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Which consumer actions cut the most carbon?

Many of us are keen to reduce our carbon footprints. Yet, surveys show that we are often confused about which are the most meaningful actions we can take.

In this article, we look at the most significant carbon savings you can make between now and 2030.

We consider 18 possible actions – from recycling to getting a heat pump. We compare the carbon savings from each, and give our recommendations for the top eight actions when it comes to climate impact.

What can we do to reduce emissions?

Average carbon emissions per person in the UK are about 12 tonnes a year, including imported goods. This is substantially higher than the global average of 7 tonnes per year.

It is also many times more than for someone in Nigeria, Haiti and Yemen, where the average is under one tonne each year. These are three of the countries likely to be worst hit from climate breakdown.

While governments and companies must lead the way in taking systemic action, it’s not surprising that many of us are also looking to reduce our own carbon footprints, especially if governments are not acting fast enough. Ethical Consumer’s recent Climate Gap report looked into the most meaningful actions we can take to help reach international climate targets.

Infographic of top 8 consumer climate actions. All points are in the main text.
These actions are generally the ones with the biggest carbon savings. However, if you already don't fly, or have reduced your meat and dairy intake, for example, other actions not in the list will also be of use. Not all of these actions will be possible for everyone, and you might be doing some of these already.

Our Climate Gap research found that the most effective lifestyle changes we can make to lower our carbon emissions are, in order of carbon emission savings:

  • reduce long-haul flights
  • reduce consumption of animal products
  • install a heat pump
  • switch from a conventional to an electric car
  • install solar panels
  • find alternatives to conventional car use
  • reduce short-haul flights
  • increase the life of clothes

These actions are generally the ones with the biggest carbon savings. However, if you already don't fly, or have reduced your meat and dairy intake, for example, other actions not on the above list will also be of use. Not all of these actions will be possible for everyone, for example, you might depend on car usage for work or caring responsibilities, or not be able to afford a heat pump.

These actions are not a definitive list for everyone to follow, but a general guide which can help inform personal discussions and actions. If some of the larger carbon saving actions aren't possible or relevant, other actions become more appropriate for you. There are also some free and indirect actions that ultimately can help reduce carbon emissions, such as switching banks if you are with one of the big banks like Barclays and HSBC who are still financing fossil fuel projects, and then tell them why you've left them.

Below we dive into our findings for housing, transport, food, and consumer goods and waste. We explain how individuals can evaluate which actions have the most impact on carbon emissions both in the next year, and up to 2030.

This article is an introduction to the topic – more information is available in our full Climate Gap Report. (We have given more detail about calculations in the footnotes, indicated by [1] in the text.)

How to reduce your carbon footprint on a budget?

Cutting carbon can, unfortunately, have costs attached – as the list of actions above shows. It’s not escaped our notice that you usually have to be a pretty high earner in order to install a heat pump, switch to an electric car or get solar panels.

Luckily, some other high impact actions can save you money. Switching to a vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian diet could cut your food bill by up to one-third.

Cycling rather than driving to work can save you as much as £3,000 a year.

The high cost of some options shows that the government must absolutely provide financial support for crucial changes like insulating your home or installing renewables. You may want to campaign for this, as well as taking actions within your budget.

It’s also worth noting that the more you earn, the more you’re likely to pollute.

The top 1% of earners in the UK are responsible for the same emissions every single year as the bottom 10% over more than two decades. While we all need to slash our emissions in coming years, high earners have the longest way to go. Cutting long-haul flights is a great example of this: you can only do it if you could afford them in the first place.

Radiator with three pairs of feet in socks resting on it

Housing (including heating)

Our Climate Gap report found that heating our homes accounts for about 9% of our total carbon emissions, and electricity used at home accounts for around 3%.   

We looked at five actions that consumers can take to help reduce carbon emissions and highlight the two which can have the biggest impact.

Savings you can make are broadly as follow:

  • Switching from a gas boiler to a heat pump currently saves about 1.5 tonnes per year. [1]
  • Putting solar panels on your roof currently saves about 1 tonne a year.
  • Insulating your house on average saves about 0.2 tonnes a year, although much larger savings are possible in some cases. [2] Between now and 2030, that would save nearly 2 tonnes. Insulation is also a necessary prerequisite for getting a heat pump.
  • Making behavioural changes to save heat e.g. only heating parts of the house, on average saves 0.07 tonnes a year [3]
  • Switching your electricity supplier has minimal effect because the building of renewables is being driven overwhelmingly by governments decisions, not consumer ones. (Our guide to energy suppliers has more on this.)

