We recently talked about our carbon footprint and what we are doing to reduce it. We know everyone’s lifestyle is different, and what we do may not apply to you. That’s why we have put our heads together and collated more than 50 actions you can take to reduce your carbon footprint. Just pick those that are relevant to you and get started.
Why you should care about climate change?
A brief intro to carbon emissions
You being here means YOU CARE. But in case you’re here by pure chance, let’s briefly talk about carbon emissions.
Almost everything we (human beings) do every day causes carbon dioxide (and other harmful gases like methane [CH₄], nitrous oxide [N₂O] and fluorinated gases) to be released into the atmosphere. Driving a petrol or diesel-powered vehicle to/from work is an obvious one. As is flying halfway around the world for a two-week vacation. But what about filling a glass of water from the tap, buying a box of cereals at the groceries store or sending an email? Yep, these too add to your individual carbon footprint. And the clothes in your wardrobe? Most definitely.
Your carbon footprint is measured in g/kg/t CO2e, with the e standing for equivalent. To include other greenhouse gases which may be more or less harmful than CO2, their global warming potential is translated into equivalent CO2 emissions. This also means: the greater your carbon footprint, the greater is your contribution to global warming and climate change.
Why the urgency to act?
Now, we understand, emitting carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases or GHG) is part of life. But the amount we (collectively) contribute has become absolutely insane: 52.4Gt CO2e (or 52.4 billion tons) in 2019 to be precise – the highest it has ever been. And that number doesn’t even include land-use changes which removed some of nature’s capacity to remove carbon from the atmosphere (called sequestration).
To put this into perspective:
- To halt the warming of the earth’s atmosphere at 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit) by 2100, our (collective) emissions must be more than half (to 25Gt CO2e) by 2030. That is eight years away.
- Even if we are aiming to limit global warming to 2.0° (3.6°Fahrenheit) by 2100, we still need to reduce our collective emissions by 22% (to 41Gt CO2e) within this decade.
The impact of global warming
We are already starting to feel the impact: floods, droughts and wildfires are happening more frequently and becoming more and more ferocious. We will all be impacted one way or another. And if it’s not us, it will be our children and grandchildren. Is this the world you want them to inherit?
We’ve let the planet down. There’s no question about that. And we owe it to future generations to work with them to try and heal some of the harm we’ve inflicted. – Jane Goodall
Surely not. After all, you do care. That’s why you’re here.
But in case, you’re still not convinced. Let’s talk about money.
The costs are real
Global warming and climate change is costing us all. A recent report by SwissRe calculated the economic loss caused by climate change, depending on the temperature increase by 2050. An increase of 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) would wipe 11% off the global GDP (and in some regions even more). To put that into perspective: COVID-19 caused the world economy to contract by 3.5% in 2020.
And if you think it’s none of your business in North America or Europe think again. 48% of carbon emissions are caused by the top 10% of income earners (that’s you). Sadly, those that contribute the least (the bottom 50%) bear the brunt of climate change, which is already displacing millions of people. And more will need your help, one way or another.
So, what does that mean for each of us individually?
Halting global warming at 1.5°Celsius (2.7°Fahrenheit) by 2100 means we earthlings need to limit our average emissions to 2.1t per person by 2030.
How far away from that target are you? Don’t know?
Start by measuring your carbon footprint
Recognising there is a problem is the first step. You’ve done that, otherwise, you wouldn’t be here.
The next step is understanding how much carbon your household is emitting right now. Once you know how much it is, re-calculate at least annually to see how you’re tracking. Or if you’re located in the United Kingdom, use the CoGo app to keep track of your carbon emissions in real time.
Next: reduce, reduce, reduce
Housing (which includes energy and water use, and waste production), personal transport and food represent almost 4/5 of total lifestyle carbon footprints. So, these are the areas where actions we take can have the biggest impact.
1. Do you live in a 3+ bedroom house but it’s only you (and your partner and/or pet)? Downsize your home. The smaller your home the less it takes (and costs) to keep warm or cool. Read about how we reduced our costs when we left Sydney and became location-independent.
