The extraordinary fact that one return transatlantic flight emits the same amount of carbon as 13 years of that family’s electricity emissions combined
Another year, another shocking UN report about the further consequences of climate breakdown. In September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessed the state of our oceans and ice-caps. It found that our seas are already warmer, more acidic and their wildlife damaged. Coastal extreme flooding events are becoming more severe. Most terrifyingly it reported that in Antarctica – which has the world’s largest ice-caps – ice-melt has tripled in the last 10 years.
But despite the terrifying reports about the consequences of our carbon emissions, as an environmental campaigner I find that very few people understand what makes up their own family’s carbon emissions. We see so many news stories about the emissions from electricity production that most people are surprised that, for many families, it is not among the largest sources of their emissions.
Roughly, the average middle-class family of four’s carbon emissions for food and energy are as follows:
6.00 tons – General consumerism
12.00 tons – Meat based diet
10.00 tons – Family flight to Miami
4.60 tons – Two cars driven at UK average mileage of 14,800 km/year
2.25 tons – Gas central heating
0.75 tons – Electricity (if not on an 100 per cent renewable green tariff)
0.20 tons – Water supply (although this calculation does not include the high carbon cost of hot water or its ecological impacts)
That’s a total of 45.80 tons.
Most working-class families will have significantly lower carbon emissions than this, while the richest one per cent will have an emissions rate many times higher. If this average family simply switched to a vegetarian diet it would emit about six tons less every year; if they went vegan it would be about eight tons less.
But the figure that jumps out for me from this list is the extraordinary fact that one return transatlantic flight emits the same amount of CO2 as 13 years of the household’s electricity emissions combined. Meanwhile, electricity only accounted for about 1.6 per cent of the household’s total food and energy emissions.
The second most important conclusion we can draw from this list is that slashing our personal carbon footprints does not really require much effort, or any complicated calculations. Many families are already radically reducing their meat intake, so choosing a vegetarian or flexitarian diet with reduced meat would be straightforward. Holidaying at home, or by train in Europe, can eliminate the flight emissions entirely. Already half of Britons don’t take a flight each year; how difficult is it for the rest to follow suit?