CO2 cloud by Matthias Heyde on Unsplash

How our lifestyle choices impact our carbon footprint

Sandra RosenauFirst Published: Last Updated: Limit Your Footprint Leave a Comment

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To halt global warming, we (collectively) need to achieve NET ZERO carbon emissions by 2050 (and significantly reduce other greenhouse gas emissions). That target doesn’t just apply to countries or specific industries. It applies to EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US.

But how many of us actually know what our household carbon emissions are? We certainly didn’t.

With carbon illiteracy a major reason why we (collectively) struggle to make meaningful headways in reducing emissions, we decided to

  • learn more about our carbon footprint and
  • find out how our lifestyle choices impact our carbon emissions.

Here is what we discovered.

There is no Planet B banner by Li An Lim on Unsplash
To achieve NET ZERO by 2050, we all must review our lifestyle choices | Photo by Li An Lim on Unsplash

Firstly: How did we calculate our carbon footprint?

It’s not easy to determine your carbon footprint when you’re a digital nomad.

We checked out a few carbon footprint calculators initially but discovered their shortcomings very quickly. We were able to use them to get a rough idea of our carbon emissions in Sydney (where we led a typical life with a fixed address). But we hit a roadblock as soon as we tried to use them for our nomadic/more alternative lifestyles.

So, we decided to calculate our carbon footprint bottom up by building a (ginormous) Excel spreadsheet and calculating each carbon contributor individually (an insane task BTW).

We tried to take a full lifecycle approach as much as possible, differentiating between two major groups of emissions:

  • Embedded or embodied carbon: These are emissions released during the manufacturing, transport and end-of-life disposal of goods. Where goods are assets that last for a considerable amount of time, for example accommodation (buildings, furniture, appliances), our gear (clothing, technology) or vehicles, we annualised the embodied carbon emissions based on the expected life span of the asset.
  • Use/Consumption-based Emissions: As the name suggests, these are emissions released during the use of goods/consumption of products and services. In our case, this includes our food, utilities (water, electricity, gas, internet, data storage) and transportation (based on miles travelled and transport mode/fuel consumed).
Carbon is embedded in everything we use - from the buildings we live in to the clothes on our body | Photo by C Dustin on Unsplash
Carbon is embedded in everything we use - from the buildings we live in to the clothes on our body | Photo by C Dustin on Unsplash

Disadvantages of our bottom-up approach

We are not carbon scientists, and we didn’t adhere to any of the internationally accepted carbon calculation standards. Sorry, this wasn’t intended to be a scientific paper.

We don’t have access to the giant databases the experts have access to. This meant we had to make do with publicly available data. While there are way more data out there than only a few years ago, the sources don’t always disclose (or are too vague as to) the lifecycle elements they include. For example, some food-related emissions data may include emissions only from cradle to farmgate, neglecting (potentially substantial) emissions released during the processing, transport and display (in retail stores). We therefore often found that different sources stated different emissions data for seemingly the same thing. In those instances, we would use the average across the different sources.

While we tried to take a full lifecycle approach, not having one reliable source and not knowing which lifecycle elements were included (or not) meant that our bottom-up calculation will contain duplications of emissions in some parts and omissions in other parts.

Advantages of our bottom-up approach

Taking the bottom-up approach allowed us to consider our emissions both at home and away to compare apples with apples between

  • a nomadic lifestyle (where your life, work and travel morph into one), and
  • a typical corporate lifestyle (where a large chunk of your emissions are caused during the commute, in city-centre offices, and during annual holidays spent overseas).

Building our own spreadsheet and using the same approach across all our lifestyles meant that we were able to compare our emissions across our different lifestyles despite likely omissions and duplications (as we would use the same data/sources and thus make the same omissions/duplications across all lifestyles).

Carbon is also released on our daily commute, at our workplace, even when we go to the gym | Photo by Alexander Popov on Unsplash
Carbon is also released on our daily commute, at our workplace, even when we go to the gym | Photo by Alexander Popov on Unsplash

So, how does our carbon footprint compare across different lifestyles (and internationally)?

Carbon emissions are measured in metric tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere. Every one of us causes CO2 emissions. But how we choose to live can make a huge difference when it comes to the amount of CO2 our lives contribute.

Similar to our cost of living comparison, our carbon footprint comparison shows our annual carbon emissions as a couple

Living in a big house with a corporate job and overseas vacations caused almost four times more carbon than living in a campervan
Living in a big house with a corporate job and overseas vacations caused almost four times more carbon than living in a campervan

As you can see, we emitted the most carbon when we lived in Sydney – just under 22.7t pa as a couple. Backpacking around the world caused just under 14.9t CO2 pa on average. Our lowest emitting lifestyle was our year of van life in New Zealand, at just under 6.1t of CO2 for the two of us.

