Our carbon footprint

Our Carbon Footprint

As we know, everything we buy has this hidden price [link], carbon dioxide (aka CO2). Some things we buy have a higher CO2 price, others less. And for the average Australian, if we add up the CO2 from all our purchases, it comes to about 21 tonnes (that’s the same as 4 elephants!). That’s what we call our carbon footprint.

Here’s a snapshot of the typical Australian’s footprint.

typical Australian carbon footprint; the proportions can range wildly based on our buying and living decisions

Any thing here surprise you?

What you may notice is that for many of us the biggest components of our carbon footprint come from household energy, transport, and food. Let’s take a closer.


Energetic homes: 20%

You probably have a lot of items in your home using electricity, like a fridge, TV,laptop, lights, and hot tub (lucky you!). Most electricity in Australia is generated by burning coal and other fossil fuels, releasing lots of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Also, about70% of Australian homes use gas (another fossil fuel) to heat our water, heat our homes, and cook on our stoves. Lots of CO2 is emitted when drilling for,transporting and burning gas.

In total our household energy use accounts for about 4 tonnes of our carbon footprint.


Planes,trains, and automobiles: 15%

How much our vehicles impact on our carbon footprint comes down to two things: how big it is, and how often we use it. A small car like a Mazda 3 driven once or twice a week may emits less than a tonne of CO2 each year, while a large car like a Range Rover driven for work will emit over 5 tonnes. Talk about a gas guzzler!

Hybrid cars are great, as they emit half as much CO2 as a small petrol or diesel car. But the cleanest mode of ground transport would be to travel by electric vehicle that has been powered by renewables – your trip becomes nearly carbon neutral!

Plane travel is where many of us come undone. While most of us may only fly once per year,even an economy round trip from Sydney to Melbourne has the same impact as driving a midsize SUV to work for 3 weeks. Heading to London for a holiday?That’s equivalent to driving that same vehicle to work for 90 weeks!

And if you’re lucky enough to fly business class the carbon impact can be three times worse, because your seat takes up double or triple the space on the flight.Think of it like a car with 1 person by themselves, or with 2 people carpooling. In both instances a similar drive will burn about the same amount of fuel, and if there is half the amount of people in the car, the carbon footprint per person is double.

While public transport is much more efficient per person than driving or flying, it still has an impact. For the average inner-city dweller, the carbon footprint impact from daily public transport use can range from 1 to 2 tonnes.

On average, transport accounts for about 3 tonnes of our footprint.


Get in my belly: 15%

What we eat is another big contributor to our carbon footprint, and the amount depends on what we eat. It’s probably the most complicated part of our footprint,because there are so many different things we eat, from all over the world, and they all take different journeys before landing on our plate.

Right now, let’s just stick to the basics. Diets that focus on plant-based foods like nuts, vegetables, and grains, are responsible for less CO2 emissions than the meat-heavy diets most of us are used to.

That’s because livestock like beef and lamb often requires deforestation to create pastures, which means less trees to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. Also, the animals themselves emit a lot of methane (a gas that warms the earth 34x more than CO2) through their burps. On average a meaty diet has a carbon footprint about double that of a vegetarian or vegan one.

Other key factors include food packaging, transport, and waste. If we can minimise those,our food will have a smaller impact on our carbon footprint.

For the average Australian, the food we eat accounts for about 3 tonnes.


What about that “other” 40%?

This includes things like public infrastructure we use, alcohol, electronics, recreation,education, health, and a number of other categories that are important to understand. But we can dive deeper into all of this a bit later.


Now that is a lot to digest (bad pun intended).  Next week let’s take a high-level look at how we can shrink our carbon footprints.

Keep it clean, keep it green 🌱



Notes for the scientists

By CO2 we mean CO2e, or carbon dioxide equivalent (see the note from our last blog).

The average Australian carbon footprint is very difficult to measure given the complexity of supply chains, and variety of things we buy and use. Different studies and methodologies can produce wildly different numbers. For example, some measures include things out of our control like government spend on things like roads and military, while other measures include goods made in Australia but exported for consumption overseas. It's so complicated! We have decided to use 21 tonnes because it aligns with research from leading Australian universities, and the Australian National Greenhouse Accounts (which are used to report Australia's emissions to the UN and IPCC).

Neil McVeigh