How personal decisions impact CO2 emissions

02/07/2020 | 7 min read
Charlotte Enzelsberger

Spoiled for choice

Taking the train would be more environmentally friendly, sure. But the car’s simply quicker and more comfortable. Apples would be a more seasonal choice in winter, but strawberries are so temptingly sweet. And a weekend outing to a local lake might be nice, but there’s no question that a city break in Barcelona would be much more exciting. Many of the decisions we make every day have consequences for our personal carbon footprint – and ultimately for the environment as well. It’s up to us to decide how environmentally friendly we want our lives to be.

And CO2 makes up a significant share of the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming and influence climate change. In recent years, it has become clear that the more prosperous a country is (measured by GDP), the higher its per capita CO2 emissions are too.1 But economic output isn’t the only factor that determines CO2 emissions – after all, Qatar is the largest emitter at some 50 metric tons of CO2 per capita per year, coming in ahead of Curaçao, Trinidad and Tobago, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. The average in Europe is 7 metric tons each year. Consumption, heating, and diet are the areas that have the greatest impact on the personal carbon footprint of Europeans. So, what can each of us as individuals do to make our day-to-day lives climate friendly?

In this feature article, we use the example of an average European named Felix to show you how even our smallest decisions can make a difference. Our aim isn’t to preach at you, and we aren’t claiming to present the full scientific facts. Instead, we want to give you some food for thought and prompt you to examine your own lifestyle.

Meet Felix

He’s 35 years old, is employed in a full-time job, and enjoys being single in the city. He keeps fit and would definitely describe himself as a sociable guy. In his free time, he likes playing football but often gets together with his friends as well to try out new recipes in the kitchen. Being environmentally responsible is important to Felix, but he’s also grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle that he simply takes for granted.

location: kitchen

Felix begins a completely normal working day with a good breakfast and a cup of strong coffee. He makes his coffee with a capsule, a filter coffee machine, or fully automatic appliance depending on how he feels and, above all, how much time he has. But he’s never thought about how much CO2 his morning pick-me-up produces.

CO2 emissions

Coffee is sometimes referred to as “black gold” and should be considered an especially valuable foodstuff. However, growing and processing the beans requires large amounts of energy. To protect the environment, we should bear this in mind and enjoy our coffee responsibly. Fully automatic and filter coffee machines need around nine grams of coffee per cup, while a coffee capsule contains around six grams. The CO2 burden associated with the capsules themselves roughly corresponds to that of a gram of coffee.2

location: on the road

After breakfast, Felix heads to work, which is six kilometers away. He takes his bike in the summer or if he’s feeling especially motivated. When it’s cold or raining, he drives or, if his car’s in the shop – which is often the case – he opts for the bus.

CO2 emissions

At an average occupancy rate, driving a kilometer in a car generates 209 grams of CO2 emissions per person, whereas a public bus produces 49 grams per person.3 In the EU, 72 percent of CO2 emissions are caused by road traffic (cars: 60.7 percent, heavy trucks: 26.2 percent, light commercial vehicles: 11.9 percent, and motorcycles: 1.2 percent), 13.6 percent by shipping, 13.4 percent by civil aviation, and 0.5 percent by rail and other modes of transport.4 If Felix were to only use his bicycle, he could save umpteen kilograms of CO2 emissions: A commuter who bikes five kilometers to and from work each day rather than using their car could cut their CO2 emissions by around 300 kilograms every year.5

location: supermarket

After work, Felix stops at the supermarket to buy a few drinks for a dinner party he’s hosting on the weekend. He wants to offer his friends a good selection of alcoholic and nonalcoholic options and comes across beverages in a wide range of packaging. They range from disposable or returnable glass bottles, through PET bottles, to cans and beverage cartons – so Felix is spoiled for choice. 

CO2 emissions

Returnable PET bottles are the best option if you’re looking for drinks in environmentally friendly packaging. These bottles are reused and refilled an average of 20 times, and they consume little energy in the transport and logistics chain due to their low weight. Their carbon footprint is even better if they’re produced from recycled material as well. They generate less refuse compared to single-use bottles and consume fewer resources – even taking cleaning and filling processes into account. While returnable glass bottles are refilled more often (up to 40 times), their higher weight is a disadvantage. And what are the worst choices for beverage containers? Disposable glass bottles are strong contenders, since they require a lot of energy to produce and use up disproportionately large amounts of energy and raw materials despite being recyclable. And joining them in last place are aluminum cans, which are manufactured in a very energy-intensive process. Moreover, mining of the raw material bauxite also sometimes involves questionable social conditions and environmental standards.6 

location: supermarket

Besides the drinks, Felix also wants to buy some fruit to add to his muesli at breakfast tomorrow. He especially likes apples, so he tries to decide between a locally grown apple or a cheaper option from overseas. This decision has a different impact on his personal carbon footprint depending on the time of year. 