2. You can also cut down on heating or cooling needs with better insulation. A no-brainer in hot countries like Australia, but you’d be surprised how many houses down under are badly or not at all insulated. From simple things like adding weather strips around windows and doors to replacing single-pane windows with double or triple glazing and retrofitting insulation, (almost) every home can be improved. There are even government grants and programs in many countries that make the larger upgrades more affordable.
3. If you own a holiday home, ask yourself: Do I really need it? You could just rent a nice place for those few weeks each year you actually make use of it (which could make more financial sense as well). Or rent out your holiday home when you don’t use it.
Home energy use
4. Replace your inefficient air-conditioner and/or gas/oil/electric heater with a heat pump. Modern heat pumps have Coefficient Of Performance ratings of >5 (1kW of input produces >5kW of output). And better efficiency = lower running costs and smaller carbon footprint. In our Tiny House, we use and recommend the Daikin FTXZ35/US7 Heat Pump.
5. Speaking of cooling and heating:
- In summer, close curtains/blinds to keep the heat out. And instead of using air-conditioning (or your heat pump), open windows and/or use a fan. If you’re using an air-conditioning or heat pump, set the temperature to 78/25°Fahrenheit/Celsius.
- In winter, close curtains/blinds to keep the heat in. Instead of using a heater, wear a sweater/jumper/cardigan and if you’re using a heater, set the temperature to 67/19°Fahrenheit/Celsius.
- Turn off your heating/cooling appliance when not at home.
6. Water heating also requires energy, so turn your water heater down. 140/60°Fahrenheit/Celsius is sufficient to kill Legionella bacteria.
7. Replace light bulbs with LED bulbs. They might be more expensive to buy but are much cheaper to operate and last longer. Turn off lights when you’re not at home.
8. Replace appliances that have reached their end of life with the most energy- (and water-) efficient version you can afford.
9. And speaking of appliances:
- Set the temperature in your fridge to 18/4°Fahrenheit/Celsius and your freezer to 0/-18°Fahrenheit/Celsius. Let hot meals cool down before putting them into the fridge or freezer. Defrost your freezer at least once a year if it doesn’t do it automatically.
- Wash your clothes in cold water and let them air dry. It saves electricity, and your garments will last longer.
- Unplug appliances you don’t use.
Home water use
(Hot) Water is a double-whammy: Not only does it take energy to treat and deliver water to your home, it also requires energy to heat it whenever you turn the hot water tap on.
11. So, saving (hot) water wherever possible also saves energy (which in turn reduces your carbon footprint):
- Fix leaky faucets.
- Wash your hands with cold(er) water.
- Turn off the tap when brushing your teeth or shaving.
- When hand-washing dishes, use a plug and only fill as much (or as little) water as you need.
- Only boil the amount of water you need.
- Have showers rather than baths.
- Take short(er) showers.
12. Install low-flow tapware and showerheads. We use and recommend the Vogue Water Saver Shower Hand Piece. And check the water rating when you replace your toilet. Toilets especially can use an insane amount of water (older toilets use as much as 3.5gal/13l per flush). So, an even better option: switch to a waterless (or composting) toilet. We currently use and recommend the Dometic 510 Toilet.
13. Collect rainwater and reuse your greywater (water used in your shower/hand basin/laundry) to water your garden (as long as you only use natural cleaning products).
14. Water your lawn less or even better: ditch the lawn. Plant native species instead. They are better adapted to your local climate and thus need less water and fertilising to thrive. They are also more resilient to pests. And birds and insects love them.
[…] the American lawn is one of the greatest mass brainwashings of all time. How we all voluntarily signed up to spend untold hours growing and cutting a non-native monoculture of green which we lace with poisons to kill plants and insects never ceases to amaze. – Bill Heavey
15. Thinking of installing a swimming pool in your backyard? Think twice. A typical residential pool contributes about 1.4t CO2e per year. If you already got one
- Keep your pool covered when not in use (including in winter).
- Skip draining during winter.
- Switch to saltwater and top up with rain water.
- Keep your filters clean.
- Let the sun warm the water (and operate your pump).
