Analysis by SEI York and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) has revealed some positive shifts towards a more eco-friendly lifestyle. Data based on more than 300,000 responses to WWF’s carbon footprint calculator found an average 17% reduction in overall carbon footprint , as well as a 25% increase in people adopting plant-based diets over the analysis period .
The analysis, taken from 15 months of data between February 2019 and October 2020, showed the positive impact of lifestyle changes at home, with using renewable energy an important factor in people cutting their carbon footprints. The new data shows a near doubling of respondents on 100% renewable energy tariffs (from 12% to 21%) over the time frame. Home emissions, such as from heating and lighting, make up 22% of the average total footprint, meaning that a switch to a 100% renewable energy tariff could save an individual an average of 2.9 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) a year. As the average carbon footprint of respondents to the calculator is 13.7 tonnes a year, that represents a significant saving.
Travel is the largest contributor to the average footprint, making up 30%. The impact of COVID-19 has undoubtedly played a large part in footprint reductions, mainly due to the decrease in flights over part of the period analysed. However, average footprints decreased across all areas of lifestyle, which indicates an appetite for more sustainable living.
Switching to lower-carbon transport – including cycling, public transport, and electric cars – helps reduce the travel footprint. Yet even before COVID-19, more than 60% of respondents did not travel by public transport (bus or train), and trends show use of public transport going down. As the UK emerges from the pandemic, this trend must be reversed, with investment in more sustainable public transport to help meet UK targets for emissions reductions.
Interestingly, small steps for the environment in one lifestyle area point towards a smaller overall carbon footprint in other areas too. For example, people who always switch off appliances rather than leaving them on standby have an average footprint in other, unrelated, lifestyle areas (including food and travel) more than 2.5 tonnes smaller than those who don’t switch off. Similarly, data showed respondents who don’t eat meat to have a smaller footprint in non-food-related areas – including home emissions, as well as from the ‘stuff’ they buy such as clothes and electrical goods – compared to meat eaters. On average, the non-food-related part of their footprint is 10.5 tonnes of CO2e compared to 12.4 tonnes for meat eaters.
Despite these encouraging trends, the average carbon footprint will need to reduce much further to help the UK meet its climate goals. Positive steps to cut personal carbon footprints must be combined with action from government and businesses to achieve the necessary scale of change.
“Changing consumer behaviours are a very important component of moving towards a low-carbon future”
— Dr Chris West at SEI York
Dr Chris West at SEI York, said: “The carbon calculator analysis showed people’s desire for a lower-carbon future. Meeting our climate targets will require a combination of small and big changes, such as maintaining a reduction in international travel, which is needed to bring down personal footprints.
“Changing consumer behaviours are a very important component of moving towards a low-carbon future, but these must also be complemented by a rapid transition towards renewable energy and a circular economy.”
“This analysis shows an encouraging trend towards lower carbon footprints across the UK”
— Dr Stephen Cornelius, Chief Climate Adviser at WWF
Dr Stephen Cornelius, Chief Climate Adviser at WWF, said: “This analysis shows an encouraging trend towards lower carbon footprints across the UK. The doubling in take-up of 100% renewable energy tariffs is particularly positive as this can be a cheap and easy way for people to make a real cut in their emissions.
“Travel is another important area for carbon savings and as we come out of lockdown, making deliberate decisions to walk, cycle and safely use public transport are small choices that make a big difference.
“In this critical year for environmental action, it’s vital that people also use their voices to ask businesses and government to commit to the scale of transformation needed to tackle climate change and limit warming to 1.5°C.”
Tools such as WWF’s carbon calculator can help consumers identify their ‘problem areas’ and make changes to green their lifestyle.
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Notes to editors
 The 17% decline is calculated using a linear trendline of the average footprint across fifteen months between February 2019 to October 2020.
 Plant-based refers to vegetarian or vegan.
WWF’s Carbon Calculator respondents answered 24 questions that cover a range of lifestyle and consumption habits under four topics: ‘food’, ‘travel’, ‘home’ and ‘stuff’. The carbon footprint associated with the respondent’s lifestyle and consumption activities is calculated using an underlying model developed by the Stockholm Environment Institute and the University of Leeds.
Individual consumption and lifestyle habits have been recorded for 326,579 UK-based respondents for 15 months during the period February 2019 and October 2020. Due to the vast quantity of respondents, WWF’s footprint calculator provides the largest known dataset of this type.
Areas with the UK’s lowest carbon footprint according to this analysis:
- Ceredigion in Wales had the lowest overall carbon footprint of 10.8 CO2e. More than 20% of respondents spend nothing on clothing in a given month, and 10% have solar panels. However, more than 50% of respondents did not know what energy tariff they were on, so there is still some room for improvement.
The 5 towns/cities with the lowest carbon footprints of populations of more than 250,000, their top ‘green’ credentials, as well as any ways they could improve even further:
- Exeter (11.6 CO2e): had more than 25% of respondents say they source food locally and 12% have solar panels (compared to a UK average of 7%). To further improve, more householders could switch to a 100% renewable energy tariff – 45% of respondents did not know which energy tariff they were on.
- Plymouth (11.8 CO2e) had the lowest average amount of short haul European flights with 36% taking these and 80% of respondents waste less than 10% of food. To further improve, more people could adopt a largely plant-based diet as only 16% of residents are currently vegetarian or vegan.
- Bristol (11.8 CO2e) had the highest number of respondents in the UK on a 100% renewable energy tariff (29%) and 82% of respondents recycled their food waste. To further improve, Bristolians could look at how they insulate their homes as only 61% of respondents had loft insulation (compared to a national average of 68%) and 38% wall insulation (compared to a UK average of 47%).
- Sheffield (11.9 CO2e) had a quarter of respondents on a 100% renewable energy tariff and nearly a quarter (24%) on a meat-free diet (compared to a UK average of 18%). To further improve, Sheffield residents could walk, cycle or use more public transport as 58% of respondents use their car as their main method of transport (compared to a UK average of 37%)
- Newcastle (11.9 CO2e) had 45% of respondents who use public transport, walk or cycle as their main mode of transport and almost a fifth (19%) are on a 100% renewable energy tariff. To further improve more residents could recycle food (as only 32% currently do this) either via kerbside collections where these are available or by home composting for those who have gardens.