You may not know if this is a lot or a little. So, let’s give you some perspective.

According to the latest United Nations Emissions Gap Report, the global per capita average sits at around 7t CO2 (with the US as the top emitter at 20t CO2 per capita):

Our corporate life in Sydney put us among the 3rd largest polluters globally | Source: UN Emissions Gap Report 2020
Our corporate life in Sydney put us among the 3rd largest polluters globally | Source: UN Emissions Gap Report 2020

So, emitting 11.3t per person during our corporate life in Sydney puts us in 3rd spot (at the level of Japan). While we need to take our numbers with a grain of salt (for reasons stated above), it’s still eye-opening stuff.

If you’re wondering how your lifestyle compares to ours, here are a few more details:

Corporate Life Sydney

We lived in a 156sqm, 4 bedroom/2 bathroom terrace house in Glebe (with and without a flatmate). The house was relatively new (built 2009), made from brick but only single-glazed (as is common in Australia). The house was fully furnished, and our wardrobes were full of clothes. Our appliances were relatively new and energy-efficient. We didn’t have air conditioning but used a gas heater on nippy winter days. We collected rainwater to water the plants in our small backyard. Otherwise, all our utilities were supplied as part of the city’s network.

We would take public transport or walk/bike to work. We didn’t own a car, but we would use a car share scheme (GoGet) for a few hours on weekends to do our weekly groceries shop or visit friends who lived on the outskirts of town.

While in Sydney, we would spend our holidays travelling locally and overseas (mostly to Europe and New Zealand to visit our families). This amounted to almost 27,000 miles pp in a typical year (or 28,000 miles pp including our daily commute).

Our home in Sydney, AUSTRALIA before we embarked on our lifestyle change
Our home in Sydney, AUSTRALIA before we embarked on our lifestyle change

Backpacking RTW

We backpacked around the Americas in 2017 and around Europe in 2019. In 2020 and 2021, we based ourselves in New Zealand, backpacking with the occasional house sit (as far as COVID-19 travel restrictions allowed). In all cases, we traveled with carry-on luggage only.

We would stay in homestays, and locally owned guest houses, hostels and short-term rental accommodation. Or in the home of the pet owner when we house sat. Very rarely would we stay in a hotel. We would use the appliances and heating or cooling options provided by our hosts (often sharing facilities like the kitchen, bathroom and lounge room with our hosts or other guests).

During our year in the Americas, we travelled just under 33,000 miles pp by aeroplane (including the flight from/to New Zealand). On our journey around Europe, we travelled 36,500 miles pp by plane (again including the return flight from/to New Zealand). All other travel – 10,500 miles pp in the Americas and just under 9,500 miles pp in Europe – was done by train, coach, ship as well as public transport (and very rarely a rented motor vehicle). While backpacking in New Zealand, we travelled 2,700 miles pp pa by plane, a bit over 2,400 miles pp pa by motor vehicle and just under 470 miles per person per annum using other modes of transportation.

We didn’t own a house and only owned a motor vehicle from February 2021.

We travel with carry-on backpacks only
This is us with our carry-on backpacks, leaving Sydney in 2016

Van Life New Zealand

In 2018, we lived in a diesel-fuelled 1997 Ford Transit campervan. During the year, we travelled a total of 13,800km all around the country.

During the warmer months, we would largely stay in free campsites. In winter, we would stay in locally owned campgrounds to have access to (on-grid) electric heating. An electric boiler – powered via the engine’s alternator (while driving) or from the grid (when we stayed at paid campgrounds) – heated our water. Three 100W solar panels covered all our other electricity needs. We would cook meals on a two-burner gas stove/grill running on LPG/propane.

Again, we didn’t own a house and only owned the campervan for one year. The campervan contained the in-built furniture it came with, our carry-on luggage and a small amount of household items.

Vanlife is an experience, learning to live with less
MJ - our trusted Ford Transit Campervan in which we travelled around New Zealand in 2018

What key insights did we gain from calculating our carbon footprint?

Learning #1

As mentioned above, we discovered that online carbon footprint calculators do not (yet) cater for nomadic/alternative lifestyles. The smallest house is still larger than a tiny house, and even car sharing is a concept they don’t accommodate.

