How to reduce your carbon footprint

| 5th February 2009
Despite being a committed green for almost two decades, John Cossham was surprised to find he had one of the lowest carbon footprints in the country

You sometimes see lists of five things you can do to save the planet: change your light bulbs, turn your thermostat down by a degree. No one is going to save the planet by doing that. I believe being green is not about saving the planet; it is about behaving responsibly, it is about enjoying living a 21st century life and preparing yourself for peak oil.

I’ve been trying to make green choices for 18 years. Recently, through my local Carbon Rationing Action Group, I entered an Oxfam competition to find the supporter of the charity with the smallest carbon footprint. The Government’s carbon calculator Act On CO2 estimated I had a carbon footprint of 0.45 tonnes a year out of the portion of emissions that is easily measurable – the lowest of all who entered the competition.

There is no secret to reducing your carbon footprint; people just need to look at the energy they use within their home, their diet, the transport they use and what they do in their community.

One reason my carbon footprint is so low is that we don’t use central heating. We have radiators in our house but we have not used them for four or five years. Instead, we have two smoke-free wood-burning stoves, which are both highly efficient. The stoves heat our rooms as well as boiling water in our kettle. They heat our washing-up water, bath water and we cook on them as well. We do have a gas supply to the house and we use the gas rings and the oven. I would love to have a woodfired oven, but you have to be realistic. Being green is about doing whatever you can; it’s not about wearing hair shirts or spending vast amounts of money. You might invest some money, as we did with our stoves, but you save in the long run.

We also have lots of low-energy appliances, although we don’t use many. I don’t have a mobile phone and we don’t use a lot of gadgets. We do have two televisions but they always get switched off at the wall. We have low-energy light bulbs and we have an A-rated fridge and freezer. These are very easy ways to cut your bill, and your carbon footprint.

In my view, being vegetarian or vegan is actually one of the best things you can do to lower your CO2 emissions. If you have a diet that is heavy on milk, cheese and meat, then you have a much higher “hidden” carbon footprint – the emissions that are a byproduct of the production of those foods. Most people in the UK eat meat every day; only a very small minority is truly vegetarian. I have been vegetarian for 23 years and well over 99.99 per cent of the time I do not eat any animal products.

Being ill has a high carbon footprint; hospitals use up a vast amount of resources. If we had a healthier community we would be using up a small percentage less carbon, especially if that came through people walking and cycling to work instead of driving. Even so, I can’t abide the idea of driving to a gym and sitting on a static bicycle, watching TV, peddling away; I do not understand it. The only static bicycles I have used are when I have been generating power for a sound system at a green festival.

Treading softly

Being green is not about sacrifices; it is about having a better quality of life. I don’t feel as if I’m missing anything; I am not taken in by the advertising. I do not want to have a better car than my neighbour, although I am really proud of my bicycle.

I had one specially built because the bikes I had could not stand up to the hammering I was giving them, riding every day and carting around compost and logs. The one I have now should last for 20 years. I am a children’s entertainer and always travel to work on my bicycle. I love cycling. It is a great way to get around and with the congestion in a city like York you move faster than the traffic.

Having said that, I actually enjoyed driving. When I got my licence, I realised I must never have a car or I would be one of those irritating people who claims to be green but drives. In my mind, if you drive around everywhere, you are not green. Being green involves choosing to go by bus and public transport, cycling, walking and travelling less. If that means I cannot do something, I won’t do it.

I also don’t fly and I believe people shouldn’t. I understand the attractions of travelling and I get a real buzz from watching travel programmes on television. But there are still many wonderful places to visit locally; there is so much to see in Britain. We took a local holiday this year to Whitby and we had a family holiday for under £1,000. When people go abroad and fly, the costs are a lot higher.

My two sons, aged nine and 11, have been brought up as greens and they know no different. They know their friends may have more gadgets than they do, and go on foreign holidays, but they are not too bothered.

The Government’s carbon calculator only takes into account home energy use and travel. It would be interesting to calculate the other portion based on my diet and my lifestyle. However, I would want to take into account the amount of wood I take out of skips for my stove – material that otherwise would be driven to landfill sites.

Ultimately, I feel that I am quite grounded and realistic; I do not expect people to give up things immediately. People should do it gradually and, most importantly, keep doing it. I could still do more things that would make me greener, but I know that I am doing more or less the right thing and I am really enjoying it.


Carbon calculations

// John’s carbon footprint (per year): 0.45 tonnes

// UK average per person*: 4.35 tonnes

// John’s family of four: 1.6 tonnes

// Average UK family*: 9.96 tonnes

// John’s utility bills last year:
Gas: £60
Electricity: £227

Try the Government’s carbon calculator

*Source: Act On CO2

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2009