The carbon footprint of Christmas

As COP27 wraps up and we get closer to welcoming 2023, it seems appropriate to talk about the carbon footprint of Christmas. There’s no doubt that this decade is absolutely crunch time for dealing with climate change, yet the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are still rising. I think that most of us would prefer not to destroy the planet and yet seem to forget about what’s really important during the holiday season (Christmas in particular).

It makes me sad, angry, and a little defeated, sometimes, to think about the holiday excess that continues to take place in the face of an impending global catastrophe. We have a clear-cut challenge – to reduce our GHG emissions and mitigate climate change – and yet it’s largely forgotten about during the frenzy of commercialism around this time of year. There are powerful forces at work, of course, and I think one of the most important things we can do right now is to build up immunity to the advertisements that are telling us to keep spending as normal.

If not now, when?

What’s the carbon footprint of Christmas?

I’m going to show a graph from an interesting book on carbon footprints, How Bad Are Bananas? Author, Mike Berners-Lee attempts to estimate the carbon footprint of the stuff that makes up our world, from a banana to the World Cup. The graph shows his estimates for the carbon footprint of Christmas (per person) in three scenarios: low-, average- and high-waste. The average scenario is based on stats or estimates on the amount of money spent on presents ($440 /£430), miles traveled, food bought (and wasted), and decorative lights used. The high-waste scenario assumes $1500 spent on gifts, more food, more travel, and inefficient lighting, while the low-waste scenario involves agreeing on a spend-limit on gifts, a normal amount of food, efficient lighting, and making use of video calls to catch up with people.

The carbon footprint of Christmas, graph from How Bad Are Bananas. The graph shows his estimates for the carbon footprint of Christmas (per person) in three scenarios: low-, average- and high-waste. The carbon footprints are 0, 0.3, and 1.5 tonnes of CO2, respectively.
Three scenarios for the carbon footprint of Christmas, from How Bad Are Bananas?

As you can see in the graph, the high-waste Christmas has a carbon footprint of around 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per person, much higher than the average- and low-waste scenarios. To put that into perspective, the global average carbon footprint is around 7 tonnes of CO2 per person (see this post on calculating your carbon footprint). So the 1.5 tonnes is over 20% of the average annual carbon footprint – a significant amount, especially considering that it’s spent on just one holiday.

Reduce your Christmas carbon footprint

I would normally say “the holidays” but – let’s face it – the year’s commercial peak revolves around Christmas, specifically. The ways to reduce your carbon footprint are fairly obvious. Set a limit (or embargo) on gifts, buy used items (including decorations) from thrift stores or by supporting charities on eBay, etc. Most importantly:

The word "resist" in block capitals, large font, black text.

Resist the ads, the influencers, the Black Friday deals that you don’t need, and the social pressure to buy excessive gifts for each other. Develop a thick skin to all of this relentless marketing machinery because it’s one of the biggest drivers of climate change and planetary ecosystem collapse.

What would Jesus do? Live simply and try his best not to destroy the planet.

2 thoughts on “The carbon footprint of Christmas

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