Learning #2

None of our lifestyles meets the UN per capita average targets of 2.1t pp pa by 2030. The closest we’ve gotten to that target was during our year of van life in New Zealand with just over 3t pp pa.

Learning #3

Our corporate life (with overseas holidays) was more carbon-intensive overall than our alternative/nomadic lifestyles.

Learning #4

Transportation is the largest cause of our carbon emissions – across all our lifestyles:

Transportation is the biggest contributor to our carbon footprint, causing 49-71% of our emissions
Transportation is the biggest contributor to our carbon footprint, causing 49-71% of our emissions

We expected that for our backpacking lifestyles as we took a lot of planes (and to travel anywhere from New Zealand, you got to jump on a plane or a (cruise)ship – which isn’t environmentally friendly either).

A surprise to us though was that travelling halfway around the world for a two-week vacation and taking several shorter flights closer to home emitted almost as much carbon as spending a whole year overseas and travelling slowly (all data is per couple pa):

  • Corporate Life Sydney – Holiday and Business travel (10.8t), Daily commute on public transport (0.4t)
  • Backpacking RTW – Average of Backpacking Americas (13.9t), Backpacking Europe (15.3t) and Backpacking New Zealand (2.0t)
  • Van Life New Zealand 3.0t.

Learning #5

Apart from cost savings, the sharing economy has a huge environmental benefit. Embodied and energy-use related carbon emissions reduce significantly when we share assets like accommodation, appliances, vehicles, tools etc.

Learning #6

Beyond our carbon footprint, we gained deep insight into our water consumption. We consumed 263 litres pp per day in Sydney but only 32 litres pp per day during our year of van life in New Zealand.

When we lived in our campervan, we used less than 1/8 of the water we consumed in Sydney | Photo by Cristina Mantovani on Pixabay
When we lived in our campervan, we used less than 1/8 of the water we consumed in Sydney | Photo by Cristina Mantovani on Pixabay

Learning #7

We gained a few other surprising insights:

  • Agriculture is a huge contributor to carbon emissions, more than we realised. Livestock emissions account for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions globally. Animal protein production is highly carbon intensive (especially if you take into account that only 40-65% of an animal is edible).
  • Aviation is often called out as the main culprit of carbon emissions. But air travel (only) accounts for 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. A far larger culprit is road transport, which accounts for 78% of all transport emissions (compared to 8% for air transport). Short haul flights generally emit more than medium and long haul flights. But actual emissions also depend on the type of airplane used. 80% of aviation emissions come from flights over 1,500km (medium and long-haul flights).
  • While air travel always gets the blame, the fashion industry somehow manages to slip under the radar. Yet, the fashion industry contributed 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 (almost 3/4 generated before items reach retail stores).
Did you know that fast fashion has a bigger carbon footprint than aviation? | Photo by Ka on Unsplash
Did you know that fast fashion has a bigger carbon footprint than aviation? | Photo by Ka on Unsplash

How will these learnings impact our lifestyle choices going forward?

Sustainability is one of our common core values. While we’ve become much more mindful about our water and energy consumption and about the environmental and social impact of our purchases since we started living nomadic/alternative lifestyles, a carbon footprint way above the UN per-capita targets shows us: we need to do more.

Nomadic Life

While we want to continue living nomadically (COVID-19 and our health in general permitting), we will reduce the amount we fly and choose alternative, more environmentally friendly modes of transportation as much as possible. Tools like Eco Passenger will help us choose the most appropriate option.

Overlanding around the world was our plan before COVID-19 hit, and it is still on the cards. We now have the Excel spreadsheet to calculate whether it is more environmentally friendly to slowly overland in a diesel vehicle (with the occasional ship/ferry) or backpack (with ground transportation and the occasional long-haul flight). Based on our findings, we will either

  • use existing public ground transportation as much as possible and only hire a (fuel-efficient) vehicle as and when required, or
  • (if this is not feasible) select the most fuel-efficient vehicle for our needs and live otherwise off-grid with solar.
By understanding our carbon footprint we can make better decisions about our travels in future | Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash
By understanding our carbon footprint we can make better decisions about our travels in future | Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

Post-Nomadic Life

We know, at some point we may want (or need) to spend more time in one spot (and only travel occasionally). While we could see ourselves living in several countries around the globe, it is likely that we’re ending up in New Zealand (where Paul is from).

To cater for this possibility (and not be priced out of the market), we recently purchased a plot of bare land in New Zealand. Over time, we intend to transform the land into a small permaculture farm that allows us to grow our own food (to be reasonably self-sufficient) and share surplus food with our local community. We would live in a tiny house and share the farm with other like-minded people.

