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Everything we buy has a carbon cost

In September 2021, Zero Waste Scotland launched a new responsible consumption campaign with the message “everything we buy has a carbon cost” to encourage wider awareness of the carbon impacts of what we buy and consume and how this directly impacts climate change.  

The campaign comes as only one-fifth of Scots fully aware of the negative environmental impacts of buying new products.   

Around 80% of our carbon footprint in Scotland can be directly attributed to the products, services and materials we consume. About half of these emissions are produced overseas where we import many everyday things from countries that are typically poorer and more polluting than Scotland. 

As our first consumer-facing campaign focused on conscientious consumption, like all of our work, it was informed by environmental evidence and analysis.   

Carbon Footprint infographic

 

Consumption is the biggest part of our carbon footprint  

There are two ways to measure the environmental impact of our consumption habits – by weight (material footprint) and by carbon (carbon footprint).   

Before explaining the carbon cost of our consumption, it’s important to note that in June 2021, Zero Waste Scotland launched a Material Flow Accounts model which calculates the scale and nature of Scotland’s consumption by calculating all the raw materials used to make products and all the finished products we consume, whether made in Scotland or imported.  Simply put, the analysis quantifies Scotland’s material footprint for the first time.  

Our material footprint is the amount of materials we consume measured in tonnes. This is one way to measure our environmental impacts based on the weight of materials used. And in Scotland, we use too much. In fact, our material footprint per capita comes in at 18.4 tonnes (more than double what it should be if we are to live sustainably).  

Our carbon footprint measures the total amount of carbon required to produce and use goods and services. Material requirements are counted in terms of the carbon emissions generated by their extraction, use and disposal. Carbon footprint is a widely used measure of the amount of greenhouse gases, released into the atmosphere as a direct and indirect result of human activities.   

Carbon is a shorthand for all the different greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. There are six main types of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane. The climate change impact of these gases can be measured together using a unit called carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e). Carbon footprints are measured in these units. 

The size of our carbon footprints are impacted by all of the decisions we make in our day to day lives, from the clothes we wear and the food we eat to the way we travel and even who we choose to bank with. 

How we calculate our carbon footprint  

How we measure our carbon footprint in Scotland is based on our global impact, including the products we import. Measuring global impacts requires the use of “Input Output modelling”. These are very data-heavy models and generally lag behind other datasets, which is why our most recent data to report on is from 2017.  

Most recent data shows that the carbon footprint per person in Scotland is 13 tonnes CO2e, compared to a world average of 1.2 tonnes CO2e.  

Where we need to get to  

To reach the Paris Agreement goal of limit warning to 2 degrees, the world must be almost net-zero by 2050, and Scotland’s target is to reach net-zero by 2045.  To reach this goal, the average carbon footprint globally needs to be 0.36 tonnes CO2e, per person by 2050.  

To get there, cutting our material consumption is essential. We know from Scotland’s carbon footprint that 82% of our emissions come from the goods and services we buy. Between 1998 and 2017, Scotland’s carbon footprint fell by 21% from 89Mt CO2e in 1998 to 70.7Mt CO2e in 2017. These savings are largely due to the successful decarbonisation of the UK electricity grid. This is shown in the graph below.  The carbon impact of UK goods has reduced as the electricity used to make them has become less carbon-intensive.

Graph of carbon footprint reduction

The carbon savings from decarbonisation of the grid are in the past. This means our carbon footprint savings will start to level off quickly too, if we don’t start to make more changes.  

As the majority of our carbon footprint comes from the materials we consume, in the UK the potential savings from material efficiency are over double the savings from energy efficiency.  

As we enter this next phase of carbon footprint reduction, we must think carefully about how to prioritise these reductions so they can happen as fast as possible. The transition to a circular economy where we seek to reduce our consumption of materials and maximise the value of resources is key.

 

Why is there a need for a consuming responsibly campaign?

Consumption is directly linked to the climate crisis and alarmingly, most of us don’t even realise. In fact, our research highlighted that only one fifth of Scots are fully aware of the negative environmental impacts of consuming new products and many think they are doing all they can to help climate change.   

The stark reality is that around 80% of our carbon footprint is down to the products and services we consume – whether they are produced in the UK or overseas.  Everything we buy has a carbon cost and consumers need to know this, so they can make informed choices. There is a need for this campaign to ask people to consume responsibly and by this we are asking if you could do things differently e.g. buying things that last, shopping second hand first, keeping what products you have in use for as long as possible and when you are finished with an item dispose of it responsibly be that by donating, reselling or if possible, recycling.  

