The carbon footprint conundrum: how well do you know the impact of everyday activities?

27 January 2021 | OVO Energy

mother planting vegetables with her child

We love learning new ways to cut our carbon footprints – whether it’s fighting the climate crisis from home or making simple commitments to live a greener life. But it’s not easy to get your head around all the information and scientific jargon out there. 

Our planet-protecting efforts can be helped by all of us making small changes to our everyday lives. But to do that successfully, it helps to understand the carbon footprint of the things a lot of us do, all the time.

The Green British public?

We decided to look into how well the nation understands what contributes to our collective carbon footprint. And the awesome news is that we have a great understanding of key climate-related issues. 88% of us get the concept of global warming, 87% know about climate change and 80% understand what a carbon footprint is. Nice work!

However, things became a bit more tricky when we were asked about the specifics. Only 3% of us knew what the average U.K. person’s annual carbon footprint was1.

And when quizzed on how well they knew the carbon footprints of everyday activities, the majority of people didn’t get any questions right. The activities we put to the public were from the latest edition of carbon footprint expert Professor Mike Berners-Lee’s book How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything2.

Only 12% correctly answered that a 10 minute shower has a higher carbon footprint than a supermarket delivery by diesel van. Only 9% believed that a pack of eggs has a higher carbon footprint than a pint of cow’s milk. And only 22% were correct in thinking that a generous bath heated by an efficient gas boiler has a higher carbon footprint than running the dishwasher at 65 degrees. 

So why is this important?

We know that many of these activities are unavoidable things that we all have to do in normal everyday life. And don’t worry – no one’s expecting you to know the carbon footprint of everything you do!

But having a grasp of how much carbon is produced by certain everyday things is a useful step in working out ways to lower your own footprint and help the planet.

Below you can check out the carbon footprint of the activities we used in our quiz – all from Mike Berners-Lee’s book. It’s really interesting to see which ones our survey respondents thought had the biggest carbon impact3 on our planet...

Which everyday activity has the larger carbon footprint?

Travelling from London to Glasgow and back by train OR an average week's worth of electricity used in a UK home

An average week's worth of electricity used in a UK home creates 24 kg of carbon – and 43% of the public thought this had the larger carbon impact of the two. But actually, travelling from London to Glasgow and back has a much larger footprint, producing a whopping 64 kg of carbon. 

A return flight from London to Hong Kong (in business class) OR buying a shiny new Range Rover Sport HSE

This one was a close one! 52% of respondents thought that the return flight to Hong Kong would have a greater carbon impact on the planet. However, this journey would actually produce 10 tonnes of carbon, compared to 25 tonnes if you were to buy a new Range Rover.

A full tank for a petrol car OR buying a new laptop

woman working from home wfh

We all know that petrol cars are worse for the planet than EVs. So it’s no surprise that 50% of people thought that this would have a larger carbon impact. But you might be surprised to read that a new laptop has a much larger carbon footprint (326 kg) than filling up a petrol car (173 kg).

Drinking a pint of beer OR watching TV for an hour

Both popular ways to unwind. But which one has a greater carbon impact? 41% went with watching TV – but incredibly, the carbon footprint of drinking a pint of beer (780 g) is larger than that of watching an hour of TV for an hour (237 g). 

A 10 minute shower OR a supermarket delivery by a diesel van

68% of the public thought that the supermarket delivery, which has a carbon footprint of 450 g, was more impactful to the environment. But actually, a 10 minute shower has a slightly larger footprint, producing 500 g of carbon. The benefits of taking a quicker shower are worth remembering (but don't worry, we’re not expecting you to let your hygiene standards drop!).

A generous bath heated by an efficient gas boiler OR running the dishwasher at 65°C

While 54% of us thought that the dishwasher (600 g) had the larger footprint, running the bath actually has nearly twice the carbon impact, producing 1 kg of carbon. Still, we know that sometimes a relaxing bath is just the ticket after a long day – it’s okay to treat yourself from time to time! 

A pint of milk OR a six pack of eggs

Which of these two supermarket staples has a bigger impact on the planet? 57% thought it was the pint of milk. But the carbon footprint of a six pack of eggs (2 kg) is nearly twice that of the milk (1.1 kg).

A new iPhone 11 OR leaving a 100 watt incandescent light bulb on for a year

48% of people thought that the carbon footprint of a new iPhone (105 kg) was more than leaving the light bulb on. But the 29% who went with the light bulb were in fact correct! Leaving a 100 watt bulb on for a whole year produces 300 kg of carbon.

Reducing your carbon footprint can be simple

father and son watering plants

As we said before, no one should be expected to completely stop doing certain activities just because they have a carbon footprint. Nearly everything we do has one. 

It’s just helpful to have an awareness of the impact that our actions have on the planet. It helps us make small changes and tailor our lifestyles to take up climate positive habits. And work together to cut our collective carbon footprints.

The good news is that OVO can help you reduce your carbon impact. We supply our members with 100% renewable electricity and plant a tree in your name for each year you’re with us. And you can cut your footprint even further with OVO Beyond, our green upgrade that reduces energy waste, restores nature and protects rainforests. 

We also help our members calculate the impact of their habits on the planet with our nifty OVO Greenlight tool. It helps you understand your carbon emissions and learn how to start reducing them. Bad news for carbon, great news for the planet!

Check out our plans and join OVO today so you can kickstart your journey to zero carbon. And while you’re here, we’d love you to sign our petition to ask the government to set a legally binding tree-planting target. (And don’t forget to share it with your planet-loving friends too!). 

1 - Estimates tend to be in the 5t - 13t range. OVO usually define it as per the Carbon Trust's figure of 5.8t

2 - Publisher: Profile Books Ltd - all figures in this book are taken from the 2020 edition of the book

3 - Carbon’s impact is measured in gCO2e, kgCO2e or tCO2e – which are standard units for measuring carbon footprints. The higher the figure, the worse the impact on the environment. But to simplify things, we use ‘carbon’ as a catch-all phrase that includes carbon dioxide, carbon footprint figures and other greenhouse gases. 

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