16. And while we’re at it: a spa pool/hot tub, while much smaller, might account for more than 50% of your household’s energy use. So, if you can avoid it, do. You can always book a relaxing experience at a local spa.
If you already got one
- Keep your spa pool covered when not in use.
- Reduce your spa pool temperature.
- Install a solar-powered pump and water heater.
- Switch to saltwater and top up with rain water.
- Regularly service your spa pool.
Reducing waste has a big impact on your carbon footprint: Not only do you reduce your emissions by removing waste from landfills. (By consuming in a less wasteful manner) you also reduce upfront emissions that incur before the goods you consume hit the shops.
Food waste is a major culprit when it comes to carbon emissions: A scientific review from 2018 estimated global food waste to be in the order of 194–389kg (428-858lbs) per person per year. Another study found that food waste contributes almost 3x the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by aviation. That’s mind-blowing, particularly if you consider that more than 10% of the world population are affected by hunger.
Maybe we should focus more on matsvinn skam (food waste shame), rather than flygskam (flight shame).
17. Buy only what you need. It’s a fact of life: The more we buy, the more we throw away.
- Create a meal plan to avoid (or at least reduce) food waste.
- Make a shopping list to ensure you only buy the groceries you need. We use and recommend the Our Groceries app.
18. Reduce packaging:
- Bring your own (reusable) shopping bag/s.
- Avoid buying products with non-recyclable packaging (as much as possible). Look for the recycling sign on each item. If it doesn’t have one, look for an alternative product that has.
- Buy long-life foods in bulk food stores, without packaging/with reusable or compostable packaging. For us, that includes muesli, nuts and seeds, peanut butter, flour, rice/couscous/pasta, dried peas/lentils/beans, olive oil, natural cleaning and personal hygiene products like soap and shampoo bars.
- Don’t buy bottled water. Refill a BPA-free water bottle instead.
- Grow your own food. Even the smallest outdoor space can be turned into a productive garden. If you produce more than you need, share it with your community to keep food waste at a minimum.
19. Stop junk mail by putting a sticker on your mailbox.
20. Store your food properly so that it stays fresh for longer.
21. Reuse, recycle, repair and compost as much as possible. That includes:
- buying a biodegradable/compostable toothbrush and toothpaste in a reusable (or at least recyclable or compostable) container.
- using rechargeable batteries.
- upcycling clothing. For example, I have extended the life of a pair of pants with holes at the knee by turning them into shorts and turned a pair of old pants into gaiters and 3/4 pants to use in the garden.
22. Join a waste-free challenge.
The food we eat can have a significant impact on our carbon footprint:
- Meat and dairy products for example require a lot more land, water and energy to produce than plant-based food. Not to mention the methane emitted by cows.
- Shipping food halfway around the globe (just to have it available all year round) also uses significantly more energy than locally produced food and in-season produce.
If you are currently a big consumer of meat and dairy products and of food produced overseas, changing your diet can massively reduce your carbon emissions.
24. Eat fewer animal foods:
- Why not go meat-free on Mondays? We actually flipped that around and now eat meat only one day a week.
- Cut back on dairy. We started by drinking only plant-based milk and reducing the amount of cheese we used to eat. We still ate yoghurt but even that we’re slowly changing by making our own plant-based yoghurt.
25. Eat (more) foods that are low on the food chain. That will not only reduce the amount of energy going into processing but eating fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds are also healthier than eating processed food.
26. Eat more raw foods that do not need cooking.
27. Buy locally produced food and seasonal produce. As mentioned above, this cuts down on transport emissions. You’re also supporting local businesses and by buying in-season produce, you’re again reducing production emissions.
28. Change your pets’ diets. A study shared in New Scientist found that a large dog (a German shepherd or Great Dane) has an eco-footprint of 1.1ha, more than double that of a four-wheel-drive vehicle (0.41ha) – largely driven by their meat-based diet. A more recent study came to similar conclusions.
In one of our earlier articles, we talked about how consuming less can benefit us all.
29. So, becoming a conscious consumer can really make a difference:
- Borrow rather than buy – for example, join a book/fashion/toy/tool library – and buy only what you need.
- Buy ethically and sustainably manufactured products, including avoiding products that contain palm oil.
