Reducing your carbon footprint: 9 things you can do
Reducing your carbon footprint has been a critical point of conversation to address one of the most pressing issues of our time: climate change.
The effort to reverse the harmful effects of global warming is continually being rallied by different government bodies and non-profit organisations around the world. In Australia, the use of renewable sources, particularly solar power are also on the rise. According to Australian Renewable Energy Agency, large-scale solar farms operating in Australia have generated over 1824 MW at the end of 2018. However, we are now at a point where the responsibility to mitigate climate change no longer lies in the hands of governments and companies alone. Today, environmental action must also begin in our homes.
According to the 2019 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Emissions Gap Report, countries collectively failed to stop the growth in global GHG emissions. Since the first gap report was published in 2010, carbon dioxide emissions have risen by 11%. To reach our emissions targets by 2030, we must reduce our carbon footprint by 55% to limit global warming to below 2˚C. Immediate and severe cuts are required to ensure we reach our target and change the current trajectory and minimise global warming. That gives us 10 years to make a difference.
Over the years, we have seen the effects of our rising global temperature. For example, the alarming loss of glacial ice and meltwater accelerating the rise of sea levels, and the more intensive heat waves. The devastating Australian bushfires served as another wake-up call for us - just one of the many examples of extreme weather events we witnessed recently. In that one tragic incident alone, 13 million acres of land burnt, 1,300 families lost their homes, and 500 million animals were misplaced if not killed - out of which 8,000 koalas have perished or have obtained injuries.
While we all know that drastic measures are required to change the current situation, we cannot stand by the sidelines, waiting for something to happen. Your household's daily activities can either reduce or promote the effects of global warming. Deciding to act wisely today will lessen the consequences tomorrow. It is a critical time to take action on climate change, and you can lead the way by starting in your home.
Here are some simple yet effective solutions you can do to help:
1. Know your greenhouse emissions
Knowing the source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is the first crucial step towards creating a better strategy of change for your household. For example, an average home's food consumption accounts for 10-30% of its carbon footprint. Here in Australia households account for around 12% of GHG emissions through the use of natural gas and hydrofluorocarbons in refrigerators and air conditioners.
Tip: Search for carbon footprint calculators such as the ecological footprint calculator, which will give you a general idea of common GHG emitting activities in your household, and explore the impact of different techniques to lower those emissions.
2. Consume less and take steps towards zero plastic waste practices
Over 90% of plastics come from fossil fuels which represent almost 8% of global oil consumption. A 2016 World Economic Forum report stated that if the current growth in plastics continues as expected, the sector's projected carbon budget may reach a 15% global share by 2050, threatening our ability to hold the increase of global warming to below 2˚C. In Australia, only 12% of plastic waste is recycled, so the more we buy and throw away, the more energy it will take to create new products which will increase the world's GHG emissions.
So what can you do to help? Consider following the 5Rs:
- Refuse what you do not need
- Reduce what you do need
- Reuse what you consume
- Recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse
- Rot (compost) the rest.
Recycling alone can create a profound effect in reducing the carbon footprint. According to reports, manufacturers using recycled products such as corrugated cardboard, aluminium, mixed papers, glass and yes, plastics, save 30-90% of the energy they would have used to manufacture from new.
Here are other tips to help you adopt a zero-waste practice.
- Plan your weekly shopping list to use any left-overs or extra ingredients from one meal, in another dish.
- Write your shopping list before you head off to buy your groceries. This will help you avoid waste and cut your shopping bill by not buying unnecessary items.
- Avoid single-use plastic bags and ask your local grocery store if they offer alternatives such as eco-bags.
- Avoid buying plastic-wrapped fruits, vegetables and herbs.
- Take your own containers to the butcher and fishmonger.
- Think about where you buy your food. Support businesses that are taking up sustainable measures.
- Opt for bulk food markets. There are lots of these stores popping up around the country offering great, sustainable, waste-free and plastic-free solutions.
- Stop buying single-serve meals. Go for whole foods.
- Use compostable lunch boxes and cutlery or bring your own Tupperware from home.
3. Embrace a low-carbon diet
The decisions we make about how we eat can have a significant impact on the sustainability of our environment.