The figures here are per action, not per person, and you’re likely to be sharing the saving with other people – the average number of people per house in the UK is 2.4.

High impact actions for housing emissions

The two actions that will make the biggest emissions savings right now are switching from a gas boiler to a heat pump and installing solar panels.

But if we think about decarbonising the whole of the UK, installing a heat pump is a much more useful action in the long-run. In fact, it’s likely to be a necessary step for decarbonisation (whereas installing solar panels is not).

Heating has to be done at the domestic level, while electricity generation can be done on scale. Over time, all electricity generation must be switched to renewables, including that which supplies the UK grid. Once this has been done, you will no longer need to generate your own electricity to have a lower-emission renewable supply. On the other hand, heat pumps will continue to be crucial.

The savings from heat pumps will in fact increase as our electricity supply becomes more renewable. Heat pumps need some electricity to run, so at the moment savings are cut slightly by relying on a fossil fuel-based electricity supply. But as the grid decarbonises, savings made from switching to a heat pump will rise to about 2 tonnes per year by 2030. Total savings over 9 years (from 2021) are about 15 tonnes.

Our guide on heat pumps looks at the ethical and environmental issues behind heat pumps and the companies making them, as well as setting out a 12 step process on making the switch to heat pumps.

Although the figures show much smaller savings, on average, from insulating your home, it is a crucial step for reducing our energy use. It is also a precondition for getting a heat pump. Choosing smarter heating options is also a positive step towards reducing energy use.

Motorway and cityscape at night


Transport accounts for around 25% of our total emissions (including transporting goods). We looked at five actions that consumers can take to help reduce carbon emissions.

We didn’t look at public transport because unfortunately it is very difficult to get good figures for it (ones that take everything into account, including, for example, building new train lines).

Savings you can make are roughly as follows:

  • Taking one fewer long-haul flight a year: about 2.5–5 tonnes per person (2.5 is a round trip to China; 5 is a round trip to Australia) [4]
  • Switching from a conventional car to an electric car: it currently works out at on average 0.7 tonnes per year, but this is going to vary enormously on the car and how you use it.
  • Switching one trip per day from driving to cycling: one study found about 0.5 tonnes per year.
  • Car sharing: theoretically you can save about 0.5 tonnes per year by not buying a car. In the real world savings from car clubs have been found to be less.
  • Take one fewer short-haul flight a year: about 0.4 tonnes (this is a round-trip to Spain)

In terms of overall impact on carbon emissions, all five changes are helpful and have significant impact.

Again, these are figures per action, not per person. In the UK there is one car for every two people, and 50% of the population doesn’t fly in any one year.

High impact actions for transport

For the 50% of people in the UK who fly each year, changes here could have a significant impact. 20% of people in the UK fly long-haul, and 40% take one or more short-haul flights a year.

Making the decision to take one fewer flight (or not to fly at all) may feel like a big lifestyle or behaviour change to make if people are used to flying for foreign holidays every year. However, with travel plans disrupted during 2020 and 2021, many people opted to holiday in the UK rather than fly to Europe or further afield. This may mean that taking fewer flights becomes more acceptable in the future as people explore holidaying within the UK, or taking the train to Europe.

If you currently take a long haul flight every year and stop doing it, this will save 23–45 tonnes between 2021 and 2030 (the lower figure is a round trip to China every year, the higher is a round trip to Australia).

Easier transport options - medium impact

There are some easier options when it comes to transport too, although the savings are also less.

Potentially one person could save the following amounts between 2021 and 2030:

  • If you currently fly to Madrid and back every year and stop doing it, this will save about 3.6 tonnes in total to 2030. [4]
  • Car sharing or switching one trip per day from driving to cycling will both theoretically save about 4.5 tonnes to 2030, but real life savings from car sharing have been found to be substantially less. [5]

If you have a frequent short car trip which could be done by bicycle (or walking) e.g. dropping kids off at school, or nipping to a local shop, this would be a relatively quick win to make. Not only does this save carbon emissions but has the added advantage of health benefits from active travel. Governments are beginning to invest more in active travel so contact your local authority to find out about cycle routes and relevant schemes.