- Purchase locally-made or at least avoid products that require shipping by air freight (you’ll learn why below).
- Buy products without packaging or with reusable/compostable/recyclable packaging.
30. Rethink your fashion choices: The fashion industry contributed 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, more than aviation.
- Create a capsule wardrobe and replace items only when needed.
- Buy second-hand.
- Buy the best quality you can afford.
- Avoid fast fashion, even if your kids are begging for that item they saw on Tik Tok.
- Repair rather than replace.
31. Join a Buy Nothing challenge.
32. Gift experiences.
33. Drive less often:
- Cycle or walk to work.
- Use public transport.
- Carpool or use ride shares.
34. When you do drive:
- Time your travel to avoid traffic jams.
- Combine your commute with errands on the way (rather than doing an extra drive on the weekend).
35. Keep your vehicle in good shape:
- Regularly service your vehicle to keep it more efficient.
- Keep the correct tire pressure.
- Take your roof rack/box or bike rack off when you don’t need it.
36. When you buy a new car, go for the electric or hybrid model instead of a fancy gas guzzler. The price might be the same, but an EV/hybrid emits significantly less than a petrol/diesel vehicle.
Your household carbon emissions accumulate not just at home and during your commute but also at your workplace/your kids’ schools. So, what specific measures can you and your family members take there?
Energy and water use
37. Be energy-wise:
- Open windows and doors instead of using air conditioning.
- Turn off the lights in rooms you don’t use.
- Switch off your computer/printer when you’re finished for the day.
38. Be water-wise:
- Use half-flush when you go to the bathroom.
- Make sure the tap is turned off before you leave the bathroom.
39. Eliminate single-use plastic.
40. Refill your reusable water bottle from the tap or water cooler.
41. Bring your reusable cup when you buy your favourite hot drink.
42. Print only what is really necessary and reduce the amount of paper used in general. Go digital instead, using cloud-based storage and document sharing systems. And if you must use paper, choose the recycled variety to keep trees in the ground.
43. Compost food scraps and paper waste. We’ve seen many schools that have a compost bin and/or a worm farm in the schoolyard, and the kids love it.
On vacation (and business trips)
Your carbon footprint also includes your holidays/vacations (and any business trips), and depends on:
- how (far and often) you travel
- the accommodation and activities you choose at your destinations.
44. Travel less:
- Holiday closer to home.
- Stay longer.
- Scrap business trips and use video conferencing instead.
45. Travel wisely:
- Choose train travel over flights. Especially in Europe, with reliable high-speed train connections, train travel is not only more environmentally friendly but a more comfortable and often more affordable alternative.
- If you must fly: fly non-stop (most of the carbon emissions from aviation occur during take-off and landing) and travel in economy class (a business class flight emits 2.5-3x and a first class flight 6-9x more than an economy flight).
46. At your destination: Use public transport or walk.
47. Choose sustainable accommodation businesses.
48. Choose small locally owned businesses over international hotel chains that are known for their excessive consumption of resources.
49. If you must stay in hotels:
- Forego daily housekeeping to reduce the electricity and water used when cleaning your room and washing your linen. Just keep the Do not disturb sign on your door for the duration of your stay.
- Don’t open the water bottles and minibar items provided in your room but instead bring your own reusable water bottle (and filter), and buy food from local restaurants and produce markets.
- Likewise, bring your own toiletries and leave those single-use mini toiletries untouched.
- Encourage a change to more sustainable practices by providing feedback at the end of your stay.
51. Opt for farm-to-table restaurants and small eateries that are known to grow their own food. If you self-cater take the same carbon-reducing actions as you would at home.
What else can you do to help achieve the United Nations carbon emissions targets?
Sustainable savings and investments
A 2017 report by the Carbon Disclosure Project found that 20% of global industrial GHG emissions were backed by publicly listed investments. That’s us investors knowingly or ignorantly giving money to big polluters.
Since the Paris Agreement in 2016, the world’s 60 largest banks have financed the fossil fuel industry in the order of $3.8tn (that’s $2.1 million every day). Do you want your hard-earned savings to be lent to companies destroying our planet? We don’t.
