Whenever a big problem is encountered, people generally want someone to take responsibility and fix it. In the case of climate change, that “someone” has for a long time been politicians and the industry. However, it is actually individual choice that is the greatest driver of carbon emissions (Carbon trust, 2006). The politics and the industry do need to change in order to mitigate climate change, but actions of individuals also have an enormous impact in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Globally, 72% of GHG emissions are related to household consumption; the rest of the emissions come from government consumption and investment (Hertwich and Peters, 2009). In Finland, the numbers are similar – 68% of GHG:s depend on choices that individuals make. Spark Sustainability uses the round number 70% as a basis for all emissions reduction we propose to keep things simple.
So what are these 70% of emissions that we can control, and where do the remaining 30% come from – and why is any of this important? The easy answer is: the 70% is what you see after having filled out our Carbon Donut calculator. It is the emissions you are in direct control over. Things it includes are how your home is heated and lighted, how much stuff you buy (there’s always emissions when something is produced) and what you eat and how you travel. Things it does not include are the emissions from building your house and producing the steel and cement and other building materials used in doing so, or the emissions from building the roads you drive on, from building and heating the airports and the hospitals and emissions from drawing power lines and building power plants. Those belong to the other 30%.
Why is this important? Because knowledge is power: if people are made aware of how much power they have over climate change, vast emission reductions can be achieved by crowdsourcing climate action. According to a survey done by the World Economic Forum in 2017, half of all people aged 18-35 all over the world think climate change is the greatest threat of our time. In a study within the EU, 90% of survey respondents had recently taken at least one personal action against climate change. Over 80% of Finnish people have acted to decrease their climate impact in the past year, and every other Swede takes the car less than they otherwise would, because of concerns about climate change (YLE, 2018; WWF, 2016). The will is already there: now we just need an easy way to visualise our progress, and a strong call to action.
A good idea for visualising the progress made could be to first define the starting point for the individuals. At Spark Sustainability, we strive to be the link between the massive amounts of confusing data on personal carbon emissions and that simple question: “but what should I do?”. If you google “per capita carbon footprint” you will find a whole range of different answers.
- For Finnish citizens, the International Energy Administration (IEA) gives the number 7.7 tonnes of CO2/capita (2015 data) and notes that this is emissions from the burning of fossil fuels only.
- The World Bank gives a number of 8.7 tonnes of CO2/capita (2014 data): these are CO2 emissions stemming from the burning of fossil fuels and the manufacture of cement (the chemical reaction that creates cement also creates a lot of emissions).
- Official Statistics of Finland show that national emissions in 2016 were 58.8 million tonnes and that the number of citizens in Finland was 5.5 million; this gives a per capita emission level of 10.7 tonnes of CO2-equivalents¹.
- The ENVIMAT database, which Spark Sustainability uses for assessing emissions from consumption in the Carbon Donut, gives the value 11.5 tonnes of CO2-equivalents per capita for the Finn’s carbon footprint in the year 2010. This result is based on an economic input-output model and thus calculates emissions for the production of goods used in Finland, even if they were produced abroad.
Are you confused yet?
How do we know which one of those is right? Well, we don’t, because “right” obviously depends on what it is we want to know and what we are going to use the information for. At Spark Sustainability, we wanted to know how those 70% of global emissions that we as individuals control translate into our everyday lives: is there one big life choice that dictates my emissions or is it a combination of many? Which is more polluting; flying to Dubai or driving a car all year? Alas, the Carbon Donut calculator was born. It divides the emissions you control into six categories: consumption; heating of your home; electricity use; car driving and public transport; flights; and emissions from food. We think it’s far more motivating to follow up on such a footprint, and it also makes it easier to see the correlation between action and result.
Globally, the purchasing of goods and services (pink in the Carbon Donut), travelling and moving around (light and dark green in the Carbon Donut), food (yellow) and housing (red and dark red) cause the largest emissions per capita (Girod et al, 2014). The area where action is required is broad, but as technology has improved, making climate-friendly choices has become increasingly easier for individuals. In the past years, the GHG emissions per capita in Finland were 5.5 tonnes higher than the global average. Despite being located in northern Europe with cooler temperatures, there are plenty of ways for Nordic citizens to reduce their personal climate impact.
Energy investment decisions are typically made by governments and companies, but individuals can increase demand for renewable energy by choosing certified renewable energy. This will increase investments in renewable energy and thus a larger share of the energy used by society will be generated with renewable energy sources. Making sure our homes are not excessively heated (e.g. temperatures over 21°C or leaving the house normally heated while away on vacation) actually saves significant amounts of energy, and paying attention to the use of hot water is especially important on cold winter days.
When it comes to travelling, using public transport, biking and walking all significantly reduce personal emissions compared to driving. The emissions created from manufacturing a car can all be attributed directly to the individual’s decision to buy a car, so if you sometimes need to drive but do not really need to own a car you are already saving significant amounts of emissions by choosing to rent, borrow or co-own a car. If you do need a car of your own, choosing a smaller or more fuel efficient vehicle has a very positive impact. The annual emissions of a BMW X5 (sDrive 25d) and a Fiat 500 (1.3 MultiJet Lounge 3dr) when driven 17 000 km a year are 3.8 tonnes versus 1.9 tonnes of CO2.
The tourism industry for destinations far away is also a source of major emissions that can be reduced by choosing holidays closer to one’s home, or by travelling less often but staying longer when you do. Avoiding food waste and preferring vegetarian options can greatly reduce emissions from the agricultural sector: the difference between a vegan and a “normal” diet is 1 whole tonne, which is more than one tenth of our personal emissions per year! When it comes to consumption, buying less but of higher quality, buying second hand, repairing or renting without owning have great potential to reduce emissions. In the high consuming countries of northern Europe, over a quarter of GHG emissions come from consumption.
It might seem overwhelming that us individuals are responsible for so much of global emissions, but it is actually something we can turn into a good thing. Millions of people already want to change our society to combat climate change. Together, we can create a strong global movement and pave the way to a carbon neutral future.
¹Explanation of CO2 -equivalents: CO2 -equivalents is a fancy measurement for climate gases: you calculate the heating effect of all the climate gases (carbon dioxide CO2, methane CH4 and nitrous oxide N2O) and then express that in how many tons of CO2 would be needed to create that same heating effect. So basically just converting CH4 and N2O to amounts of CO2.