From Beer to Ironing Shirts: The Carbon Footprint of Daily Activities
Think about a pizza. What do you imagine? The flavors, for one. Perhaps the ingredients and what you could order to accompany that pizza. Where you might order it from, or whether you can make it yourself at home. Whatever it is, we can guess what probably doesn’t come to mind: the pizza’s carbon footprint.
It’s true — everything we use, do, and encounter in our everyday life has a carbon footprint of its own. For example, in the case of hard cheese for your pizza, making just 1 KG generates 12 KG of CO2. That’s more CO2 than what is emitted when you burn one gallon of gasoline in your car!
The world is currently rallying to meet the climate change mitigation targets first laid out in the 2015 Paris Accord. Alongside other factors, one of the most critical actions highlighted in this manifesto is overhauling consumption and production patterns. That sounds like a bunch of big terms, but what it really means is taking a magnifying lens to our daily habits, many of which seem harmless but add up in big numbers.
Why should we look at the carbon footprint of daily activities?
According to Mike Berners-Lee, the renowned author of “How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything”, carbon is a lot like money in one way: when we want something really expensive, we cut costs somewhere else to justify the purchase. Berners-Lee wants the world to become as attuned with the carbon footprint of daily activities are its financial costs.
Admittedly, it is a tough ask. We do thousands of things every day, some intentionally but most automatically. We text a friend when we’re bored, binge movies on a long weekend, buy groceries when we’re running out… the list goes on. While some environmental impacts are straightforward (like driving a petrol car), we also indirectly emit CO2 because we must account for indirect factors (processing fuel, producing and maintaining the car). These are toe prints, but they’re not to be ignored because they can also pile up.
So why do we need to question all of this?
Here’s why: human activities resulted in a whopping 42.1 billion tonnes of CO2 being emitted into the atmosphere in 2019 alone. According to The World Counts, that’s a significant uptick from previous years and quite an alarming figure.
There’s also the very valid argument that consumption feeds production, and they form a vicious cycle that can be very hard to break. We’re currently being “stuffocated” because our latest problem isn’t scarcity, it’s abundance. This “stuffocation” has adverse environmental impacts and deeply affects the human psyche and general mental health. In addition to this, manufacturers and high-carbon-emitting industries often indulge in a misdirection of attention to distract consumers from the elephant in the room: their supply chain, cheap labor, or environmentally damaging resources.
By taking matters into our own hands and making changes at the grassroots level, we’re able to turn the tide. We can command environmentally-friendly changes in supply chains and production cycles — aspects that we would ordinarily have no power over at an individual level.
What is the carbon footprint of some of our daily activities?
Mike Berners-Lee breaks down the carbon footprint of a hundred things in his book — here are a few to put things into perspective.
An email that takes 10 minutes to write and goes to 100 people = 26g CO2e
An email’s carbon footprint comes mainly from the electricity needed to power the process: booting the device, keeping it running while typing, storing the email, and powering the internet required to send it.
To reduce your email carbon footprint, you can:
- Reduce email size by compressing images and lowering resolutions
- Pruning mailing lists
- Unsubscribing from spam and newsletters
- Regularly deleting emails from your inbox
- Replacing attachments with links or online information
Ironing a very crumpled shirt = 40g CO2e
According to Berners-Lee, ironing five shirts a week for a year is equivalent to driving 7 miles in an average car. It’s not the worst thing to happen to the environment, but it offers room to cut down on carbon emissions with pretty regular alternatives.
To reduce your carbon footprint here, you can:
- Reduce how frequently you iron
- Iron while the shirt is slightly damp to dry and press at once (this will reduce emissions from using a dryer)
A kilo of lamb = 39.2kg CO2e
An AWG/CleanMetrics report found that eating a kilo of lamb meat is equivalent to driving about 90 miles (145 kilometers)! While a percentage of the carbon footprint is attributed to shipping in the case of imports, most of it is produced by the animals’ digestion and farm operations. It’s a similar story with other meat types — the meat and dairy industry accounts for nearly 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
To reduce your carbon footprint here, you can:
- Reduce or cease consumption of red meat (reduces footprint by a quarter)
- Go vegetarian (this halves the carbon footprint) or vegan
A pint of beer = 780g CO2e
A single tree would need almost two whole months to offset carbon emissions from just one six-pack of beer. Of course, this will fluctuate depending on whether the beer was locally brewed or imported, and it also depends on the ingredients, packaging, transport, electricity, and brewing equipment.
To reduce the carbon footprint of your weekly pint, you can:
- Drink locally brewed and sourced beer
- Reduce your beer intake
- Switch to cider
Note: These numbers aren’t set in stone — they fluctuate depending on geographic location, production, supply chains, and other external factors. They also increase or decrease over the years but can still help you understand the impact of each daily habit.
How can we reduce our day-to-day carbon footprint?
The problem with scary numbers is that we end up giving up and focusing on something easier. However, there’s a lot we can do at an individual level to make carbon-conscious choices. There are readily available alternatives for many things we consume every day, even if we can’t think of them yet.
It helps to start by setting a goal or target worth achieving. Berners-Lee proposes a 10-tonne diet, i.e., a lifestyle that emits a maximum of 10 tonnes of CO2 per person per year. For perspective, the global average is 4 tonnes, but average Australians and Americans have an average individual footprint of almost 30 tonnes per year. So, while this number may seem low, it is achievable if we’re intentional about it.
If you’d like to create more of an impact, you can try carbon offsetting, i.e., participating in an activity that reduces carbon emissions to compensate for the unavoidable emissions elsewhere. If you travel a lot for work, you might consider shifting to video calls instead, to reduce emissions. But to offset the emissions of the travel plans you do have to follow through with, you can plant trees — which just so happen to be the greatest carbon sinks in the world. With EcoMatcher’s carbon calculator, available on its free mobile app (Apple App Store / Google Play Store), you can super quickly calculate your annual footprint, and take action!
While becoming carbon-conscious means consistently making a lot of trade-offs, it doesn’t have to mean living a life of scarcity. We can still enjoy life — the focus is on cutting out the excess in a way that actually frees us from the vicious cycle of consumption.
It’s also a lot about picking our battles and not getting caught up in petty debates. Living an environmentally friendly, carbon-conscious lifestyle gets tougher and easier by the day: tougher because the world is globalized, but easier because there’s a lot more information out there!