Guide to going carbon neutral

There are steps you can take to reduce your environmental footprint.
 
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  • Updated:3 Nov 2007
 

01 .Going carbon neutral

House

Recently, we heard of a case where a man approached the company Climate Positive and asked if he could offset the environmental damage his grandfather’s previous 70 years on the planet had caused.

This is an unusual example, but it highlights the fact that people are increasingly taking personal responsibility for their effect on the environment. Just a year ago, it was hard to imagine being offered 'carbon neutral' phone calls, a ‘green ticket’ for a rock festival, or the option of swapping your credit card reward points for greenhouse gas offsets.

Now we’re being presented with green and carbon neutral options at every turn. In some circles, greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters are considered social and environmental criminals. Recently, the ABC even unleashed ‘carbon cops’ to catch GHG offenders.

Most of us want to help the planet and reduce the damage we’re responsible for, and we certainly don’t want to be among the world’s highest greenhouse gas polluters, but where should we start? This report offers some suggestions.

Direct causes of carbon emissions

 
Direct causes

The pie chart shows the main contributors to consumers’ direct greenhouse pollution, which make up about 30% of our total carbon emissions. They include transport/travel, but not other 'consumer' emissions however, it doesn’t include emissions from the production and transport of food. (See Indirect carbon emissions for more.)

This is average data; your lifestyle, where you live, your income (or what you do with it) and your activities all play a part in your personal impact on the environment.

Source: Global Warming Cool It 2007, Australian Greenhouse Office.

Why carbon matters

Carbon emissions matter because climate change is caused by an increase in greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the earth’s atmosphere, and carbon dioxide is a greeenhouse gas.

The greenhouse effect is the phenomenon where greenhouse gases build up in the lower atmosphere and prevents heat escaping into space, acting like a 'blanket’ of gases around the earth. This increases the planet’s average temperature. Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and manufactured gases like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are the main GHGs caused by human activity.

Research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that greenhouse gas emissions result in the earth getting warmer, sea levels rising, glaciers melting, and changes in weather patterns causing more severe droughts, heatwaves, floods and storms, changes in rainfall patterns and a higher likelihood of bushfires.

Please note: this information was current as of November 2007 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


 
 

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02.Australia's poor record

 

Australia has the fourth highest greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, per capita, in the world, as the graph below shows. At 25.6 tonnes per person, we emit more than twice the EU average and four times the world average.

Per capita figures are calculated by dividing the total emissions Australia produces, including emissions from industry and agriculture, by our population. Because all such emissions are included, the per capita figure is much higher than individual household emissions (around 14 tonnes).

It’s not just households that are responsible for greenhouse pollution — the Australian agricultural, business and export sectors, as well as the government, need to take responsibility too.

There’s a link between emissions and income per capita. People in wealthy countries (and wealthy suburbs in Australia) are likely to have higher emissions. Four of the five highest per capita emitters are gulf countries Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain, which have small populations and export highly GHG intensive commodities.

If you look at total emissions rather than per capita, you get a different view. While China, with a large population, had comparatively low per capita emissions, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency recently ranked its total emissions as the world’s highest, with the US in second place.

The 2005 study (using data from 2000) found that Australia, which produces around 1.5% of world GHGs, was in sixteenth place in terms of overall emissions.

Using Australian Greenhouse Office (AGO) data, we calculate that Australia’s carbon dioxide equivalent emissions rose by 1.4% between 2000 and 2005.

World ranking per capita greenhouse gas emissions

 

Emissions per capita

Source: World Resources Institute, 2005, using data from 2000.
Numbers in brackets are the country’s per capita greenhouse gas emission world ‘ranking’. 

03.Indirect carbon emissions

 

Household energy use isn't the only thing that contributes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In fact, home energy use makes up only about 20% of the figures.

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) says the majority of GHGs result from the production, transport and distribution of goods, services and the food we buy.

The usual suspects

  • Food contributes about 28% of our GHG pollution. This includes eating out and buying food. Meat and dairy products are especially problematic, because their production is particularly water-intensive. (About 200L of water is needed to produce a 150g steak).
  • Goods and services, like clothes, books, magazines, tobacco and alcohol, contribute 29%.
  • Home construction and renovations contribute 12%.
  • Transport contributes 10%.

What can we do to help?

