A carbon footprint is used to calculate the amount of damage caused by an individual, household, institution or business to the environment through harmful carbon dioxide emissions. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions is seen as essential to sustaining the environment and can be achieved in two ways:
Reduction of Carbon Dioxide Emissions. This can be accomplished by calculating your ‘carbon footprint’ and identifying those aspects of your routine that consume the most carbon. Following this, it is possible to minimise those activities and, where possible, seek sustainable alternatives. For example, you can walk or cycle to work, rather than driving. Carbon Offsetting. Alternatively you can reduce overall carbon emissions by ‘offsetting’ your carbon emissions. This involves actively promoting the reduction of carbon emissions, whilst not necessarily making a change to your business practice. In this way a large company – for example – may continue to burn fossil fuels at their current rate, yet contribute to an overall reduction in carbon emissions by investing in initiatives that actively reduce carbon emissions.
The Kyoto Protocol
The Kyoto Protocol is an international treaty on climate change, presided over by the UN and subscribed to, currently, by 164 countries worldwide. The treaty demands that full signatories reduce their carbon emissions (their carbon footprint) as part of a common initiative. This is achieved either by a reduction of emissions, or by ‘carbon offsetting’. The UK, as a signatory is legally obligated to reduce fossil fuel emissions, within given targets. Initiatives are being phased in to achieve such reductions and companies and institutions are bound by law to comply.
The Kyoto Protocol operates on a two-tier system that requires ‘Annex I’ countries (industrialised nations, who consume the most carbon) to reduce their emissions, whilst developing countries can continue to burn fossil fuel at their current rate. Countries are allocated ‘carbon credits’, which dictate how much carbon they are allowed to use. An Annex I country can buy carbon credits from a developing country, thus enabling them to burn fossil fuel without overstepping worldwide carbon limitations.
As it stands there is no legal obligation in the UK for individuals to reduce fuel emissions, except in the workplace, where they will do so as part of company policy. However, many people are concerned about the environment and, therefore, take steps to minimise their carbon usage.
Reducing Carbon Emissions
There are many ways that companies and institutions can reduce carbon emissions. Here are just a few:
- Enacting a recycling policy.
- Enacting and promoting a car-sharing scheme amongst its employees.
- Encouraging employees to walk or cycle to work.
- Educating employees in the need to reduce carbon emissions.
- Reducing the need for air travel.
- Reducing the use of electricity.
- Developing new methods of work and manufacturing that are less harmful to the environment.
As an individual it is possible to do much of the above yourself. If your workplace does not have an initiative for reducing carbon emissions then you could possibly offer to develop and promote such a program.
There are many ways to offset carbon. Buying ‘carbon credits’ from developing nations and using them in ‘Annex I’ countries is one such way. Arguably, however, this does not address the dependence of industrialised nations on fossil fuels. It is possible for an organisation to buy carbon emissions and not use them, thus reducing carbon usage, rather then merely ‘offsetting’ carbon whilst continuing to operate harmful industrial practices.
Planting trees is a popular way to offset carbon. Trees breathe in carbon dioxide and convert it into oxygen. This process is called sequestration. Many companies invest in tree planting initiatives in order to offset their carbon. It is possible as an individual to invest in such schemes. Alternatively, you could plant trees yourself, in your own garden. This is a relatively inexpensive and rewarding way of contributing to environmental well-being.
Other forms of carbon offsetting include investing in organisations that promote awareness of environmental issues and supporting sustainable technologies (such as solar or wind power).