How changes in the home can make a difference to carbon emissions

Reducing your carbon footprint

Concern over carbon emissions causing accelerated climate change is being talked about and written about in every form of medium around. Most of us are still only listening, but not truly hearing just how bad the problem is. On the other hand, some of the messages that we are fed are totally conflicting.

Cut down on your air travel, they say, yet tourism is regarded as a vitally important contributor to our local economy. South Africa is a longhaul destination for travellers from the USA, Europe and Asia. How can we encourage them to visit our beautiful country without plugging the extensive use of air travel?

Likewise, we are still receiving subliminal messages that have us thinking that as a homeowner, we must have the full Monty – swimming pool, koi pond and water feature. Bigger still seems to translate as better. A triple volume entrance is even grander than double volume. And a 1000 sqm home is infinitely more desirable than a 200 sqm home.

At this point, we might ask ourselves a couple of simple questions – how serious are we about preserving life on this planet as we know it? Moreover, where do we start, if we want to limit our own contribution to the looming crisis and turn things around so that we become a part of the solution?

Some statistics

Let’s start with some shock treatment.

In January 2005, the International Climate Change Task Force issued this statement: “We only have a brief window of opportunity before climate change could devastate our planet”.

According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued after their 12-17 November 2007 forum, the average temperature around the world has risen by 0.74ºC over the 100 year period 1906-2005. Global warming is on the rise and if we do not find a way to reverse this trend, by the time the world’s temperature has increased by 6.4 ºC, most of life as we know it on this planet will have ceased. By this time, many of the islands around the globe will have disappeared, as at +5.4 ºC the level of the oceans will have risen by around 5 metres above our current sea level. At just +2.4ºC, most of the coral reefs around the world will become extinct.

The time has come to stop and assess how best to protect life as we know it before we all hurtle headlong into a crisis that could get totally out of control.

How big is your carbon footprint?

A carbon footprint is the measure of the impact that our activities have on the environment, in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases that we produce. It is measured in units of CO².

There are a number of websites that offer a way of being able to evaluate your own contribution to the problem. A good one can be found on the Carbon Sense site, , particularly as it gives you the opportunity to evaluate your activities in different parts of the world. According to the Carbon Sense statistics, the average footprint for people in South Africa is 9.2 tonnes per year. To combat climate change, this needs to be brought down to 2 tonnes per year.

If you do the assessment, you may be interested to note just how much the environmental consciousness and recycling aspects of your activities impact on your results. Through addressing our moral obligations we can all, with just a little effort, collectively put pressure on commerce and industry to toe the line in terms of their contribution to reducing carbon emissions.

Putting more thought into what to buy

Manufacturers and retailers of consumer products are astutely on the ball when it comes to tracking trends and here we can have our say merely by choosing what not to buy. If excessively packaged products suddenly stop selling, manufacturers must sit up and take notice. After all, is it really necessary to have a product in a foil container wrapped in a sealed cellophane sleeve, inserted into a cardboard box, that we carry home in a plastic packet?

For many of us, the hassle of sorting through our rubbish in order to conscientiously recycle materials, is way too much of a mission as we struggle to keep pace with our frenetic lifestyles. In fact, still, in many towns recycling is not even an option. By not buying over packaged products in the first place, we are cutting ourselves out of the loop and at the same time we take pressure off the refuse collection services and the landfills.

Making a difference at home

If you are lucky enough (or insane enough) to be planning the construction of a new home, you are in the right place to make a huge difference to the future of the planet. Before you even start with assessing materials and construction methods, take a look at the orientation of your home. With so many fast track developments going up, in response to the government’s strategy of densification, the correct orientation of individual living spaces can fall through the cracks. As we are in the southern hemisphere, a building norm is to have living areas facing north, north-east or north-west, with service areas such as bathrooms and kitchens facing south. It’s astounding how often builders and developers get this wrong!

Why is this so important? If you end up with your living areas facing south, the rooms will be dark and cold and in order to make them habitable, you will have to resort to extra lighting and heating. Turn the orientation around, and the same living spaces could be made bright and happy, without the need for artificial lighting and heating. The result? A reduction in your home’s carbon footprint.

The use of skylights at intervals throughout the home will also increase the amount of daylight streaming into the interiors, giving you an increased sense of wellbeing. Many skylights are supplied with blinds, or these can be retrofitted, so if you find you are getting too much light and warmth, this can be rectified without having to resort to the installation of air-conditioning.


