What is the average carbon footprint in the UK? Here we explore the official statistics and break down exactly which household activities contribute the most.
Households have been the single biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the UK since 2015.
In fact, according to the latest data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the total household emissions in 2020 were recorded at 133 million tonnes, which comprise almost 40 per cent of the total emissions in the UK.
In reality the largest household contributors to greenhouse emissions are from heating, food and transport, however other activities are also involved, including our electricity use and to some extent even the internet we use daily.
Before going into the detail of different factors that contribute to CO2 in households, first, we need to understand what a Carbon footprint is and why it is important for the UK government to reduce emissions.
Read all about the UK’s energy security strategy here.
What is a carbon footprint?
The official definition of carbon footprint is the amount of carbon emitted as a result of an individuals or in this case households consumption of fossil fuels.
According to the UK Government’s official website, the total carbon footprint now includes the seven leading Greenhouse Gases comprising: CO2, methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), Hydro-fluorocarbons (HFC), Perfluorocarbons (PFC), Nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) and Sulphur hexafluoride (SF6). The carbon dioxide footprint relates just to CO2 emissions.
The Climate Change Act 2008 is the UK’s approach to reducing emissions and preparing for climate change. It set a statutory target to reduce UK Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions by at least 80 per cent (against 1990 levels) by 2050.
Then in June 2019, secondary legislation was passed that extended that target to “at least 100 per cent”. Simply put, if this audacious target is met it will mean the UK will stop contributing to global emissions by 2050.
Carbon emissions per household activities
It is essential to know the various activities that cause and amount of CO2 emissions in a household so that it can be tracked and reduced effectively.
The main contributors to CO2 emission in a household are as follows:
The typical heating season in the UK is for 34 weeks. While the majority of UK households rely on central heating to keep them warm in extremely cold temperatures, 85% of them are relying on natural gas to power it.
In fact, a recent review suggested that the gas boilers in the UK’s homes produce twice as much climate-heating carbon emissions as all the nation’s gas-fired power stations combined.
In addition, recent findings of a report published by Nesta revealed that home heating accounts for 38% of all UK gas use, and an average household has a boiler that emits greenhouse gases equivalent to approximately 2.2 tonnes of CO2 per year.
While switching on a light bulb or turning on a TV are among the simplest of tasks but have a great impact on the environment.
According to the UK Government report on the carbon emissions for homes on the average energy fuel mix, 0.233 kg of CO2 per kWh of electricity is produced annually from an average household. This makes around 1.1 tonnes of CO2 per year.
On average UK households use around £3.4 billion worth of electricity every year with the national usage being around 3,940 kWh per home.
Carbon Footprint from Food
A report on UK food system GHG emissions have estimated that the UK food system was responsible for nearly 160 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in the UK and overseas in 2019 – around 35% of UK territorial emissions.
It is worth mentioning here that UK households waste around 4.5m tonnes of food every year which is worth £14bn, the equivalent to £700 a year for an average family with children.
Internet Use and Carbon Emissions
There is a striking relationship between internet usage and CO2 emission.
One cant think of life without the internet these days, but astonishingly market leader Google is responsible for around 10g of CO2 on every search, which accounts for Google’s data centres and running your device.
A report published by BBC included interesting research on emails by Mike Berners-Lee, a fellow at Lancaster University who researches carbon footprint.
According to the research, the carbon footprint of email varies from 0.3g CO2e for spam to 4g CO2e for a regular email and 50gCO2e for one with a photo or hefty attachment.
According to the UK Department of transport cars made up 79% of the road vehicle miles travelled within the UK, but produced 55% of transport emissions.
More than 77% of households in the country own a car. Considering the average car drives 7,600 miles per year in the UK, the average car releases 1,682,383 grams of CO2 into the atmosphere each year.
Fifth Carbon Budget
The carbon budget aims to restrict the total amount of greenhouse gases the UK can emit over 5 years.
The fifth carbon budget, covering the period 2028-2032, has now been approved by the UK Parliament.
The budget will ensure the UK continues to reduce its emissions most cost-effectively, as we progress towards the 2050 target to reduce domestic emissions by at least 80% on 1990 levels.
Households have an important part to play in the fifth Carbon Budget as they contribute towards 40% of UK carbon emissions.
According to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), The average UK home’s carbon footprint has been reduced by 4.7 tonnes of CO2 since 1990.
A further reduction of 3.6 tonnes by 2030 will help keep us on track to the 80% UK-wide reduction in emissions by 2050 required to tackle dangerous climate change.
Importance of the fifth Carbon Budget
The carbon budget sets the number of greenhouse gases that can be emitted for a given level of global warming.
The fifth carbon budget is important to achieve the target of reducing emissions by at least 100% of 1990 levels (Net zero) by 2050.
The progress report published by CCC highlighted the progress made from 1990 to 2020.
According to the report, UK greenhouse gas emissions were 447 MtCO2e in 2021, including the UK’s share of international aviation and shipping emissions, and were 47% below 1990 levels.
This was a decrease of 10% on 2019 emissions but an increase of 4% on 2020, as emissions in 2020 had been significantly impacted by the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The UK needs to work consistently to achieve the targets set by the fifth climate budget. It will help the UK to set a precedent for the world to follow.
Also being a part of the Glasgow Climate Pact COP26, the UK must lead the world through the transition to net zero emissions by or around mid-century.