Food production accounts for around 26% of GHG emissions. Supply-chain studies have shown that the global food system, from livestock to crop production, is a key contributor to global warming; just like energy and transport.
Here are 3 simple tips to eating a more eco-friendly diet.
- Reduce your meat consumption. Livestock is one of the biggest contaminators of the atmosphere and accounts for 31% of food emissions. For instance, producing beef emits 20 times the emissions compared to growing beans. It also requires more resources (10 times more) than producing chicken.
- Eat local and "in season." Doing this will reduce food miles (the distance your food travels), therefore reducing its carbon footprint by up to 7%.
- Avoid food that comes with excessive packaging and steer clear of processed foods as much as possible.
4. Leave your car at home
Transport is now Australia's second-largest source of greenhouse gas pollution, after electricity generation. This sector has seen the most significant percentage growth (62.9%) since 1990 as our population and reliance on cars continue to grow.
Meanwhile, on a global scale, transport pollution levels continue to rise at around 2.5% each year. Without counter-action, they are expected to double by 2050.
Here are some tips to help you travel greener.
- Instead of taking your car, try to walk more or ride a bike. You can enjoy the physical and mental health benefits, plus the monetary savings.
- For longer journeys, choose available public transport, or try car-sharing schemes.
- If driving a car is unavoidable, check out some options on how you can trade-in your diesel or petrol car for an electric or hybrid model. Electric vehicles are expected to be the same price as petrol cars within the next 5 years.
5. Reduce your electricity consumption and your energy bills
Coal pollution is still by far the largest source of climate-damaging greenhouse gasses. In Australia, coal-burning power stations on the east coast create more climate pollution than some entire nations.
By reducing your energy consumption, you can reduce your electric bills while also helping to minimise the amount of fossil fuels most power plants need to burn to generate enough electricity to meet demand.
- Keep air conditioner temperatures steady. The average normal setting for a standard air conditioner should be around 25 to 27 degrees for cooling in the summer and 18 to 20 for heating in the winter. You can also check Canstar Blue's table for optimum temperatures for air conditioning depending on where you are in Australia.
- During winter, putting on an extra layer of clothes or blankets will enable you to turn down the heating a degree or two.
- Unplug electronics from the wall socket when they're not in use to avoid the "phantom load", where your device can still draw power even on when turned off.
- Turn off the lights in any unoccupied room.
- Consider switching to solar power as it provides clean energy and does not emit any greenhouse gases.
6. Upgrade to energy-efficient appliances
Appliances can account for around 30% of home energy use. Choose energy-efficient appliances to reduce your household's GHG emission. Doing so will also help reduce the numbers on your power bill.
- Replace light bulbs with LEDs. LEDs are more energy-efficient, produce less heat and last longer than incandescents.
- Choose high Energy-Star rated appliances as they have higher quality features for improved performance and energy-efficiency.
- When choosing an appliance, consider:
- The best size and power fit for your needs
- The cost of running the appliance compared to other models
- The most energy and water-efficient model
7. Use energy when the wholesale price is low because that's when there is more renewable energy like solar power on the grid
Most of the energy we use in Australia relies on non-renewables like coal, diesel and gas. When the demand for energy is at its highest in the early evening, we use fossil fuels to generate more electricity to supply the increased demand. As demand increases, so too does the cost of wholesale energy and the carbon emissions from generation.
Over the last few years, Australia has seen a sharp rise in exported solar power from rooftops, which has impacted the wholesale energy market by reducing midday demand and driving a reduction in wholesale energy prices. By shifting heavy usage to the middle of the day, you can save money while alleviating pressure on the grid during peak demand periods which will help to lower Australia's reliance on fossil fuels.
Tip: Consider buying a Smart Meter for your home to serve as an energy consumption guide. Sign up with a retailer that gives you access to wholesale energy rates and offers a competitive solar feed-in-tariffs, such as Powerclub, and download Powerwatch to track wholesale prices.