Our 10 top tips for cutting down on driving and flying includes everything from information on how to join a car club or car sharing scheme, to useful websites that will help you to plan a flight-free or train-based holiday.

Fruit and vegetables individually wrapped in plastic


Our Climate Gap Report found that food accounts for anywhere between 13 and 36% of our emissions, depending on how you count and what is included.

In 2022, the Climate Gap report found that overall, we seem to be moving in the right direction for reducing emissions from food, but our figures suggest that the speed of change needs to increase if we are to reach our 2030 goals.

We looked at four actions people can take and the role these play in decarbonisation.

The four are:

  • Going from an average UK diet to a vegan one saves about 1 tonne per year.
  • Halving the food that you waste saves about 0.1 tonnes per year.
  • Buying organic food – the effect is context and product specific. It can go either way.
  • Buying local food makes minimal carbon savings, but may have other community benefits.

High impact actions for food

The really big avoidable source of carbon emissions from food is animal products, particularly from cows, sheep and goats. Most estimates indicate that carbon savings of around 1 tonne per person per year can be made from switching from a medium meat diet to a vegan one.

However, depending on how you calculate it, the savings may also be much higher: animals can take up a lot of land, which we may need for other savings later down the decarbonisation road. Land can sequester carbon. A recent estimate from an Oxford University academic that took that into account placed the savings at around 3 tonnes per year.

Switching diets can be daunting. We have outlined 10 steps that could help you cut down on meat and dairy, including lots of websites to find recipes, nutrition plans or other options.

Low impact food actions

Reducing food waste is helpful in a small way: figures from WRAP suggest about 0.1 tonnes could be saved per person each year. [6] We have a quick guide to cutting down on food waste, including how to store different foods properly so that they last for longer.

From a carbon emissions standpoint, organic food and local food have only minimal roles to play. However, they may be important for other reasons.

Organic food can bring benefits to biodiversity and pollution. The carbon emissions will vary depending on the context, product and also how you count. Organic often uses more land, so the impact depends on how you think about land use, and what else you would do with the space, if food wasn’t growing on it.

Buying locally-produced food can have local community benefits through supporting often independent family businesses rather than multinational supermarkets. But the idea of 'food miles' being an important contributor to climate change is now pretty discredited – transport contributes on average less than 10% to the carbon footprint of food, and often much of that is in the 'last mile' – the bit right at the end, which is done less efficiently than the rest.

Happy woman holding lots of shopping bags

Consumer goods and waste

Good figures on the emissions of our consumer goods don’t exist. One estimate is that overall they contribute about a quarter of our emissions.

We looked at four areas of consumer goods, products and waste to review what personal decarbonisation steps are possible and what impact they might have.

We considered:

  • Increasing the lifespan of clothes
  • Recycling
  • Buying a more energy efficient fridge-freezer
  • Reusing electronics

Easier options - small reductions

Carbon emission savings in this area are fairly small, but still important. The savings which could be made are estimated as the following:

The change needed for the actions in this category mainly hinge around doing more with what we have, and ultimately buying less.

The savings made from increasing the lifespan of our clothing will obviously depend on how much longer we use them for. We took our figure from WRAP, which is based on increasing the lifespan of all clothes by 50% (by 1.6 years) through reuse, repair, resale etc.

If you have a tendency to buy a lot of new clothing, finding out more about the global problems of clothing production and waste may help encourage a shift to buying less, and buying better quality so it lasts longer.

Our article on upcycling and repairing clothes, and buying and selling second-hand, gives useful hints and tips of where to start on making your clothes last longer. And our guide to ethical clothing highlights clothing brands which aim to make timeless items that are durable.

We have looked at buying second-hand and refurbished technology including mobile phones as part of our research on tech and the environment.

Does recycling have an impact on emissions?

Recycling is important for resource conservation reasons, but when compared with some of the actions in other categories we’ve already looked at, such as diet and transport, it achieves a relatively small carbon emission reduction. 

Climate Gap Report

This article uses information from our Climate Gap Report.

