An underhand means of shifting responsibility away from the big polluters? Or a useful way to control our individual environmental impact? We explore both sides of the argument as we answer the question, what is a carbon footprint? 

What does carbon footprint mean?

A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions that are released as a result of our individual actions. It measures the total volume of a number of greenhouse gases but is usually expressed in terms of the carbon dioxide equivalent.  

Where did the idea of carbon footprint come from?

The idea itself has controversial origins, as it was created as a marketing campaign by oil company BP. The campaign was seen as a way to push the responsibility for causing and fighting climate change onto individuals rather than large oil companies like themselves. It’s an example of greenwashing, as people are encouraged to reduce their own carbon footprint by being made to feel like it’s entirely up to them – rather than tackling the root cause, like how energy is generated.

Does that mean your own personal carbon footprint isn’t important?

While the biggest responsibility to reduce carbon emissions lies with large polluters such as fossil fuel companies, individuals making green choices in their lives can still have a meaningful impact.  

People in wealthier countries usually produce more emissions than those in poorer or less developed countries. For example, the wealthiest 10% of the global population are responsible for around 50% of the world’s emissions. This is often due to carbon intensive lifestyle choices, such as travel and high energy consumption.  

What do the climate scientists say?

Based on the findings from the most recent IPCC report, we all need to take action to mitigate the effects of climate change. The most effective way of doing this and limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees is to reduce carbon emissions.  

Larger corporations, especially oil and fossil fuel companies need to do more as they are the biggest polluters. Not using fossil fuels will play a large part in mitigating climate change, with reports showing that 40% of all coal power plants need to close by 2030 in order to reach global targets.  

This doesn’t mean that reducing your own individual emissions isn’t important, as everyone needs to play a part to reach net zero. The IPCC report found that people changing their behaviour to reduce their personal ‘lifestyle carbon emissions’ is important, and will help reduce the amount of carbon needed to be removed from the atmosphere.

What is the average carbon footprint in the UK?

The average carbon footprint in the UK is around 10 to 13 tonnes per person per year, which is around double the global average

To limit the global heating, these emissions would need to be reduced to around 2.3 tons of CO2 per year for each person. The IPCC report argues that changes to reduce lifestyle emissions could cut up to 9 tonnes off an individual’s carbon footprint. 

How can we measure and reduce our impact?

WWF has an environmental footprint calculator where you can find out your personal carbon footprint by answering some simple questions. Once you know where most of your carbon emissions come from, you can take steps to reduce it.  

One of the best ways to reduce your emissions is to move away from fossil fuels by switching to renewable energy, as this can save you over 600 kgs of CO2 a year. Making changes such as switching to an electric vehicle, reducing flying, or using other forms of sustainable travel can also make a big difference.