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Interview with Prof Karl Williams, UCLan, on carbon footprints

Businesses, organisations and individuals are being encouraged to reduce their carbon footprints. Watch Prof Karl Williams from UCLan explain more.
The term carbon footprint gets used a lot. So what does it actually mean? So it’s quite a simple term. The term carbon footprint, it means the amount of carbon dioxide or carbon equivalent that is released into the atmosphere for any activity that an organisation, the community, or that we actually undertake. So it’s a way of measuring the impact of an activity in terms of tonnes of carbon dioxide or tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.
Why should we care about our carbon footprint?
The first reason to care about your carbon footprint is that climate change is having a profound impact on every aspect of our life and on the planet. And that is all due to greenhouse gas emissions, which can be equated directly to carbon. And we can see that already in terms of extreme weather impact on flora, fauna. 2020 was the hottest year on record. And as individuals, we’re all directly responsible for the amount of carbon that is generated. And it’s linked to our lives. It’s linked to what we buy. It’s linked to what we consume. And we are paying the cost in terms of climate change.
And our children are going to pay even more of a cost in terms of climate change. So we really need to look at our individual footprints and see that we need to take ownership of what we consume, what we buy, how we use energy, everything, for the long-term future of the environment, of ourselves, and of our children and future generations and animals.
Thank you. So you’ve already partly responded to this question, but what makes up our own personal carbon footprint? So to break it down, so the first thing is what we eat. That has a big impact on the type of our carbon footprint. So if you’re a meat eater, or if you’re a piscivore, or if you’re a vegan, if you’re a vegetarian, that has a big impact on your carbon footprint because some of these are very intensive in terms of energy use. That leads onto the energy. So what type of energy we use and how we use energy. So the most obvious one is personal travel. Do we walk everywhere? Do we cycle everywhere? Or do we drive in our cars?
What type of car we have? Do we fly on holiday? Do we do lots of flights? Do we go on cruises? Those cruise ships are very, very energy intensive. What sort of heating do we have in our houses? Do we use gas heating? Do we use electric heating? Do we use renewable? Have we got green energy? If we go shopping, do we shop locally? Or do we drive to supermarkets. How often do we buy consumer goods? How often do we replace things? Possibly change our clothes. So it is every aspect of our life makes up our carbon footprint. What can we as consumers do in our daily lives in order to reduce our carbon footprint?
So the big challenge for us as consumers is actually changing our lifestyle. That is the main thing that we’d have to do. So one of the things we can do is to look at how we use energy. So we look at how we travel. Do we need to drive everywhere? Can we use public transport? Can we cycle? Can we walk? Can we not travel in the first place? Do we need to take all those flights abroad? Do we need to go on those huge cruise ships, which take up so much energy. Where do we purchase our energy from? Are we on a green tariff? Have we signed up to renewable energy? Do we have photovoltaics on our roofs?
So we can look at the energy. The main challenge around that is that a lot of people are in energy poverty. And it’s more expensive to purchase green energy. It’s expensive to put photovoltaics on your roof because you don’t get the payback in terms of the finance for 20, 25 years. So you’re doing it really more for environmental reasons than for financial reasons. And you also have households that are on electricity metres or coin metres, rather. So they have really little control over where they purchase their energy from. The other biggest challenge around people is looking at changing your diet. So having less meat, less dairy products.
But again, a lot of the cheap food that you buy is energy intensive food because it would be reared from the intensive farms and highly processed and packaged, so it’s got a lot of embedded carbon in it. But I think the biggest challenge, really, is people themselves. Because people are very self-centred. I’ve spoken to lots of people. People always have a reason why they need to do something, and everybody else needs to not do something.
You have a lot of altruistic people who will not do stuff. But a lot of people say I need to do this, or I need to purchase that. So changing your lifestyle is really, really difficult. And I think the best thing consumers can do is to make small changes. Or to think about things that they’re going to do. So if they’re going to upgrade their TV because they’ve decided that they’re 56 inch TV is not big enough, and they now need the 62 inch OLED 4K TV, they need to ask themselves, do I really need to do that? Because that’s going to have a big impact on their carbon footprint.
So it’s really being more self-aware of the things that you do and the impact it has. You’ve spoken a little bit about this. So vegetarian and vegan diets have much smaller carbon footprints than consuming meat and animal products. Why is that? Well, that can be divided into two areas. So the first area is the amount of water that is required to produce one kilogramme of edible protein. So if you are rearing cattle and sheep and pigs, they need a lot of water because you need to produce food for them to eat. And they’re very poor at converting the food into meat protein that you then eat. And water is quite heavily intensive in terms of carbon footprint.
The other thing is the amount of land that you require to produce meat is very large. So not only the fields that would be more ethical than having all these animals in sheds and things, so you need quite a lot of land. You also need a lot of land to grow food to feed the cattle. So you hear a lot about deforestation in Brazil or Puerto Rico as well just to grow soya bean, but that soya bean isn’t for human consumption. That soya bean is for animal consumption. And it’s the poor conversion that you’re much better off eating the soya bean yourself than feeding it to a cow and then eating the cow.
But I would also argue that vegetarianism is a much higher carbon intensive diet than vegan because with the vegetarian you are rearing all the cows to make the milk. So I would say that the vegan diet has a smaller carbon footprint. And I would contest that vegetarian is still a lot higher.

In this video, Prof Karl Williams from the University of Central Lancashire explains the concept of ‘carbon footprint’ and why it is important. Prof Williams outlines what makes up our own personal footprint and what we as consumers can do in our daily lives to reduce it.

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