What do we mean by consume materials?

Consumed means “used in Scotland” in this sense. The carbon cost of our consumption measures the materials used to produce the products we use in Scotland, regardless of whether these come from Scottish sources or global ones. 

How is the carbon cost of our consumption linked to climate change?

Carbon is a shorthand for all the different greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. There are six main types of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane. The climate change impact of these gases can be measured together using a unit called carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e). Carbon footprints are measured in these units. 

The size of our carbon footprints and resulting effects on climate change are impacted by all of the decisions we make in our day to day lives, from the clothes we wear and the food we eat to the way we travel and even who we choose to bank with. 

The extraction, production, transport, use and disposal of materials has a carbon cost. In fact, around 80% of Scotland’s carbon footprint comes from the goods and services we buy. If we reduce our material demands, we can reduce the totality of our carbon impacts – which is an important way to tackle climate change.

When we say around 80% of our carbon footprint comes from our consumption, what exactly does this figure include?

Around 80% of our carbon footprint in Scotland can be directly attributed to the products, materials and services we consume. About half of these emissions are produced overseas where we import many everyday things from countries which are typically poorer and more polluting than Scotland. This includes all kinds of consumer goods such as clothing, technology, furniture, food as well as larger items like cars and bikes.  

Other inclusions in this figure are services we consume such as flights, financial services as well as civic and private sector construction projects.  

With regard to transport specifically, there is an important distinction to make here. When a car is purchased, all the emissions associated with the materials, manufacturing and waste of the vehicle are included in the 80% consumption figure however the direct emissions from driving it are included in the other remaining 20% of Scotland’s overall carbon footprint.  

All the emissions from activities that went into producing and delivering a good or service are attributed and shared out amongst the consumers who buy these things. So, when you buy an apple, for example, you are adding one apple’s worth of emissions to your carbon footprint from all the agricultural production, transport, retail services and packaging that went into getting that product to you. These activities are often invisible to the consumer but they make up a large proportion of the overall impact of most products. 

How is Scotland’s carbon footprint measured/calculated?

How we measure our carbon footprint in Scotland is based on our global impact, including the products we import. It is calculated using financial input-output models published by the Scottish Government annually. These models show monetary flows between all sectors in the economy, including imports and exports and final consumer demand. Carbon factors are linked to these financial flows to give estimates of the carbon emissions attributed to each sector or product. This technique is commonly used to measure carbon footprints.  

Does Scotland’s carbon footprint include imported products from overseas? Why is it important to include this?

Yes, this is included in the carbon footprint. Consumers are able to influence the carbon impact of imported goods by choosing more sustainable products. 

About 50% of our emissions are due to imports. We need to measure and include the impact of imports in order to reduce them. We already have targets to measure and reduce our national emissions. However, if we do not look at the global picture, we may end up transferring our emissions abroad rather than reducing them. This problem is known as carbon leakage.

Is Scotland’s carbon footprint profile similar to other nations?

Our carbon footprint was 13 tonnes CO2e per person in 2017, or 70.7 million tonnes CO2e in total.  

The overall UK average carbon footprint in 2018 was lower at 10.6 tonnes CO2e per person. The EU average was 7.1 tonnes CO2e in 2017. It is unknown why Scotland’s carbon footprint is higher than the UK average. It may be due to factors such as climate and population density but further research is needed to understand these details.  The world average was 1.2  tonnes CO2e. If we are to meet the Paris Agreement climate change goals, the carbon footprint world average has to reduce to 0.36 tonnes CO2e.  

There is a well-established trend that wealthier countries tend to consume more and this increases their carbon footprint. 

You can explore Scotland’s material and carbon footprint data through Zero Waste Scotland’s MFA Data Visualisation tool.  

Why is there is a time lag in the data – the most recent carbon footprint data being from 2017?

The time lag occurs because key datasets which are required to model the carbon footprint figures (such as the Scottish input-output tables) require considerable development before they are published. The carbon footprint data is published after these datasets become available. A time lag of 3-4 years in normal for such models and does not stop their use as policy indicators and tools internationally.  

By how much does Scotland need to reduce its carbon footprint to meet targets?

To reach the Paris Agreement goal of limit warning to 2 degrees, the world must be almost net zero by 2050, and Scotland’s target is to reach net zero by 2045.  To reach this goal, the average carbon footprint globally needs to be 0.36 tonnes CO2e, per person by 2050.  

To get there, cutting our material consumption is essential. We know from Scotland’s carbon footprint that 82% of our emissions come from the goods and services we buy. Between 1998 and 2017, Scotland’s carbon footprint fell by 21% from 89Mt CO2e in 1998 to 70.7Mt CO2e in 2017. These savings are largely due to the successful decarbonisation of the UK electricity grid. This is shown in the graph below.  The carbon impact of UK goods has reduced as the electricity used to make them has become less carbon intensive.  

How is Scotland’s carbon footprint changing over time?

The latest figures available on Scotland’s carbon footprint from 2017 illustrate that just over four fifths (82% to be precise) comes from products, resources and waste materials.   

Our carbon footprint has been declining for nearly 10 years.). From 89Mt CO2e in 1998 to 70.7Mt CO2e in 2017, our emissions in Scotland have fallen by over 21%.  

Scotland has made good progress reducing our carbon footprint to date which is largely due to the decarbonisation of our electricity grid, which means we are using more renewable sources of energy production instead. Further reductions due to energy are likely to be small. The potential savings from consuming less materials are likely to be more than double the savings we’ve made from decarbonising the grid. This is the next challenge. 

What actions can I take to have the biggest impact on my carbon footprint?

Buying and wasting less would help to reduce our carbon footprint when it comes to everything we consume.  

Aside from taking less flights, small changes to how we live such eating less meat, shopping second hand first and making products we own last as long as possible can have a big impact. There are various online tools available to help   

You can find out more about your own carbon footprint using tools such as the World Wildlife FundCarbon Independent and Carbonfootprint.com  

Why is Zero Waste Scotland talking about the carbon cost of consumption when recently your report was published about material consumption?

We need to reduce both our material and carbon footprints. The two are linked – around 80% of our carbon emissions are due to material consumption. We can prioritise this reduction by focusing on the materials with the highest carbon intensity. 

Climate change is not the only environmental crisis we face. For example, biodiversity loss is linked to land use change. Reducing our carbon emissions may not be enough to curb this loss so we have to use a range of measures, including material impacts, to ensure we are making the most effective changes towards a sustainable world. 

What is the difference between carbon footprint and material footprint?

In simple terms, material footprint measures weight and carbon footprint is about the greenhouse gases required to produce the goods.  Our material footprint is the amount of materials we consume measured in tonnes. This is one way to measure our environmental impacts based on weight of materials used. And in Scotland, we use too much. In fact, our material footprint per capita comes in at 18.4 tonnes (more than double what it should be if we are to live sustainably).  

Our carbon footprint evaluates those materials based on the total amount of greenhouse gases (often referred to as “carbon”) required to produce those goods, which indicates their environmental impact in carbon terms. Carbon footprint is a widely used measure of the amount of greenhouse gases, released into the atmosphere as a direct and indirect result of human activities.

Which is the most effective measure of environmental impact – carbon footprint or material footprint?

Both measures are important to fully understand and monitor our environmental impact as a nation – in two ways: the weight of materials we use depicted by Zero Waste Scotland’s Material Flow Accounts and their overall carbon impacts measured by our carbon footprint. 

If we reduce our material footprint, does this mean we reduce our carbon footprint too?

Yes, the majority of our carbon footprint comes from the materials we consume meaning that if we reduce our consumption of materials, we reduce our carbon footprint too. In the UK, the potential carbon savings from material efficiency are over double the savings from energy efficiency.  As we seek to reduce our carbon footprint, we must think carefully about how we reduce rather than transfer our emissions. This involves an awareness of our current material flows – what materials do we consume and where to they come from?  

Should countries which make products be responsible for the impact, rather than the consumers?

Both importing and exporting nations have a role to play. Importing nations, such as Scotland, can change demand by making environmentally friendly consumer choices.  

Isn’t it businesses and governments that need to change, not consumers?

Everyone must play their part if we are to create cohesive, innovative change in the timescales required. Politicians, policymakers, and governments need to be engaged and prepared to act and set direction; businesses need to be primed to act and drive innovative change; and individuals need to be willing to change behaviour to create new demand for sustainable ways of living. We all know tackling climate change is important and all need to be part of the solution.   

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