This is how the average family wastes tons of carbon every year
The extraordinary fact that one return transatlantic flight emits the same amount of carbon as 13 years of that family's electricity emissions combined
Another year, another shocking UN report about the further consequences of climate breakdown. In September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessed the state of our oceans and ice-caps. It found that our seas are already warmer, more acidic and their wildlife damaged. Coastal extreme flooding events are becoming more severe. Most terrifyingly it reported that in Antarctica – which has the world’s largest ice-caps – ice-melt has tripled in the last 10 years.
But despite the terrifying reports about the consequences of our carbon emissions, as an environmental campaigner I find that very few people understand what makes up their own family’s carbon emissions. We see so many news stories about the emissions from electricity production that most people are surprised that, for many families, it is not among the largest sources of their emissions.
Roughly, the average middle-class family of four’s carbon emissions for food and energy are as follows:
16.00 tons - General consumerism
12.00 tons – Meat based diet
10.00 tons – Family flight to Miami
4.60 tons – Two cars driven at UK average mileage of 14,800 km/year
2.25 tons - Gas central heating
0.75 tons – Electricity (if not on an 100 per cent renewable green tariff)
0.20 tons – Water supply (although this calculation does not include the high carbon cost of hot water or its ecological impacts)
That's a total of 45.80 tons.
Most working-class families will have significantly lower carbon emissions than this, while the richest one per cent will have an emissions rate many times higher. If this average family simply switched to a vegetarian diet it would emit about six tons less every year; if they went vegan it would be about eight tons less.
But the figure that jumps out for me from this list is the extraordinary fact that one return transatlantic flight emits the same amount of CO2 as 13 years of the household’s electricity emissions combined. Meanwhile, electricity only accounted for about 1.6 per cent of the household’s total food and energy emissions.
The second most important conclusion we can draw from this list is that slashing our personal carbon footprints does not really require much effort, or any complicated calculations. Many families are already radically reducing their meat intake, so choosing a vegetarian or flexitarian diet with reduced meat would be straightforward. Holidaying at home, or by train in Europe, can eliminate the flight emissions entirely. Already half of Britons don’t take a flight each year; how difficult is it for the rest to follow suit?
Using more public transport and cycling has enabled many middle-class families to reduce to being a one-car family. Signing up for a genuinely green electricity supply from companies such as Good Energy, Green Energy or Ecotricity can eliminate your electricity footprint too.
If our imaginary middle-class family took just these four steps, it would add up to a reduction of 19 tons – or an impressive 42 per cent – of carbon per year, with no capital investment required. Indeed, together they are likely to lead to cost savings and, more importantly, better health.
Switching to renewably-powered electric heating can do away with the gas boiler – and that is the only item on this list that would require some capital investment.
So personally, how am I doing? I always go by train for holidays, and I have been veggie for decades. I have never owned a car. My home is heated by solar-powered ecotubes, supplemented by wood, and my solar PV panels produce about three times more electricity than I consume annually myself. This may make me sound somewhat carbon self-righteous, but I acknowledge that II have it easier as mine is a single-person household.
The above household carbon emissions for food and energy also include the embedded carbon in the plethora of goods in addition to our essential food intake. Embedded carbon is that emitted in the production and transport of goods. For a family, this will vary widely depending on what goods they buy each year. So, the 16 tons for the above family is a rough estimate.
But the UK imports goods equivalent to four tons of embedded carbon per person per year. Building a new house can emit about 80 tons. And the embedded carbon in a new car will vary from about five tons for an electric Nissan Leaf, up to a massive 35 tons for the largest SUVs. Taken together, this means we need to abandon our current destructive consumerism and adopt and celebrate lifestyles that reduce, reuse and repair goods instead.
Knowing where our own carbon emissions come from is a crucial tool for not only radically reducing our own carbon emissions but also essential to empowering us with the moral authority to successfully demand that our politicians pursue policies that will enable all of society to do the same, to get us to a zero carbon UK by 2025.
The accelerating melting ice-caps are warning us that we have to act now or abandon our kids to the consequences. I for one am not willing to do that and I know that millions of you are not either.
Donnachadh McCarthy is an environmental campaigner, writer and eco-auditor. He is the author of ‘The Prostitute State – How Britain’s Democracy has been bought’