The ACF recommends personal actions like shopping smarter, buying fewer things and wasting less. Here are a few ideas:

Buy fewer things, enjoy life more
Spend time on education, exercise, appreciation of art, and personal treats such as getting a massage. These have a lower environmental impact than going on a shopping spree, for example.

Share more
You'll save money and help the environment by sharing the types of goods you don't use frequently with friends or neighbours. Also consider borrowing books from a library instead of buying them.

Buy smarter
Keep the environment in mind when you shop, by choosing recycled goods (such as building materials made from old tyres), durable items that won’t need to be replaced often, and efficient appliances. For example, if you’re planning to buy a dishwasher, check the CHOICE dishwasher report to find out the water and energy efficiency, running costs and reliability of different models.

Cut waste
Don't buy more food than you can eat, clothing that you won't wear often, or novelty gadgets you're unlikely to use. For example, in a recent survey of useless gadgets, CHOICE members rated the following products as the least useful: electric wine chiller, aromatherapy diffuser, electric ice shaver, foot spa, ice cream maker, vertical grill and milk frother.

ACF has also published a consumption atlas. It allows you to check the eco footprint, water usage and how much greenhouse pollution is caused in your local area. Go to www.acfonline.org.au/consumptionatlas.

Companies that provide goods and services we consume also have some responsibility to cut their emissions, and to inform consumers which products have lower associated emissions. Very few companies do this.

This quiz helps calculate the greenhouse pollution your household is directly responsible for, from heating, cooling and transport. That’s about 20 percent of your total carbon footprint — the rest is from the products you buy.

See Indirect carbon emissions for more about what activities produce carbon emissions.

Source: Global Warming Cool It 2007, Australian Greenhouse Office.

To use this interactive quiz, you’ll need:
  • Some recent electricity bills — ideally for the last four quarters, to get an accurate picture of your annual use. Electricity consumption is measured in kilowatt hours (kWh). In some states, bills show the greenhouse gas emissions arising from electricity use. If you buy 100% GreenPower, you can enter 0 for electricity emissions in your home. If you buy 50% GreenPower, reduce your electricity emissions figure by half, etc.
  • A gas bill. As above, but measured in megajoules (except in WA, where consumption is expressed in units).
  • An estimate of your annual petrol expenditure.
  • An estimate of your annual air travel. Websites like Mapcrow can help you estimate the distance between cities. To include the full effects of flying, use the calculator at Climate Clever.

The average Australian household generates about 14 tonnes of GHG emissions each year from energy consumption and transport. How did you compare? You don’t need a precise figure — this quiz is a starting point. Divide the number of kilograms by 1000 to get tonnes, to compare with the household average of 14 tonnes.

More detailed calculators and information is available from organisations like the ACF and the AGO.

Alternatively, you could pay for a home energy audit (typically $100 to $300).

Inside and outside the home, there are steps you can take to use less energy, save money and be more efficient. For detailed tips and information, check out the Australian Greenhouse Office Cool it 2007 Guide.

For particular household appliances and electrical items, check the energy efficiency scores in CHOICE's product tests. We measure energy consumption for almost every electrical appliance we test.

Here are some tips to get you started:

Appliances

  • Look for energy and water-efficient models: check Energy Star Ratings and check Water Star Ratings (more stars means more efficiency) and the energy and water efficiency scores in CHOICE tests.
  • Clothes washing: only use the machine when it’s full; choose one that uses the least energy and water (check its star ratings) and, and wash in cold water.
  • Clothes drying: use a clothes line or rack if possible (to avoid using an electric dryer).
  • Dishwashers: only use it when it’s fully loaded, try a shorter wash cycle if dishes aren’t very dirty, and clean the filter to maintain performance.

Electronics

  • According to the Australian Greenhouse Office, a large-screen TV (LCD or plasma), used for six hours a day, can generate more GHGs per year than a family fridge. So try to buy efficient models, and don’t leave the TV on when you’re not watching it.
  • Standby power: many appliances use energy even when on standby. Standby power contributes to about 10% of home electricity use, according to the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF). When practical, turn them off at the power point – the ACF says this’ll save $100 per year. If that’s not convenient, at least turn the appliance off.