Our Climate Gap report is published each year in October, describing where we as a society need to be by 2030 in the main areas that consumers have an influence. The UK has committed to reducing emissions to net zero by 2050 - crucial if we are to meet international targets on climate change. We use the UK Government's Climate Change Committee (CCC) data in our reports.

The problem with averages

It is worth bearing in mind that these figures are based on national averages, which is necessary for simplicity but can be highly misleading in individual cases. For example, the CCC estimates that on average only a 9% reduction in heat demand is possible through insulation, but in extreme cases a house’s demand can be cut by more than 50%.

This problem is made worse by the fact that carbon emissions are very skewed, the main reason being that wealth is so skewed. Oxfam has calculated that the richest 10% were responsible for over a quarter of total UK emissions over the last 25 years, roughly the same amount as the poorer half of the population.

It is indeed precisely because people are confused about the numbers that this relationship of carbon emissions to wealth often gets lost. The rich often excel at buying more efficient products, for example, which are often more expensive. Not realising that the saving from this is comparatively quite small (though still worth doing if you can afford it) can give the impression that climate change is the fault of the poor. That is definitely not the case.

Figures for savings by 2030 were calculated for 9 years from 2021. This article is based on a feature from Ethical Consumer Magazine 194.

Take action

1. Individual action

If you feel overwhelmed at the possible actions and things you could do, don't panic!

You could take it one step at a time. Identify a few things to research and change over the course of a year, rather than trying to tackle everything at once.

You could start with the smaller but often easier changes and do several in one year. Or you could go big and do one of the higher impact actions this year, if appropriate to your personal circumstances.

Use our Climate Action articles which are linked to throughout this feature, and our shopping guides to help you with whatever you choose to do.

And let us know how you get on!

2. Urge governments to do more

On our own we can only do so much. Governments need to take more action, and quicker, to meet the challenges of climate change.

You can write to your UK political representatives via WriteToThem.


  1. Calculated from mean house gas consumption of 13,407 kWh/year (BEIS, 2021, Energy Consumption in the UK), minus the 9% insulation saving (insulation is a pre-requisite for getting a heat pump), gas greenhouse gas intensity of 0.18 kg CO2e/kWh (UK Government GHG Conversion Factors for Company Reporting) and an average heat pump coefficient of performance of 3. Embodied emissions in this instance are small and so ignored (
  2. Calculated from mean house gas consumption of 13,407 kWh/year (BEIS, 2021, Energy Consumption in the UK) and gas greenhouse gas intensity of 0.18 kg CO2e/kWh (UK Government GHG Conversion Factors for Company Reporting).
  3. Calculated from mean house gas consumption of 13,407 kWh/year (BEIS, 2021, Energy Consumption in the UK), gas greenhouse gas intensity of 0.18 kg CO2e/kWh (UK Government GHG Conversion Factors for Company Reporting) and average 3% possible saving (Element Energy, 2020, Supporting research, UK Carbon Budget, Development of trajectories for residential heat decarbonisation to inform the Sixth Carbon Budget, report for the UK Climate Change Committee)
  4. Calculated from UK Government GHG Conversion Factors for Company Reporting
  5. Figures used in this paragraph: electric car average energy use 0.3 kWh/mile; average mileage 6800 miles/year (NTS0901: Annual mileage of cars by ownership and trip purpose: England, since 2002); average petrol car emissions 0.28053 kg CO2e/mile (UK Government GHG Conversion Factors for Company Reporting); average diesel car emissions 0.27108 kg (UK Government GHG Conversion Factors for Company Reporting); proportion of UK fleet petrol/diesel: 60/40 (VEH0203: Licensed cars by propulsion or fuel type: Great Britain and United Kingdom), Manufacturing emissions from Carbon Brief.
  6. Calculated from WRAP, 2021, Net zero: why resource efficiency holds the answers, and WRAP, 2011, The water and carbon footprint of household food and drink waste in the UK.
  7. Calculated from waste figures from WRAP, National Compositional Estimates for Local Authority Collected Household Waste and Recycling in the United Kingdom, National Household Waste Composition 2017, and greenhouse gas saving figures from Turner et al, 2015, Greenhouse gas emission factors for recycling of source-segregated waste materials.
  8. Calculated using estimates of 500 KWh/year for the inefficient fridge, and 200 for the efficient one. No normal-sized fridges presently for sale use as much as 500 KWh.