Shifting your energy use to periods when demand and wholesale prices are low means more of your electricity will be from renewable sources like solar, wind and hydro. Powerclub's 24-hour Power Clock shows the average times-of-day when energy from renewables sources is higher. In general, renewable energy from solar is highest between 9.30 AM to 4:30 PM. Demand for electricity is lowest between 9:30 PM to 6:00 AM, which reduces fossil fuel generation and increases the ratio of renewables from wind and hydro.
The typical usage pattern of most Australian households is to use more energy in the evening when the family returns from school or the office. You can make some small changes to your usage patterns to avoid heavy usage at this time, without having to reduce your energy consumption overall. These changes will have a positive effect on the environment and your energy bill as well.
By lowering the amount of electricity required from the grid during peak periods, you're also helping to reduce the likelihood of a blackout. Each Megawatt hour (MWh) of electricity generated by renewables minimises the amount of energy required from fossil fuels by a similar amount, eliminating about 0.9 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.
- Shift your household errands and chores like clothes washing, drying and dishwashing away from peak periods.
- Set dishwashers, clothes dryers and washing machines to turn on while you're at work or overnight while you sleep.
- Demand for energy will increase substantially during a heatwave, meaning high-emitting coal and diesel generation will rise. You can pre-cool your house during the day when solar production is high and power-down once prices start to rise. Or, instead of adding to the demand, take the family to the cinema or out for dinner. Coast through the highest demand period, and cool your house when you get home and prices have subsided.
- Iron all your family's clothes on the weekend, instead of doing a couple of pieces every morning.
8. Take control, gain independence and reliability by investing in solar energy solutions
If solar energy is not used or stored when it's generated, it will be exported onto the grid to supply other households or businesses. If you use most of your energy between 4:30 PM - 9:30 PM (like most households), without a battery storing your solar energy during the day, you will pull electricity back from the grid in the evening; adding to demand for fossil fuel generation. Your solar exports might off-set your usage from the grid, but you're still contributing to the overall need to burn fossil fuels to keep your home powered up.
Installing a battery allows you to harness more solar energy and rely less on non-renewable sources like coal. By doing this, the whopping 72% recorded consumption produced by coal-burning power stations can potentially be lowered. You can even join a Virtual Power Plant to export the solar energy your home doesn't use to help alleviate pressure on the grid and further reduce Australia's reliance on fossil fuels.
Virtual Power Plants (VPP's)
If you're thinking about investing in solar and battery storage, you should also consider how a Virtual Power Plant, or VPP, can help minimise the pay-back period of your assets. A VPP combines energy generated by multiple solar and battery systems to act like a conventional power plant. It operates using a centralised control centre to coordinate energy exports through cloud-based software.
Some of the benefits of joining a VPP are;
- Allows you to store your solar-generated energy during the day so you can use it in the evenings.
- Reliability during a blackout - it's not uncommon for the grid to crash under extreme pressure. But with solar and battery, you will have a safe supply of energy to ride out the blackout.
- Joining a VPP means that the operators can play the wholesale energy market with your stored energy; exporting when it's financially beneficial to do so. It's essential to make sure you get a fair cut of that profit (which can be substantial).
- Peer to peer trading means you can share your stored energy within your community and vice versa, creating a sustainable network and revenue for participants.
- Financial incentives - most VPP operators reward participants with financial incentives. Make sure you read the fine print to understand what the offer is, and ensure you're getting the most bang for your buck - after all, you're the one investing in the infrastructure. You want a return on that investment
- VPPs provide clean energy on demand. They also reduce the strain on our power grid, especially during peak periods, improving the reliability of the grid and enabling the provision of cheaper power.
9. Talk about the changes you make
Lastly, talk to people you know to inspire them to take climate action as well. Whether it’s about using solar energy solutions or embracing a zero-waste lifestyle, share your story of the changes you've made with friends, families and even with your colleagues. Research suggests that being a role-model and sharing positive stories that focus on solutions and outcomes are much more likely to inspire action from others.
Reducing our carbon footprint to slow global warming is not going to be an easy feat. It is essential that efforts are made on a state, national and global scale. But our individual and community actions are also vital. While we can't save the world on our own, we can be part of the solution. Spread the word and let us look forward to the change we all desire for our generation and generations to come.