Heating and cooling

  • Insulate ceilings and walls.
  • Provide external and internal shading for windows. Remember, insulation, shading and draught proofing and fans will reduce the need for air conditioning.
  • Air conditioning is particularly energy-intensive for cooling, so try to limit its use, replace yours with a more efficient model or a ceiling fan.
  • Turning up the thermostat by one degree in summer and down in winter can reduce heating and cooling costs by around 10%.
  • Electric water heating is a major greenhouse polluter. High-efficiency gas water heaters, electric solar systems and solar gas systems are better for the environment than electric heaters. Solar heaters start from around $2000 and can cost up to $5000, plus another $700 for installation, but rebates of up to $1000 are available nationally, and some states have further rebates. (See our article on Government rebates for going green.
  • Further hot water savings can be achieved by taking shorter showers and installing a low flow (3 star) shower rose.

Lighting

  • Compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) and LED lights use less energy and than incandescent bulbs and will also save you money.
  • Over its life, a typical CFL saves around 0.45 tonnes of ghg and $62.50 and avoids the cost of 6 or more incandescent globes.

Travel

  •  Walking, cycling and public transport and walking are more environmentally friendly options than cars. Cycling just 10km each way to work once a week instead of driving saves hundreds of dollars in transport costs and hundreds of kilograms greenhouse pollution a year.
  • Buy a greener car. Check out the Green Vehicle Guide for ranking of emissions and pollution from new cars, and fuel consumption of secondhand cars.
  • Drive efficiently (for example, keep your revs down, tyres at the right pressure and don’t carry excess weight).
  • Flights: can you reduce the number of flights you take? Also, consider buying carbon offsets for flights for the flights you can't avoid.

06.Step 3: GreenPower

 

If you can’t generate your own clean electricity (by installing solar panels, for example), you can reduce the emissions from your household’s electricity use with accredited GreenPower, available from electricity retailers and offset companies.

The average household could pay around $200 to $300 extra per year for 100% Accredited GreenPower, or around $4 to $6 per week, depending on the supplier you choose. And if you reduce your electricity use through efficiency measures, it’ll cost less.

When you buy GreenPower, the electricity you use is replaced in the national electricity grid by energy from new (post-1997) renewable sources. This reduces the proportion of energy from coal being added to the grid and increases the demand for, and investment in, new clean energy. It doesn’t mean you’ll directly receive electricity from a different source, or that your appliances will be running off green electrons, though.

However, not all renewable energy is the same.

  • Some isn’t accredited — for example, energy from the Snowy Mountains scheme, which comes from large-scale hydro generators built in the 1950s.
  • Some electricity products are less than 100% GreenPower — the rest comes from old hydro generators or fossil fuel generators. Suppliers are required to tell you the percentage of accredited GreenPower in their products.
  • There are massive price differences between retailers, with the cost of 100% GreenPower ranging from no additional cost above standard electricity rates, to 11 cents per kWh.
  • The energy source affects its price. For example, solar power is likely to be dearer than biomass energy.

Over 500,000 households have switched to GreenPower, with nearly 1000 new customers signing up daily.

We need your help

Learn how the government is planning on preventing you from taking action to reduce carbon emissions through its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Help us fight back and make your action against climate change really count.

07.Step 4: Carbon offsets

 

If you’ve reduced your electricity, gas and petrol consumption and switched to GreenPower electricity, the next step in your quest to become ‘carbon neutral’ is to buy offsets. This means paying someone else to reduce their emissions.

But the offset market is new and poorly regulated, with big differences in the price and quality of offers available. Here are some questions to ask offset providers:

  • What projects or activities does my money pay for?
  • Is the scheme independently audited and verified?
  • Would the reduction in emissions happen even if I don’t buy the offset?
  • What’s the price per tonne of carbon saved?
  • Are you not-for-profit?
  • What other environmental or social benefits does your scheme provide?