If you are like us, use your money to fund the future you want to see (please note: our recommendations below do not constitute financial advice):
52. Keep your transaction and savings accounts with financial institutions that don’t lend to environmental polluters (or other companies that don’t do the right thing). Bank Green has developed a handy tool. You may also want to check out BankTrack’s database or read your bank’s sustainability policy and form your own opinion.
53. Invest in companies with a proven track record in sustainability. Read their sustainability policy and check their annual reports. Better even, invest in ESG ETFs – exchange-traded funds that invest in a basket of companies that have been screened for their sustainable environmental, social and governance policies.
54. Got no investments? Are you sure? What about your retirement plan or superannuation? Next time you check your balance make sure you also check what companies your money is invested in. And if you’re not happy with the findings, move your money to a fund/provider that invests your money sustainably.
Advocacy at work/school
55. Help make your workplace or school greener by advocating for more sustainable practices, from installing water-saving devices in bathrooms and staff kitchens/school canteens to improving the building’s insulation to reduce heating/cooling needs and create a healthier environment.
56. Embrace desk sharing/hot desking initiatives. Prior to COVID-19, only approximately 60% of office desks were actually being used. With the proliferation of remote work/working from home, this number is likely even lower post-pandemic. The effect is similar to downsizing your home: the smaller the office the lower the emissions.
To achieve global emissions targets for 2030 and 2050, individual behaviour shifts and lifestyle changes need to be accompanied by broader system change. That’s where political activism becomes important.
To give you an example: Global fossil fuel subsidies amounted to $5.9tn in 2020. That’s almost 8x as much as the loans provided by those 60 banks we spoke about. Unless we put pressure on governments globally, that will continue.
Behaviour change can only do so much without a full turnaround from our pro-growth politics, financial and economic models towards a more holistic well-being economy. (Sandrine Dixson-Declève, Club of Rome)
If you don’t want your tax dollars to fund CO2 emissions we fight so hard to reduce or have any other grievances related to global warming and climate change:
57. Vote for a party and candidate/s that prioritize our planet and support measures that contribute to achieving emissions targets. This is especially important in local government elections where your municipal government can really drive the move to a circular economy and greener community, as cities like Amsterdam are proving.
58. Write to your government about your environmental concerns and petition for change:
- In the United Kingdom, petitions with 100,000+ signatures are considered for debate in parliament. There are also online petitioning systems in New Zealand, Australia and Canada.
- In the US, with the shut-down of We the People, the process is a little more cumbersome: Write a letter to your local Congress(wo)man, send them an email or request a face-to-face meeting.
- Support other people’s petitions, including this global petition to ban fossil fuel subsidies.
59. Join protests to push for climate action.
When and how to offset carbon emissions
Ever came across a company that said they’re carbon neutral when in fact they continued to emit the same amount and just purchased carbon credits in an attempt to absolve them of their sins? While that might be better than a company that just pollutes (without the offset), we’d still call it greenwashing.
Likewise, if we earthlings just continue polluting, hoping the projects that have been established to sequester carbon will absolve us from our sins, we are mistaken. BIG TIME. Reforestation projects don’t sequester carbon immediately. It’s the big, old trees that are cleaning up our atmosphere.
So, the more we can do upfront to reduce our carbon emissions the better. Offsets should only ever be the last resort.
You can start by planting trees and shrubs in your own or your community garden. Or volunteer your time with local reforestation/rewilding initiatives. We recently planted trees with Forest and Bird in New Zealand.
If you don’t have the opportunity to plant yourself, donate to/purchase carbon credits from projects that remove carbon from the atmosphere (for example, through the Wren Climate Fund).
Want to learn more?
While we tried to provide as comprehensive a guide as possible, we know there is so much more to learn. So if you’re interested in learning more, here is some of the educational material we’ve come across during our research for this article.
- Project Drawdown: Climate Solutions 101 – a FREE six-lesson course.
- Climate Change Courses by Future Learn.
- The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis
- Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World
- The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here
- All We Can Save: Truth Courage and Solutions for the Climate Crisis
- Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution
- A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis