What’s The Average Carbon Footprint in the UK?

The Eco Experts

In the UK, a person’s carbon footprint is around six tonnes of GHG per year

Transport accounts for the largest portion of an individual’s carbon footprint

The average carbon footprint in the US is twice that of the UK


A person’s carbon footprint refers to the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions they’re directly and indirectly responsible for.

This means your carbon footprint isn’t just measured by how much fuel you burn, but by the emissions created in the production of everything you buy and use.

We’ll explain what the average carbon footprint is for a person living in the UK in this article. We’ll also look at what contributes the most to a person's carbon footprint, how the UK compares to other countries, and whether the average carbon footprint in the UK is set to decrease.

red brick terraced houses with small brick-walled front gardens

The average carbon footprint in the UK

The average carbon footprint in the UK is around six tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) per person, per year.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the UK are around five tonnes per person per year.

By some estimates, these figures are even higher, if you account for the import and export of goods. This would put total GHG emissions at 13 tonnes a year, per person, and CO2 emissions at 10 tonnes.

Whichever way you count it, households account for around 26% of the UK ’s cumulative annual GHG emissions.

How has the average carbon footprint in the UK changed over time?

The average carbon footprint in the UK has generally decreased over the past 50 years.

In the 1970s the average carbon footprint in the UK was around 14-15 tonnes of GHG emissions per person (not counting import/exports).

By the 1990s, the average carbon footprint decreased, down to around 12-14 tonnes of GHG emissions per person – around twice what it is today. The biggest contributors by far to overall emissions were electricity and heating, which accounted for over 30%.

Today, transport is the main culprit, accounting for around 28% of all UK emissions.

grey car driving down turn in highway

What are the biggest contributors to our carbon footprint in the UK?

The biggest contributors to our carbon footprint are transport, food production and waste, domestic energy consumption, and consumption of goods and services.

We’re basing this breakdown on estimates of emissions per person that include imports and exports, because a large portion of an individual’s carbon footprint comes from the consumption of food and goods that are imported from other countries.

1. Transport

Transport is the biggest contributor to the average UK carbon footprint, accounting for a little under 30% of emissions – or around 3.1 tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) a year, per person.

Regular travel in petrol or diesel cars is the main reason for this – around 68% of Brits use cars as their primary means of commuting.

Air travel is another big contributor. Aviation accounts for around 8% of UK annual emissions, a huge amount for just one sector. Since most people in Britain take around one to two flights a year, there’s a good chance you’ve contributed to this.

Switching from a petrol-powered car to an electric vehicle or reducing the amount of times you take a plane (if you’re a frequent flyer) can help reduce your carbon footprint.

2. Food production and food waste

Food-related emissions account for around 25% – or 2.8 tonnes of CO2e – of the average Brit’s annual carbon footprint.

This includes emissions from producing and transporting food, as well as food waste.

In the UK alone, agricultural production emits around 45 million tonnes of CO2e. That’s not even counting emissions from imported food – and nearly half of food consumed in the UK is imported.

Additionally, food waste in the UK is responsible for around 25 million tonnes of GHG a year, according to WRAP.

We have to eat to live, but there are things you can do to reduce your impact. Being conscious of food miles – the farther food travels, the higher its carbon footprint – can help, as well as limiting food waste.

3. Domestic energy consumption

Domestic energy consumption, including heating and electricity, accounts for a little under 20% of the average person’s carbon footprint in the UK. That’s the equivalent of roughly 2.2 tonnes of CO2e per year, per person.

Most of the emissions in this category are a result of us heating our homes with fossil fuels – around 74% of UK households use gas-powered heating.

Switching to alternative forms of heating, such as a heat pump or an electric boiler, can help reduce the contribution domestic heating makes to your carbon footprint. Heat pumps, for example, can lower your carbon footprint by roughly 44%.

4. Consumption of goods and services

The last big contributor to a person’s carbon footprint in the UK is the consumption of goods or services. It accounts for a little over 15% of a person’s annual emissions, or around 1.9 tonnes of CO2e per year.

This includes any products you buy, from clothes to toilet paper, as well as recreational activities and services such as banking.

Obviously, we aren't recommending that you become an ascetic for the sake of the environment.

If you want to reduce your carbon footprint in this area, it’s best to be conscious of the environmental impact of the goods you buy, and the companies you give your money to.

Fast fashion, for example, is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Choosing to shop sparingly at fast fashion brands, or avoiding them altogether, can help reduce your carbon footprint.

How does the average carbon footprint in the UK compare to the rest of the world?

The average carbon footprint in the UK is similar to that of other European countries.

People in France and Sweden have roughly the same carbon footprint as people in the UK, at around six tonnes of GHG per person per year (not including imports/exports), according to Our World in Data.

In Germany, the average carbon footprint is a little higher, at a little under nine tonnes a year.

People in the US have almost double the carbon footprint of those in Europe, with the average person being responsible for 17.6 tonnes of GHG a year.

By contrast, people in some small countries, such as Bhutan, have a lower carbon footprint than those in the UK, at around 4.6 tonnes of GHG per year. Bhutan is also one of the countries that’s winning the race to net zero, since its natural forests offset its emissions.

Is the average carbon footprint in the UK set to decrease?

The average carbon footprint in the UK is set to decrease as the government moves the country towards net zero emissions, but it’s unclear exactly how much it’ll decrease.

Under its net zero plan, the government wants to reduce emissions by 100% from 1990 levels by 2050.

The average UK resident’s carbon footprint would decrease alongside this – GHG emissions per person have already been cut by around 50% since the 1990s.

Whether a 100% reduction by 2050 is possible remains to be seen. The UK’s emissions as a whole are decreasing, with GHG emissions going down by 2.2% between 2021 and 2022.

However the government’s Climate Change Committee has said it’s not confident the UK will meet its preliminary 2030 targets. This delay could mean the UK won’t meet its 2050 targets either.

Summary

It might seem overwhelming to look at all the factors that go into a person’s carbon footprint, especially since many of them are out of our control.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are still plenty of things you can do to be more eco-friendly and reduce your personal carbon footprint, such as switching away from fossil fuels and being a responsible consumer.

Beyond that, it's up to governments and corporations to make sustainability a core part of how society functions.

Written by:
Tatiana has written about multiple environmental topics, including heat pumps, energy-efficient household products, and solar panels. She is dedicated to demystifying green tech to make eco-friendly living more accessible.
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