What is a carbon footprint?

01 November 2021 | OVO Energy

A carbon footprint measures the total carbon emissions something causes.

It’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it? Time to run through some examples.

A person’s carbon footprint is made up of all the carbon that’s released through actions they take and choices they make, in their day-to-day lives. 

And a country’s carbon footprint is made up of the carbon emissions that come from every single person within that country, as well as its services and industry. Pretty huge, huh? 

Take cars. Carbon is released… 

  • When cars are made
  • When they’re distributed
  • And when we drive around in them

It’s about how it all adds up, over time. Even tiny things you wouldn’t expect can have a carbon footprint...

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Let’s say you send an email

Something we’d do without thinking twice. The email will have a carbon footprint of between 1g and 50g (depending on whether it’s got an attachment)1.

That covers the carbon released to power all of this:  

  • The computer it’s written on
  • The wifi network used to send it 
  • The computer that receives it 
  • And the data centres to process and store it!

Where does my carbon footprint come from?

Good question. As you might have guessed from the examples above, your carbon footprint comes from many areas. Like driving your car, how you power your home, and which foods you eat.

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OVO Greenlight

To calculate it, you have to add up the carbon emitted by absolutely everything you do, over time. We take you through the things to look at below. 

The average carbon footprint of a person in the UK weighs in at 6.6 tonnes a year. Sounds like quite a lot, doesn’t it. Yikes.

Helpfully, your footprint can be broken down, making it a bit more digestible. This helps you see exactly where it comes from, and spot places you could make savings.  

  • 23% comes from the transport you use. This is in your daily routine. So, you’ll have a bigger carbon footprint if you drive your average car vs if you cycle lots, or take the bus. But this doesn’t cover things like business trips – those would fall under your company’s carbon footprint, not yours.
  • 21% goes on the things you buy. From clothes to homeware, and gadgets. Anything you shop for!
  • 17% is what you eat and drink. You’ll have a smaller carbon footprint if you buy locally grown produce. Or if you cut down on the meat you eat. 
  • 11% is the holidays you take. The more times you fly, the bigger your footprint will be. 
  • And a surprising 28% is how you power your home. That’s your gas and electricity. By choosing renewable or carbon-neutral energy, you can take a big chunk out of your carbon footprint pretty easily. 

You can read the details of how we worked out the averages at the end. 

Little changes in any of these areas can start to shrink your footprint. And if we all take steps, imagine what we could do – think how much carbon we could save. 

Try OVO Greenlight

OVO Greenlight is an energy-saving tool that helps you learn more about your carbon footprint and discover new ways to lighten it. So it’s a great first step on your journey to zero carbon.

We’ve made it really easy to use – and it’s free for all OVO members. By helping you track (and understand) the emissions connected to your home energy and transport, we hope it’ll give you the tools you need to start reducing them – without making major sacrifices to your life. 

Ready to get involved?

Try OVO Greenlight – free for all OVO members! 

How do I offset my carbon footprint?

You might have heard about carbon offsetting. It's a way to balance out your carbon footprint. How? By supporting projects that reduce carbon emissions.

Carbon offsetting means the emissions released by your actions are equal to the emissions saved through offsetting – giving you zero carbon overall. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good option for unavoidable carbon emissions. There are other ways to reduce your carbon footprint, too.

Why is carbon bad?

When we talk about shrinking our carbon footprints, we should also cover why carbon’s so bad in the first place. So let’s dig a little deeper into what it means for our planet…

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Carbon’s not all bad actually. Carbon has existed in our atmosphere naturally for millions of years. It traps heat from the sun, and makes Earth warm enough for us to live on. 

What is ‘carbon’?

Well, you might know it as an atom. And you’re not wrong. The atom that’s called ‘carbon’ makes up all sorts of things in our universe. It’s important – you’ll find it in a lot of places.

Like inside us. Humans are made of carbon (we’re about 18% carbon, to be precise). And animals, plants, trees and soil are made of it, too. 

In fact, every cell in our body has carbon inside it to help us function – our bodies use it to make proteins, carbs and fats. So, carbon’s far from a baddie in this scenario.

But, when it comes to the climate crisis, people usually mean ‘carbon dioxide’ 

If we’re talking about carbon and the climate crisis – as in ‘carbon footprint’ or ‘carbon emissions’ – what we mean is a particular form of carbon: carbon dioxide.

And too much carbon dioxide definitely isn’t a good thing. 

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

The problem is we’re emitting too much carbon dioxide, right now

How are we doing this? Basically, it’s all down to the way we live.

From the energy we use, to the way we travel, to the food we eat. All of the areas we looked at before release carbon dioxide. 

And carbon in the atmosphere traps warmth from the sun. So you can guess what happens when too much carbon is released…  

That’s right. All this extra carbon we’re releasing is making the earth heat up faster than it has in the last 2,000 years. Causing the climate crisis. 

And that’s not cool. Literally. 

What’s the climate crisis?

The climate crisis is what we call changes that are happening in climate patterns around the world – changes caused by the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, which is going up (and fast).

Yep, it’s also known as ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’. It’s why the temperature of our atmosphere is rising at a rate that’s never been seen before.

And the results? More extreme heat waves, droughts, and floods. And these disasters then lead to poverty, crop failure, and the possibility of mass migration.

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 soon.

But, there is hope. By working as a team, it is possible to stop this. (There's been one example of this before, in the way countries came together to repair the ozone layer.) We can shrink our carbon footprints. And fight the climate crisis, together.

Ready to join us?

Sources and references:

1 - How Bad Are Bananas?: The carbon footprint of everything, Mike Berners-Lee (2010)

How we worked out what makes up your carbon footprint

Based on analysis carried out by the Carbon Trust for OVO Group (2020), 28% 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 drink98117%