In February 2008, a 72-page Code for Sustainable Homes was introduced in the United Kingdom. As Britain is made up of a collection of islands, it’s understandable that they are taking these issues very seriously. With their extensive use of central heating, the issue of proper insulation pops into focus in their attempt to reduce their heating requirements. Strangely, though, visitors from the northern hemisphere frequently complain about how chilly our houses are during winter, so we could well take a leaf out of their book when it comes to correct insulation.

Thermal insulation of the walls and in the ceilings is a starting point. Making sure that your home is free from draughts coming through doors and around window frames is the next step. A blanket around hot water geysers will keep the water warmer for longer – especially when the power goes off! Although an instant water heating unit is recommended as an equally viable alternative.

If you are still stuck on the idea of having that grand triple volume entrance, you could possibly reduce the dissipation of heat by having a canopy made of an organic fabric, that can be lowered to just overhead, during the winter months.

Reducing pressure on the power supply grid

According to Carbon Sense, conventional electricity is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to the production of carbon emissions in and around the home. Installing a solar powered geyser and solar panels for lighting and audio-video equipment will go a long way towards reducing this. Another alternative, particularly for windy areas, are wind turbines specially designed for domestic use. These may be installed subject to clearance and approval from the local authorities, depending on visual impact and noise assessments, but they are quite costly.

If you are committed to reducing your home’s carbon footprint further, you may also consider –

  • Disposing of your current fossil fridge/freezer and purchasing a new A++ rated unit;
  • Replacing your dishwasher and washing machine with A rated appliances;
  • Getting rid of your tumble drier.

You may regard this last option as unthinkable, but if you build a conservatory-type drying room that has plenty of daylight and lots of ventilation, you’ll be amazed at how little you’ll miss that power guzzler.

Other easy ways to reduce your electricity consumption include switching TVs, audio equipment, computers and microwaves off at the wall plugs, rather than leaving them silently sucking up your power supply on standby. Likewise, once your cell phone is charged, unplug the charger from the wall socket.

Artificial lighting

On the lighting front, compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) and LED lighting are the new ‘black’ when it comes to efficient lighting.

CFLs cost more than ordinary light bulbs initially, but they can be used in most existing light fittings, providing a good intermediate solution. Electricity consumption is considerably less and the convenience of not having to replace CFLs as often makes them a sensible buy – CFLs last between 6000 and 15000 hours, whereas conventional light bulbs last only an average of 1000 hours.

It’s predicted, though, that in the future, LED lighting will ultimately become the lighting of choice. At the moment, LEDs are mostly only directional in their lighting, and cannot light up large areas. With improvements in LED technology, it’s expected that this will soon be resolved and although your initial cost for the LED fittings would be substantially more, LEDs can last up to 60000 hours, so your overall average consumption and resultant expenditure on electricity supply will be a lot less.

For external lighting, light sensitive sensors are recommended to make sure that the lights are only on while it’s dark. This is important both for improving security and optimizing your power consumption.

Be kind to your garden

A simple diversion of bath and shower water from the main sewerage system to a storage tank will give you more than enough water to use in the garden. Termed grey water, it’s basically secondhand water that’s still clean enough to be re-used. Some die hards even collect the grey water from the rinse cycle of their washing machine to use for flushing their toilets. Harvesting rainwater is another way of collecting copious amounts of water, depending on the extent of your roofing and whether you have adequate guttering to collect the water. A small water tank connected to each downpipe, or a network of connecting water pipes to a central storage tank will provide an effect solution to your water requirements.

You may ask what saving water has to do with reducing your carbon emissions. Good question. It takes energy to treat water and move it around the country to our homes. Similarly, it takes energy to treat sewerage and convert it into recyclable effluent and re-usable water.

In similar vein, setting aside a suitable place for a compost heap is a hugely beneficial way of dealing with your organic waste. By recycling your vegetable peels, leftover salads and tea leaves, you reduce the pressure on refuse removal and waste management services, while actually using the matured compost is great for the garden – where hopefully you are already growing your own herbs and vegetables!

Collective effort

If you entered into your assessment data indicating that you owned one or more cars, you probably found that you carbon footprint rating came out on the heavy side. This is appropriate because most of us still commute to and from an office, finding ourselves unavoidably stuck in traffic jams for long stretches of time.

Take a look around you while you’re on the roads and you will see that still most cars have single occupants.

Now is the time to take the initiative and reduce the number of cars on the road through organizing lift clubs – for work, for school runs, for sporting events.

This is not a mild warning. It’s most likely to become a cold hard fact in the not too distant future. If we don’t stop and consider the implications and take these initiatives now, these same initiatives will no longer be available to be taken later on. The window of opportunity will have closed and we will have lost the one chance that we have to save our precious planet.

Article by: Bev Hermanson - DESIGN> MAGAZINE