How to really cut your carbon footprint? Buy three garments a year. Don’t fly for 36 months

If you want to make a real difference, adopt a plant-based diet and don’t buy a new car

The one tangible positive in a world yet to get to grips with the climate crisis is the extent to which individuals wish to contribute by curbing carbon emissions.

They may be unsure what exactly their carbon footprint is, but they are increasingly persuaded by the merits of collective action. They want to do their bit when it comes to travel, heating their home, consuming food and disposing of packaging and waste. They want to be more sustainable in their daily living.

While people may be unable to stomach more talk of climate doom, an ability to respond by taking small actions is empowering

Inaction from political leaders may be fuelling eco anxiety, yet climate and health experts insist working together can transform societies at the same time as safeguarding ecosystems and future generations.

For 20 years Dr Tara Shine has worked within the United Nations and with world leaders on climate issues. Coming home from annual climate summits, she was always struck by neighbours who, pushing aside what they perceived as "double dutch" at such gatherings, just wanted to know, "what can they do in their own lives; how can they make a difference?"

She tries to persuade politicians of the importance of engaging with people in garnering support for “brave change” at scale. Her favourite quote from former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres illustrates this: “Systemic change is a deeply personal endeavour.”

There is a strong indication Irish people want to change their carbon-polluting ways. A 2019 PwC survey showed 41 per cent of consumers are prepared to pay a premium for sustainable products. A 2021 Environmental Protection Agency survey suggested 90 per cent believe the country must act on climate change.

At the end of meetings with big companies, Shine says questions invariably come around to houses, cars or something carbon-related in people’s lives. While people may be unable to stomach more talk of climate doom, an ability to respond by taking small actions is empowering.

Carbon calculators

Measuring progress works for those driven by metrics, such as a goal in an app. People have different motivations but having an idea of your carbon footprint, which Shine’s company Change By Degrees provides, can be enlightening.

Chief executive of Voice environmental group Mindy O’Brien says “it’s a good exercise to see that all of our actions and purchasing decisions impact the environment and contribute to our collective harm to the planet”.

To get an idea of one's footprint is easy. It means becoming energy and carbon literate, and availing of one of many carbon calculators freely available online

Most carbon calculators breakdown a footprint under four headings: travel/transport, food, energy/home and stuff (related to consumption and shopping). There are many options by way of responding to data. If you live in a rented house there is little you can do with the house but that might mean you can do more when it comes to food and buying less, Shine says.

How best to reduce your carbon footprint will depend on lifestyle. For a company, it might be less about disposable coffee cups and more about reducing a diesel vehicle fleet. Before Covid, business travel was Shine’s worst transgression, but never again, she says. For those who don’t drive, the issue may be buying several fashion items every week or eating meat twice a day.

All human activity generates emissions, from sending an email to taking a bath. The crucial move is to begin the journey and tip the scales in favour of changes making a difference. To get an idea of one's footprint is easy. It means becoming energy and carbon literate, and availing of one of many carbon calculators freely available online. Future Planet and Friends of the Earth provide easy-to-use carbon crunchers.

Emissions are calculated as the approximate amount of carbon produced by activities of individuals or households. The Future Planet app will measure a carbon footprint within 10 minutes, this becomes “your starting position”.

The average Irish person has a carbon footprint of 13.3 tonnes of CO2 per year (2018 CSO figures), nearly three times the global average.

But as Mike Berners-Lee notes in The Carbon Footprint of Everything, there is no such thing as an average person; for example half the UK population never take a flight, while 70 per cent of all flights are taken by 15 per cent of the population. “If you are among ‘frequent flyers’, then you have some potential wins in getting your footprint down to the average . . . and towards the 5-tonne lifestyle that seems a possible target for all of us in the next few years.”

Travel/transport

Transport is the single largest energy user in Ireland with private cars (predominantly high-emission petrol and diesel vehicles) accounting for one-fifth of that usage. So walking, cycling or using public transport where possible brings a significant cut in personal emissions – and reduces air pollution.

Reducing flying A Dublin-New York return flight generates almost 2 tonnes of CO2. A long-haul business-class flight comes in at about twice the 5-tonne budget (equivalent to 340,000 plastic bags), Berners-Lee estimates – there is potential here for huge carbon savings for frequent flyers.

The carbon footprint for a passenger on a ferry is 19g CO2/km, while diesel locomotives emit more than 90g of CO2 /km per passenger – that figure is a lot less with electric trains, though it depends on how the electricity is generated.

Switching to an EV or hybrid Electric vehicles are much cheaper to run and create a lot less carbon over the course of their lifetime compared with fossil-fuelled vehicles, even when factoring in manufacturing, batteries and power they use from fossil fuel sources. Full benefits will only come when electricity sources are renewable. A typical EV generates about 100g CO2/km, but using renewably sourced electricity has the potential over time to reduce emissions by 75 per cent.

Plug-in hybrids are less environmentally friendly. In some instances, they are even worse than petrol-powered vehicles. Because they are heavier, they consume more fuel, yet on average a hybrid can emit 46 per cent less greenhouse gas than a regular vehicle.

Food

Food accounts for up to 30 per cent of a household’s carbon footprint.

