We all use energy to live our daily lives. Whether that's your weekly supermarket shop delivered to your house, driving down the road, getting on a plane to go somewhere, or merely heating your house, it's something you can't avoid.
While there are many new forms of renewable energy like solar or wind, traditional fuels still play a big part in our daily lives whether we like it or not.
But before we can work out how to reduce our carbon impact as individuals or businesses, it's worth defining the terms to begin with.
We've put together a handy guide of some of the words and phrases you'll come across so going forward you'll have a better understanding of what they mean.
What is a "carbon footprint"?
Everyone has a carbon footprint. It refers to the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of your daily life and activities.
The lower your carbon footprint, the less damage you are doing to the planet. That could be as simple as turning your thermostat down a couple of degrees, walking to the shops instead of taking the car, or changing your diet to eat less meat.
In Britain the average person accounts for between 8-10 carbon tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. That's considerably higher than the global average of around 4.7 tonnes per person per year according to Oxfam in January 2020, but that latter number does include developing countries as well as places like the UK and the US.
What is carbon offsetting?
Working out your individual carbon footprint is hard, although there are tools you can use to try and work it out. Remember, your carbon footprint is based on a number of factors, like whether you fly, fly business class, drive a petrol or diesel car, or like to heat your house with all the doors open (you'd be surprised how many people do just that).
To try and reduce your carbon footprint beyond changes in your lifestyle, you can do something called "carbon offsetting".
This is where you not only try and reduce your carbon impact, but actually try to offset your actions by investing in schemes that look to positively help the environment by lowering or reducing carbon emissions. That could be by planting trees for example.
Carbon offsetting is most popular for people who want to fly without the guilt that comes with damaging the planet at the same time, and there are a number of schemes that allow you to carbon offset your flight specifically, or look at allowing you to invest more widely into a range of local programmes or "buying credits" in programmes elsewhere in the world.
It's important to note though that carbon offsetting isn't alone going to tackle climate change - we need to change our attitude to using energy and the way we live.
How do you go carbon neutral or even carbon negative?
You might hear the term "carbon neutral" banded about by some people and some companies. Sky, the UK broadcaster for example, went completely carbon neutral in 2006, while other companies, like Logitech claim certain divisions within the business are carbon neutral since 2018.
Being carbon neutral is the claim that a company has offset the carbon it uses to do its daily activities by investing in a scheme or schemes in such a way that it has completely offset its business practices on the environment.
You or your company can do this by working out how much carbon you use on a yearly basis and then ensuring that you offset the same number in a scheme.
Companies can go even further though. Microsoft announced at the start of 2020 that it planned to go carbon negative by 2030, meaning that it will remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that it emits, and that it wants to have removed any carbon trace of the company on the earth since its inception in 1975 by 2050.
Carbon net zero vs carbon neutral?
While carbon neutral refers to the process of offsetting some of your energy usage, that's taken many to believe that carbon net zero means you don't do anything that would need to be offset in the first place. That's not entirely true though. Net Zero does allow offsets, though under some definitions only of absolutely unavoidable emissions, and only through greenhouse gas removals (as opposed to avoidance).
In June 2019 the UK government committed to a target of Net Zero emissions by 2050 too. That means it has plans to reduce the entire UK's emissions by 100 per cent from 1990 levels.
How do you mitigate your carbon footprint?
At the moment you can't go carbon neutral by planting trees in the UK because the trees aren't yet old enough for you to claim that you are "carbon neutral" today.
One of the most popular ways of mitigating or reducing your carbon footprint is to plant trees. It's called mitigating because sadly the trees planted today won't have an impact for another 20 years. Still something now is better than nothing tomorrow.
There are a number of schemes in the UK and the rest of the world that allow you to plant additional trees to offset your carbon usage now so that you can offset your usage today in the future.
In the UK, the government has developed a voluntary carbon standard called the Woodland Carbon Code, which ensures that each tree planted contributes to delivering real and additional carbon offsets. It also ensures that there is no double counting - once an offset is registered to a buyer, it cannot be claimed by anyone else going forward.
What is the Woodland Carbon Code?
It's a voluntary standard for UK woodland creation projects where claims are made about the carbon dioxide the woodlands sequester.
The idea is that you buy measurable amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) and schemes plant a number of trees that would equate to that number. On average it's around 3-4 trees planted per tonne of carbon dioxide.
Every credit is registered on an open database allowing you to see who is buying credits and where those trees are subsequently planted.
What's important is that the scheme insists on planting new trees, rather than just managing general forests.
Carbon offsetting without planting trees
It doesn't have to be about just planting trees. There are a range of different carbon offset schemes from investing in wind energy to providing people with solar powered cookers that reduce the need for people to burn wood to cook in some countries.
Picking the right scheme is up to you and there are merits in all of them.