How to reduce your carbon footprint - for next to nothing © Getty Images

How to reduce your carbon footprint – for next to nothing

Going green doesn't have to be hard work. Here are some of the easiest ways to save the world.

We’re living in exciting times. From students out striking on the streets, to employees in the bellies of multinationals, change is happening. Media outlets are reporting on the scale and severity of climate chaos, deforestation and ocean pollution; pension funds are divesting from fossil fuels; and Green New Deals are at least being talked about by politicians.

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It seems we’re finally facing up to the reality that we live on a finite planet and that, despite being fantastically clever and creative, our species has done a mighty fine job of taking us to the brink of extinction.

And so we find ourselves in a bit of a conundrum. There’s an increasing number of us wanting an increasing amount of stuff. And given that we live on a planet that’s not increasing with us, we’ve got some seismic shifts ahead if we want to create a future in which we don’t just get to survive, but to thrive.

At this stage I should mention that we could solve all this in a jiffy by stopping fossil fuel subsidies and putting a tax on carbon, allowing for subsidies for renewable energy, public transport and organic farming, which can help transition us to a mostly car-free, mostly meat-free world. One in which the remaining 20 percent of ancient forests are protected, the oceans replenished and our soil restored.

But since there’s no indication from governments worldwide that this is going to happen any time soon, the buck I’m afraid currently stops with the likes of you and me. So here are a few of the most impactful things we can do to save the world, for free.

Cow bad can it be?

Every day you have 3 significant opportunities to vote for the planet, through what you eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The buying decisions you make every day are a simple, but powerful, form of direct action.

What you eat, where it’s from and what it’s wrapped in account for a juicy 20 per cent of your carbon footprint, or 30 per cent if you include industrial agriculture’s role in stripping the earth of trees.

Food production accounts for between one quarter and one third of greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide, and most of that is down to the meat and dairy industry. In terms of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, deforestation, water scarcity and ocean pollution, kicking the meat habit helps you tick all the boxes.

Let’s cut to the chase: meat eaters are responsible for almost twice as many food-related greenhouse-gas emissions a day as vegetarians, and about 2.5 times as many as vegans. Which means that drastically reducing your meat and dairy consumption is one of the best things you can do to save the world.

Get your chops around this: the production of beef is around 10 times more damaging to the environment than any other form of livestock. Aside from beef needing 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, and 11 times more water, the greenhouse gases emitted by cattle kick up a stink too.


Listen to Sir David Attenborough explain how to save the planet in the Science Focus Podcast:


Cows are ruminants (that means they regurgitate their food, not that they’re great thinkers), as are sheep and goats, which means they produce methane, a gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its effect on heating up the atmosphere.

A 2018 study conducted by comparethemarket.com showed that the number of people going vegan in the UK doubled from 2009–2016, growing to more than 3.5 million; the US is seeing a similar trend. A 2017 report showed that 6 per cent of US consumers now claim to be vegan, up from just 1 per cent in 2014. That’s around 19.5 million American vegans!

Of course, people do this partly for health reasons, since red meat with its antibiotic and hormone residues is likely to be a cause of disease.

But it’s also the case that radically cutting back on red meat, choosing sustainably sourced fish, buying local and organic when you do eat meat and introducing other plant-based sources of protein, are some of the most powerful choices you can make if you want to make a difference to your personal health and the health of the planet.

So get following some vegan hashtags on social media, get inspired and get creative with your quinoa.

Stay grounded

According to the International Energy Agency, the car industry is responsible for roughly 15 per cent of world carbon-dioxide emissions. In the UK, over half of all car journeys could be made on a bike in less than 20 minutes. More than half of all car journeys in London, for instance, are less than 8 kilometres.

Imagine those journeys being made by bike. Half the pollution. Half the traffic. Half the time. And, what’s more, 20 bicycles can park in the same space used to park 1 car.

It takes a mere 5 per cent of the materials and energy used to make a car to build a bike, and, if just 5 minutes of the average 36 minutes a day people spend in cars in the UK were spent on cycling, the NHS (National Health Service) would see a 5 per cent fall in inactivity-related illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and strokes, saving – wait for it – £250 million pounds a year.

For longer distances that you really can’t do by bike, opt for the slow road and go by train or bus, especially if you’re travelling between cities in the same country.

An eye-opening and easy-to-read report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (gotta love that name), showed that coach travel is by far the greenest way to travel, even for a family of four. And it’ll cost you less than flying.

Read more about flying:

Talking of which, flying less, or not at all, is probably the second biggest thing you can do to save the world. For the times you actually need to fly somewhere, choose a non-stop flight if you can, as take-offs and landings are really ‘guzzly’ when it comes to fuel.

And it’s far better to fly economy, as first-class seats take up around twice as much space as an economy seat. Which means someone travelling first class is responsible for twice as much carbon as someone flying economy!

Choosing budget airlines takes this even further, as with no first- or business-class option, they have smaller per passenger carbon footprints. And make sure you offset your flights.

Admittedly this is where the ‘saving the world for free’ bit gets difficult, as I would usually recommend you offset any essential flights through a quality-assured carbon-offsetting scheme, such as through carbonfootprint.com or the more detailed atmosfair.de. Offsetting a return flight between European destinations will cost around £10.

The big switch

Heating homes (or cooling them, if you live in a hot place) usually involves fossil fuels. ‘But switching to a green-energy supplier is more expensive!’ I hear you cry, before I’ve even written the words, ‘So we should all switch to a green-energy supplier.’

Well, let’s address that right away, as things are changing. Almost half of consumers in the UK who’ve switched to a green tariff have done so to save money, according to a survey conducted by moneysupermarket.com.

Some specialist energy suppliers in the UK are beginning to offer more competitive prices and, thanks to the trend towards renewable energy, the costs should continue to fall. Hurrah! It’s not uncommon now to find that the cheapest switchable tariff on moneysupermarket.com has been to 100 per cent renewable energy.

Read more about carbon emissions:

Be sure to check the small print though, specifically the ‘fuel mix disclosure’. Electricity suppliers in the UK are legally required to disclose to their customers the mix of fuels used to generate the electricity supplied annually – but they often don’t shout about it and you may find the 100 per cent claim to be a stretch of the imagination when you dig a little deeper.

So do your research, get switching, get saving and get yourself, your business, your school, and whatever else you can manage, onto a green energy tariff.

And to save even more money, and energy, make sure you’re switching off your appliances (but obviously not your fridge or freezer) at night, at the socket. So simple, yet it can save you up to £80 a year, depending on how many gadgets you have. And how many teenagers you have who seem incapable of remembering to power down when they eventually get off of their consoles.

Make it count

Finally, remember to share your stories to maximise your impact. Whenever you make a switch from something you were doing and the green alternative feels better, smells better or tastes better, make sure you tell all your friends.

Social media has its downside but, as a tool for social change, it’s incredibly effective – never doubt the power of sharing a petition, post or film on social media. Whether it’s a quick video recorded on your phone, a rushed photo or a work of art, get it out there.

Sharing something personal that’s made a difference to your life can be even more influential, as we humans are more likely to act if the message comes from people we love and trust.

Whether it’s a super-simple switch from a plastic scouring pad to a natural loofah, or something bigger, such as joining a climate march of hundreds of thousands of protesters, telling your story is how we build a movement.

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The more of us telling green, solution-focused stories, the faster we shift the focus from what’s wrong with the world to what’s right. And, when those ‘right’ things are seen as normal, the whole world will want to do them.

How to Save the World for Free by Natalie Fee is out now (£12.99, Laurence King).

How to Save the World for Free by Natalie Fee is out now (£12.99, Laurence King)