Changing to a largely plant-based balanced diet The return is clear as a high-meat diet produces 2.5 times as much emissions as a vegan equivalent.

Reducing food waste Ireland wastes about 1 million tonnes of edible food every year. According to Stop Food Waste, households throw away about 250,000 tonnes annually. For a family of four, this amounts to about 203kg/household – eradicating this could save €800.

How this translates in carbon terms is difficult to determine as not all food is treated the same, according to O’Brien, and it’s hard to find a reliable carbon metric for food waste. “We generate more fresh fruit and veg waste than meat and dairy. But the CO2 impact is less.”

Energy/home

A quarter of energy use is in homes, most of which are dependent on fossil fuels. The bottom line is that power and heat account for much of your carbon footprint. Like the carbon calculator, getting an energy assessment of your home is the best starting point. Building a new house is easiest in eliminating carbon; the task is more arduous with an older building.

Going for a retrofit Retrofitting with use of heat pumps is the quickest way to an almost-zero carbon house. Though such fit-outs cost an average of €50,000, Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland grants are being increased while one-stop-shops to help secure low-interest loans, process grant applications and oversee construction will soon be the norm.

Insulation With 25 per cent of home heat escaping through the roof, the quickest win and least costly measure is attic insulation, followed by insulating walls and eliminating drafts. For the cash-strapped, decarbonising the home in steps is doable.

Cutting plastics from household purchases Plastic proliferation threatens the climate on a global scale, and Ireland produces the highest volume of plastic waste per person in the European Union, while having the fourth worst recycling rate for plastics. That's 54kg per head; the EU average is 33kg. Two-thirds of plastic waste ends up in bins. According to CIEL, each kg of plastic produced generates 1.89kg of CO2.

Poor recycling means too much goes to incineration. Each kg of plastic incinerated produces .9kg CO2. If we generate more than 300,000 tonnes of plastic per year, 603,064 tonnes of CO2 is calculated from its production and 198,000 tonnes of CO2 is generated from burning, Voice confirms. Total Irish emissions from plastic comes to 801,064 tonnes, equating to 162.7kg per person just from plastic packaging.

Voice recommends a “refuse plastic” and “reuse” approach ranging across supermarket purchases, takeaways and containers – and ending single-use items whether they are plastic, paper or card.

Shopping habits

Consuming less is critical to sustainability. Nowhere is that more true than with energy and shopping habits. “The most sustainable objects are often the ones you already own,” Shine says.

Reducing fast fashion We consume 400 per cent more clothing compared with 20 years ago. Buying less, wearing items repeatedly and wearing secondhand/vintage clothes is a potential big win – and key to ending production of 100 billion items of clothing every year, where three out of five items are thrown away within 12 months.

Changes that add up

Two UK studies recently identified lifestyle changes that can have real impact and published guides. Making small changes can add up to big impact, they conclude. Experts from Leeds University, Arup and C40 group of world cities found six commitments could cut a quarter of emissions required to contain global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees. They include:

– Eat a largely plant-based diet, with healthy portions and no waste
– Buy no more than three new items of clothing per year
– Keep electrical products for at least seven years
– Take no more than one short-haul flight every three years and one long-haul flight every eight years
– Get rid of personal motor vehicles if possible – if not, keep your existing vehicle for longer
– Make at least one life shift to nudge the system, such as moving to green energy or insulating your home

Climate and health specialists led by the Grantham Institute (GI) at Imperial College London (ICL) identified nine actions to combat climate change and improve wellbeing while healing the planet. GI co-director Prof Martin Siegert said: "Most people know we need to cut carbon emissions globally to avoid dangerous climate change, but people are less aware that cutting carbon has lots of other benefits."

He added: “By stopping emissions, we clean the air we breathe and make respiratory illness less likely. By eating a plant-based diet and taking exercise we reduce the chances of cardiovascular disease and cancer. By protecting and enjoying nature and biodiversity we can help our mental wellbeing. A healthier planet will lead to healthier people.”

Shine says: “I’m not perfect and we don’t strive for perfection . . . perfect is a bully. Perfection doesn’t help people take the next step.” The mission should be to “minimise the negative impact; maximise the good”. It’s about asking, “what good we can do at community level, at work level”.

“Remember your superpower; that is talking about it,” she says. Until climate change is part of every conversation ranging across food, family, health, education and energy “we’re not going to change anything”.

It’s about changing the narrative, which is not only good for us but better for the next generation, she believes, “and by God we’re going to do it; we’re not leaving it to our children to resolve”.

O’Brien says: “Instead of feeling guilty, we should look to see how we can effect change, not only with our own actions, but the actions of others and, more importantly, the actions of businesses and industries. We can impact public policy to ensure our elected officials demand more strict standards from industry and invest in systems change, as that is where we will have more impact in reducing emissions.”

Dr Emma Lawrance of ICL Institute of Global Health Innovation has highlighted broad benefits: "By taking action together, we can all be part of creating a better future that is healthier for us and the planet, while signalling to leaders the desire for urgent aligned policies. Even better, taking action in our own lives and in our communities helps our own mental health and wellbeing by connecting us to our values, each other and the natural world."

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times