the other ways individuals might lower their carbon footprint might be:
Energy & Electricity
– Choosing a certified clean energy supplier
Like for example a renewable energy supplier that uses solar, wind or hydroelectric.
Nuclear may also be an option
These energy sources might emit less carbon than coal and other fossil fuel energy sources
But, note that there are emissions involved in the production stage of some of these energy sources, such as from solar cells, nuclear fuels, etc.. css.umich.edu goes into this further.
Read more about the carbon emissions from different energy and electricity sources in this guide
– Increasing energy efficiency, without increasing total energy use
– Consider the size and number of homes
Larger homes may use more energy
Additionally, having multiple family homes may mean a larger carbon footprint
Smaller homes use less energy (css.umich.edu)
livescience.com also indicates that (paraphrased) staying married can lower a carbon footprint IF divorced households need two houses to support separate parents
– Consider the type of home
css.umich.edu mentions this about home types and sizes:
[The type of home matters – detached houses might use the most energy, followed by mobile homes, apartments with 2-4 units in the building, followed by apartments with 5+ units in the building]
[css.umich.edu has data on how much CO2 these solutions and others might save]
– Consider how homes can be more energy efficient
Such as having insulation (to reduce the need for more heating and cooling), energy efficient design, having energy efficient and water efficient appliances, devices and systems, not wasting or losing electricity and water around the house (set timers, turn off appliances, etc.)
As one example, some reports indicate that LED lights can save 80 to 90% of energy compared to conventional incandescents
– Consider the type of heating and cooling you have at home
As one example:
Space heating with wood might emit the least CO2e (31.4 tons per million BTU) followed by 64.2 for natural gas, with the highest being 210.5 for electric heaters (css.umich.edu)
Read more about sustainability for heating, and sustainability for cooling in these guides.
– Consider how pets play a role
Consider that pets have a carbon footprint
– Drive less total distance per year
– Drive a vehicle that uses cleaner energy or fuel (like an electric vehicle running on renewables) compared to a car that uses fossil fuels
– Drive a fuel/energy efficient vehicle
i.e. the how much fuel they use per mile travelled
The carbon footprint of U.S. households is about 5 times greater than the global average [and] For most U.S. households the single most important action to reduce their carbon footprint is driving less or switching to a more efficient vehicle.
– Take more carbon efficient forms of transport
Taking public transport or carpooling where possible (which might be more efficient per passenger mile travelled), and walking and riding where possible, over inefficient forms of transport such as single person private cars.
Living in well designed cities can help with this
– Keep cars maintained
Something as simple as keeping tires inflated can help with fuel mileage and reduce the total fuel burnt and reduce emissions.
Servicing and replacing old parts can also help
– Also shorter and less plane flights in a given year might help
Consider the tradeoffs between different types of fuels, such as the emission rate, but also the mileage and efficiency of a fuel
Food & Beverages
– Consider the general impact of food
… the food we buy can add up to 20% of our carbon footprint … And this is just at first glance, because if we count up the related damage of deforestation from big agriculture, this brings the impact up to 30% (ourworld.unu.edu)
– Consider whether switching from eating beef to a less carbon intensive meat like chicken for example is an option
– Consider whether reducing dairy products (and other animal by products), seafood and eggs, which can also be higher in emissions in the regular diet, is an option
– Consider whether a vegetarian or plant based type diet which might be less carbon intensive than meat based and livestock based diets is an option
css.umich.edu outlines that ‘Vegetables, fruits, grain products, sugars, sweeteners, oil, fats, and other food groups make up less than 20% of the average food consumption’s greenhouse gases’
– Eating locally sourced can help cut down on transportation footprint
– Not wasting food at home – food waste has an indirect carbon footprint
– Consider the impact of organic food
According to css.umich.edu: ‘… organic food [might require] less energy during production but [requires more labor and is more] expensive’
– Other food considerations
Home cook more, cook in an efficient way, don’t over consume, avoid food with a lot of unnecessary packaging (buy in bulk if possible), eat fruit and veg in season (food out of season could have been flown in)
ourworld.unu.edu lists how the different food diet choices can impact carbon footprint reduction:
Eating what you buy (and not wasting food) (25%) and reducing meat and dairy consumption (25%), together could make up half of an individual’s carbon footprint reduction.
Other actions that can lead to a reduction could involve eating seasonally, avoiding excessive packaging, cooking using less energy, and buying reduced price/soon to expire products and misshapen vegetables and fruits.
– In terms of water, drink more tap water over bottled water if your tap water is safe to drink
You can read more about the foods with the highest carbon footprints in this guide
– Reduce, reuse and recycle where possible
This can be done with different types of products and waste
The most common way to reduce the carbon footprint of humans is to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Refuse (refer to the waste hierarchy) [and] This can be done in manufacturing, at household level, in transport, in heating and cooling, in food consumption, and carbon offsetting
– Consider the impact of each additional pet you bring into the family
Pets emit gases, and their food diet has a footprint too (especially if they eat meat based pet foods)
– Working at home one or more days a week can save energy on transport/commute and in other areas
– Consider where you work
e.g. does your employer have some carbon efficient processes and systems in place?
– Consider products and services with lower carbon footprints
– Workout outside instead of on a treadmill or in a gym
– Consider how energy intensive the activities you do in your spare time are
e.g. car racing and driving, compared to hiking
Total Consumption, & Consumption Rate
– Consider the impact of decreasing total consumption
Of electricity, of miles travelled, of food eaten and wasted, of products and services used and purchased, of household activities, and so on
– Consider the impact of decreasing rate of consumption
Keeping products for longer, or buying higher quality/more durable products can contribute to this
– Consider carbon offsets
But, there’s been criticism and questions over the credibility of offsets, and, it might help more to not have to offset them in the first place
– carbonfootprint.com has a good guide with solutions on technology, travel and secondary emissions, as well as numbers on reductions
Realistically, it might come down to some of the following key factors:
– Consumption rate
– Family planning
– Home size and design, and activity around the home
– Choice of energy provider for a home (for electricity, and other energy uses)
– Choice of food and drink diet
– Transportation choices
– Waste management choices
– Other lifestyle choices
A [study] argued that the most significant way individuals could mitigate their own carbon footprint is to have fewer children, followed by living without a vehicle, forgoing air travel and adopting a plant-based diet (wikipedia.org)
Carbon Footprint Of The Everyday Things We Use
We’ve also put together a guide that outlines the carbon footprint of some of the everyday things we use and consume.
Wider List Of Potential Solutions For Climate Change
This resource is a wider list of potential solutions for climate change – on levels higher than the individual level.
Read More About Climate Change
If you’re interested in reading more about climate change, this guide outlines some of the basic information to consider