The main types of offset are:

  • Tree planting and forestation schemes. You pay a company to plant trees to soak up (‘sequester’) carbon from the atmosphere. These schemes are often criticised because it takes up to 100 years to sequester what’s already emitted, and there’s no guarantee the trees will be around for that long. According to the AGO, Greenhouse Friendly-approved projects are independently verified and have legal arrangements to ensure the forests are permanent.
  • Renewable energy, available as Accredited GreenPower, non-accredited hydro power (which does less to reduce our carbon emissions in the future) or Gold Standard renewable energy (from overseas renewable energy projects).
  • Energy efficiency schemes. For example, companies in the ACT and NSW, operating under the NSW Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme, give away free compact fluorescent light bulbs and water-efficient showerheads to consumers. How can they afford to do so? The devices are paid for by electricity retailers, which are required to offset some of their emissions, or by consumers buying voluntary carbon offsets.
  • Australian Greenhouse Friendly accredited projects. The AGO accredits emission reduction projects including energy efficiency and flaring of methane from landfills — these are offered as offsets by some suppliers.

Green wedding

Clare and Johann, who live in WA, decided to try to reduce the carbon impact of their wedding.

“The wedding wasn’t carbon neutral, but the potentially negative environmental impacts were mostly either avoided or offset by many of the choices we made,” Clare says. “I researched the various carbon offset companies and found that Climate Friendly didn’t use trees as an offset, and took more than airplane fuel carbon content into account when calculating C02 emissions, using the appropriate multiplying factors for other gases.”

The couple bought the company’s wedding package, which they used to offset guests’ long-distance flights. “In total, we offset approximately 18 tonnes of C02, for around $360."

Clare and Johann were pleased with the outcome of their planning. "The general response to our efforts at the wedding was very positive and quite a few people learnt about the impacts travel can have, and what can be done to reduce or offset those impacts.”

Quiz case study 1: Low emissions

Ruth, who shares a house with two friends in Brunswick, Victoria, has taken great strides to reduce her direct carbon emissions from about 13 tonnes per year to less than 10, and she offsets a further 8 tonnes of the emissions her flights cause. This all means her net emissions are as low as 2 tonnes.

  • Electricity: Ruth buys 100% GreenPower from AGL. It costs $94 per year on top of her normal electricity bill, and saves of 3.4 tonnes of GHGs.
  • Petrol: The housemates share a car, but generally use their bikes to get around.
  • Gas: Heating is kept at a low setting.
  • Flights: Ruth purchased carbon credits to offset her 45,000km of air travel in the last year. She bought Gold Standard renewable energy credits from Climate Friendly.

"Air travel is always on my conscience," Ruth says. "My brother lives in Mexico and I visit him. But I’ll miss a friend's wedding in Norway next year because I can’t justify the flights. Air travel is my greatest environmental impact, so when I fly I try to find multiple reasons for my journey, and I can’t for this one."

Ruth believes in reduction, as well as offsetting. "Contributing to carbon-offsetting programs eases my conscience a bit, but reducing my carbon emissions is much better than simply carbon-offsetting them. “Other than flying, I do reasonably well on energy and transport costs, but recognise that we’re not counting the costs of producing and transporting our food, clothes and all the other items that are so easy to buy these days.”

Quiz case study 2: Average household emissions

Wal lives in Lindfield, NSW. In his two-person household, 60% of the GHGs come from electricity. At 8600kWh per year, his electricity bill (and usage) is higher than average. The rest of the household’s emissions come mainly from petrol (30%), with air travel and domestic waste making up the remaining 10%.

After improving his household’s energy efficiency and considering how he could use the car less, Wal realised he could reduce his household’s emissions by about 50% by buying GreenPower instead of normal (coal-based) electricity. If he signed up for 100% GreenPower from one of our recommended suppliers, it would cost him around $230 a year, in addition to the standard electricity rates.

Quiz case study 3: High emissions

Neill’s two-person household consumes 3500kWh of electricity per year. This is around half the national average and accounts for just 17% of his household’s emissions. Also on the positive side, he uses natural gas — which is less harmful to the environment than electricity per unit of energy consumed — for both room and water heating, and for cooking. Driving contributes another 16% of emissions, but at 60%, air travel is by far the biggest contributor.

“In the last year, we travelled about 70,000km, including flights to the UK and a couple of internal European flights,” Neill says. “The contribution that flying made to our carbon footprint [about 12.6 tonnes] certainly surprised me. However, these trips are important — for work, to see family and friends, and of course for a holiday."

Neill is willing to consider offsets. “The idea of buying carbon offsets to compensate for the flights is appealing — if they're real. If I buy some plantation trees, for example, I want to know that they wouldn’t have been planted anyway, regardless of the offset scheme, and that they’ll be looked after for their full life.”