Carbon jargon-busting - Part 2

11 June 2020 | OVO Energy

We’ve dedicated the[ first part of our jargon-busting guide] to carbon only. Now we’re diving deeper, and looking at carbon’s closest ‘relatives’.

Carbon emissions 

It’s a way of referring to the carbon dioxide that we release into the atmosphere.  Carbon emissions are created when we burn fossil fuels (like coal, natural gas and oil) or organic matter (like trees).  When we burn those things, all the carbon that was locked away inside them gets released to the atmosphere.  We call these ‘carbon emissions’ and we measure them in carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e).

Not sure what the difference is between ‘eco-friendly’, ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’? Read our guide to these environmentally friendly terms.

Carbon footprint 

It’s a term close to our hearts (and feet). A carbon footprint is a way of measuring the carbon emissions caused by something. Everything has one. A country, a person or a thing. It covers all the carbon a thing causes to be released over time.  

The greater your carbon emissions, the greater your impact on global heating.

Simply said, your carbon footprint is a way of measuring your total carbon emissions as a result of the way you live. Everything from the energy you use, to the food you eat and the holidays you take, even the [emails you send] will create carbon. And it’s about more than the obvious emissions (for example, driving a car). How your car is made (like the energy used to run the machines in the car factory) creates emissions too. 

The average UK footprint weighs in at 6.6 tonnes and is broken down into different areas, so about 33% of your footprint comes from the transport you use, 16% from the things you buy, 15% from your food and drink, 10% from holidays, and 26% from your home energy1.

Here are some easy and practical ways to reduce your carbon footprint

Carbon offset

A carbon offset is a reduction in emissions of carbon to balance out emissions being released elsewhere.

Carbon offsets support projects that reduce how much carbon we release into the atmosphere globally - either by replacing activities that release lots of carbon (like dirty coal-fired power stations) with activities that don’t release any carbon (like renewable energy wind turbines) or by removing carbon from the atmosphere (for example by planting trees).  

Projects that do this can sometimes struggle to get sufficient funding - but by selling carbon offset credits (certificates that say that carbon emissions have been avoided) they can raise enough money to make the project happen.  Many projects do more than just avoid carbon emissions - they have broader environmental and social benefits. Think preserving biodiversity, improving the lives of local communities, advancing education, providing jobs and food security – and improving health and well-being in developing countries.

Carbon neutral

This describes a state where the carbon emissions caused by something have been balanced out by an equivalent amount of carbon offsets. Being carbon neutral means that you’ve reduced your own carbon emissions as much as you can, and for anything that’s left you help fund emission reductions somewhere else in the world (by buying carbon offsets) - it’s a bit like paying for someone else to help you reduce your emissions on your behalf.

Net zero carbon

This is a term that's similar to ‘carbon neutral’, but right now there's no commonly agreed exact definition – read this to know more.

'Net’ has a meaning a bit like ‘overall’.  It’s what you are left with once you’ve done adding what you need to add and subtracting what needs to be taken away. So on your payslip for example, your ‘net’ pay means the amount you’ve made overall, once your tax and any other costs have been discounted.

For carbon, your ‘net’ carbon emissions are those that are left once you’ve taken into account all the carbon that you’ve added to the atmosphere minus any carbon that you’ve taken away, or removed, from the atmosphere

We need to reduce our emissions drastically in the coming years to stop the impact of the climate crisis. To stop the impact sufficiently, we need to get to a scenario where overall there is no extra carbon being released into the atmosphere by anything we do. That’s called Net Zero Carbon.

Carbon capture

Hold on! So we know how carbon gets added to the atmosphere (see our explanation of [carbon emissions], but how on earth do we take it away from the atmosphere?

Well, we’ve got a great, fully working technology that does just that - it’s called trees.  Trees suck up carbon through their leaves.  And as long as we don’t cut down those trees, they will keep the carbon locked up inside them for a long time. 

Planting trees is great (and we’re really proud that our customers [have planted 1 million trees] by joining us here at OVO).  And there are other ways we can use natural systems to suck up carbon too and lock it away too - like changing our farming practices, or restorating peatlands and coastal wetlands.

Us humans are also developing ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere through technology and clever engineering.  Carbon capture (or ‘carbon capture and storage’ (CCS) to give it its full name) – is one of the technologies that is being developed to do this.  When we burn fossil fuels and carbon gets released, CCS machines catch up to 90% of the carbon emissions so that they can be stored away safely somewhere and not released to the atmosphere. 

Carbon capture will be an important part of how we manage our emissions in the future.  But we can’t rely on it entirely, because the technology is still being developed to get it to work at industrial scale - and there’s no time to wait in fighting the climate crisis.  So in the meantime, we need to do everything we can to reduce our carbon emissions in the first place.

Climate crisis 

...climate emergency, climate breakdown – all these describe the same thing: the devastating changes in our global climate patterns caused by the rapidly increasing amount of carbon in our atmosphere. The extra carbon being released is increasing the temperature of our atmosphere at an unprecedented rate.

This is contributing to more extreme heatwaves, droughts and floods, leading to poverty, crop failure, and the potential for mass migration towards safer areas.  We’re already seeing the effects of the climate crisis - and there could be worse to come if we don’t kick our carbon habit as soon as possible.

Speaking of carbon, we’ve put together some pretty useful life hacks to help you kick some of the stuff from your life. Why not give them a try?

1Based on analysis carried out by the Carbon Trust for OVO Group (2019), 26% of an average individual’s carbon footprint in the UK comes from energy. In this analysis, the carbon footprint includes the following lifestyle categories: energy, transport, shopping, food and drink and holidays. See table below for each category. This excludes emissions from things that the average person cannot directly control such as supporting the NHS, defence, government bodies, etc.


Lifestyle areaTotal UK average individual carbon emissions (kgCO2e/year)Contribution to total (%)
Food and Drink98115%

Meet OVO Greenlight

We’ve introduced a new tool called OVO Greenlight, to help you understand your carbon emissions and learn how to start reducing them.  Starting with your home energy and transport emissions, it reveals your carbon impact. It also gives you suggestions to support you as you start to lighten your footprint.  

Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that OVO Greenlight is free to use for all OVO members, new and old. Win.

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