Since purchasing the land, we have installed rainwater tanks (our only freshwater source) and a worm-farm-based wastewater system that allows us to recycle and reuse our wastewater for plant irrigation. We compost all our organic and most of our paper/cardboard waste.

Our tiny house will be designed to minimise heating needs in winter and cooling needs in summer. Appliances (including heating/cooling for the hopefully rare occasions we need them) will be as energy-efficient, low emission and water-efficient as possible.

While our land is currently connected to the grid, we are looking to move our power supply to renewable electricity. We may also install a solar and/or wind energy system at some stage in the future.

Given our land is in a rural location without public transport, living on the land will require our own mode of transportation. We would purchase an electric vehicle if/when we live on the land (more or less) fulltime. By then (hopefully), EVs will be more commonplace and affordable.

When we need a vehicle, we'll be looking for the most environmentally friendly one we can afford | Photo by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay
When we need a vehicle, we'll be looking for the most environmentally friendly one we can afford | Photo by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay

General

Whether nomadic or not, we are changing our diet. We have already reduced our consumption of dairy and meat over the past five years. Going forward, we will forego dairy products altogether and only have one meat-based meal per week.

We won’t be able to track our carbon footprint as we track our finances (though one day, thanks to apps like CoGo and CO2 emissions labelling for products we might). But we will use our calculation spreadsheet and continue to keep track of our emissions on an annual basis. Just to ensure we are heading in the right direction.

Over time, we also intend to offset our (remaining) carbon emissions by planting (more) trees and shrubs on our land. Since purchasing the land, we have planted around 230 shrubs and trees (86% of which New Zealand natives). And we will continue planting and rewilding the land for many years to come.

We are removing dairy products from our diet and only have one meat-based meal per week | Photo by Oriol Pascual on Unsplash
We are removing dairy products from our diet and only have one meat-based meal per week | Photo by Oriol Pascual on Unsplash

What can you learn from it?

Our carbon footprint is unique to us. And our lifestyle choices may be very different from your own. But we believe there are still learnings you can take away from this article:

Measure

Understand your starting point by calculating your own carbon footprint. Here are some carbon footprint calculators to get you started (alphabetically, based on your location):

Reduce

Be more mindful about the environmental footprint your everyday actions have. And determine what specific actions you can take to (significantly) reduce your carbon footprint.

The best way to reduce carbon in the atmosphere is by not emitting in the first place (Gabriela Herculano)

For those interested in some in-depth research on how lifestyle choices impact your carbon footprint:

SaleBestseller No. 1
All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis
All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis
English (Publication Language); 448 Pages - 07/20/2021 (Publication Date) - One World (Publisher)
$15.99
Bestseller No. 2
The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis
The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis
Amazon Kindle Edition; Figueres, Christiana (Author); English (Publication Language); 242 Pages - 02/25/2020 (Publication Date) - Vintage (Publisher)
$12.99
Bestseller No. 3
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need
Amazon Kindle Edition; Gates, Bill (Author); English (Publication Language); 256 Pages - 02/16/2021 (Publication Date) - Knopf (Publisher)
$13.99
Bestseller No. 4
Speed & Scale: An Action Plan for Solving Our Climate Crisis Now
Speed & Scale: An Action Plan for Solving Our Climate Crisis Now
Amazon Kindle Edition; Doerr, John (Author); English (Publication Language); 442 Pages - 11/09/2021 (Publication Date) - Portfolio (Publisher)
$15.99
"The best way to reduce carbon in the atmosphere is by not emitting in the first place" (G Herculano) | Photo by E Girardet on Unsplash
"The best way to reduce carbon in the atmosphere is by not emitting in the first place" (G Herculano) | Photo by E Girardet on Unsplash

Offset

Plant trees in your own garden or neighborhood. Or in absence of that, find projects that remove carbon from the atmosphere – for example, (kelp) forest regeneration projects like Just One Tree or the projects of the Borneo Nature Foundation. Look for certified projects and projects run by not-for-profits to ensure every cent has impact.

If you know your household carbon footprint:

  • What calculator/s did you use and how much CO2 do you emit per year?
  • What changes to your lifestyle have you made to reduce your carbon emissions?

Please leave a comment below.

Feature image by Matthias Heyde on Unsplash

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How our lifestyle choices impact our carbon footprint - Minimalist Journeys
How our lifestyle choices impact our carbon footprint - Minimalist Journeys
How our lifestyle choices impact our carbon footprint - Minimalist Journeys

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