Casting carbon shadows

29th January 2021


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Chloe Patel

Matt Tompsett explains his concept of the ‘carbon shadow’, and why it should prompt us to take personal action to combat climate change

I watched my children opening their Christmas presents, blissfully unaware of the energy and resources that had gone into the production and transportation of every gift, and found myself contemplating the carbon footprint of all presents from Christmases past – and Christmases yet to come.

I started to visualise not only my children’s carbon footprint, but also their ‘carbon shadow’. If their carbon footprint represents the amount of CO2 already released into the atmosphere as a result of their consumption and activities, their carbon shadow would represent the carbon they are yet to consume.

At the moment we are born we have no carbon footprint, but we all have a carbon shadow, which will vary depending on where we’re born: the carbon shadow of a new-born baby in North America will be almost 20 times bigger than that of a new-born baby in some developing countries. It will also vary depending on our upbringing and lifestyle – how much meat we eat, how many holidays we go on, which cars we drive. As soon as a baby starts to consume, their carbon shadow starts to shrink and their carbon footprint starts to grow.

“We all have a carbon shadow, which will vary”

The carbon shadow of children today will be impacted by government legislation, business commitments and technological innovation. China has committed to being carbon-neutral by 2060; the new US administration, the EU and the UK have set 2050 net-zero carbon targets; and the UK has committed to banning production of cars run on fossil fuels by 2030. In addition, the UK Sustainable Aviation coalition has committed to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

What will be my children’s quality of life when they are adults? Consumption is directly linked to our quality of life, but its carbon cost affects health and wellbeing through extreme weather events and wildfires, decreased air quality, and resource, food and water scarcity. The quality of life we enjoy today is ruining that of our children.

I’m in my early 40s, so about halfway through my life, and see my carbon footprint and shadow as being roughly the same size as each other. I don’t think we can wait for government or business action, and have already made changes: I have switched to a hybrid car and a renewable energy provider, given up eating red meat, and eat a plant-based diet four days a week. We all need to make changes now to reduce our carbon shadows.

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