CO2 emissions

In many cases, transport in particular often doesn’t affect the carbon footprint of fruit the way we might expect it to. Long-distance transport from overseas only increases the CO2 impact of a kilogram of apples by a quarter. The advantage of this option is that the fruit is grown in countries like New Zealand, where large plantations produce high yields per hectare.7 By selecting fruit and vegetables carefully, it’s possible to cut greenhouse gas emissions considerably. A tomato harvested in April in southern Spain and then imported consumes around ten times fewer emissions than a tomato grown in a greenhouse in Central Europe at the same time of year.8 So, it’s worth considering seasonality as well as food miles when buying fruit and vegetables – because storage also generates large amounts of CO2

location: supermarket

Just before he reaches the checkout, the half-off shelf catches Felix’s eye. He picks up a piece of cheese, some yogurt, and bread from the previous day – they’ll be perfect as an evening snack.

CO2 emissions

Food waste is considered a big climate offender, and rightly so. The European Commission estimates that 173 kilograms of food per person are thrown away in the EU every year. That’s an annual total of 88 million metric tons of waste. And private households account for 53 percent of all discarded food. A quarter of the food purchased by the average household ends up in the trash, much of it unopened (for example, because its expiration date has passed). Thirty percent of the discarded food can be attributed to the agricultural sector and producers, 12 percent to the catering trade, and 5 percent to the retail sector. Food waste is responsible for around 3.3 gigatons of CO2 emissions.9  But packaging can help to extend the shelf life of food items. When it comes to reducing levels of greenhouse gases, the average amount saved by preventing food loss is five times greater than the emissions generated by producing packaging for fresh produce, even if the amount of food that spoils is decreased by just 10 percent.10  

location: couch

After dinner, Felix sits at home on the couch, browsing through travel brochures and thinking about where he’d like to go this summer. Should he take a city break in Barcelona, stay in Austria and enjoy a lakeside vacation – or maybe try a cruise in northern Europe? 

CO2 emissions

The distance and the way we travel aren’t the only factors that significantly affect our vacation footprints – our activities at our destination can have a negative impact on the environment as well. So, if we’re traveling from Europe, it’s no surprise that heli-skiing in Canada rates less favorably than a diving vacation in Egypt, which, in turn, comes out behind a hiking trip in Austria.11 If we have to select a means of transport, long-distance buses and trains should be our top choices. The environmental footprint of these options is particularly positive, because they typically have a high number of passengers and a low rate of energy consumption.12  CO2 emissions from cruise ships should be taken into account when booking a cabin: On average, they produce as much CO2 as nearly 84,000 cars, as much nitrogen oxide as around 421,000 cars, as much particulate matter as over one million cars, and as much sulfur dioxide as over 376 million cars every day.13

location: bed

After a cozy evening in front of the TV, Felix yawns as he makes his way to bed. From the couch, he switches the TV to standby with a press of a button.

CO2 emissions

Most electronic devices needlessly consume power when they’re in standby mode. This function is responsible for around 5 percent of the electricity consumption of an average home in Austria. The power used by devices on standby throughout the EU is approximately as high as Switzerland’s entire electricity consumption. Each year, 811 million kilowatt-hours are consumed this way in Austria alone – a figure that corresponds to the output of a hydroelectric power plant on the Danube or electricity costs of 150 million euros per year.14 

Felix' résumé

Saving CO2 is possible

Felix chalked up a large amount of CO2 during his day – even though he sometimes made a point of choosing the climate friendly option. But there’s also a great deal of potential for him to improve his carbon footprint without restricting himself too much. That’s why Felix wants to be better informed in the future – although he knows that various calculations come into play when evaluating CO2 emissions and that the results depend on a wide range of different factors. But looking at his everyday life has made it clear how much daily decisions impact our personal carbon footprints. And that making a change sometimes isn’t all that difficult. If you’re interested in calculating your personal footprint, you can do so at:

Did you know...?


... taken together, all packaging materials used in domestic and professional settings make up around 1.7 percent of a consumer’s average carbon footprint in Europe? Plastic packaging accounts for around 0.6 percent of this. 

... emitted volumes of greenhouse gases would increase by a factor of 2.7 or 61 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents every year if plastic packaging were to be replaced by other materials such as glass or cardboard? 

... plastic packaging keeps food fresh for longer? The use of packaging means that just 3 percent of food in Europe spoils between the production and transportation stages, while the rate is up to 40 percent in developing countries that don’t use similar packaging.

7 Studie Früchte und Gemüse Ökobilanz (ETH Zürich 2016)
9 denkstatt: Die Auswirkungen von Kunststoffverpackungen auf Energieverbrauch und Treibhausgasemissionen in Europa (Juli, 2011)
10 denkstatt: Die Auswirkungen von Kunststoffverpackungen auf Energieverbrauch und Treibhausgasemissionen in Europa (Juli, 2011)

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