The Carbon Trust’s tips for a more sustainable Christmas

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Christmas tree in living room

At Christmas many of us spend and consume a little more than usual. We do this to indulge ourselves and to celebrate the festive season, brightening up the bleak midwinter.

But with rising energy costs, increasing waste issues, and the climate change emergency, its more important than ever to celebrate Christmas in a way that doesn't cost the Earth.

To help with this, the Carbon Trust has put together some simple tips for a merry and more sustainable Christmas.

Most importantly

The Carbon Trust takes the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic very seriously, and we always advise that you have a safe Christmas in accordance with government Coronavirus guidelines. 

With that in mind, there are two simple things everyone can do that will really help to reduce the overall environmental impact of Christmas.

  • Share your Christmas with friends and family members. It is much more energy efficient to cook one meal and heat one home rather than two, three or four.
  • Don’t buy things that will not get used, or will immediately get thrown away.

At home

  • Having the oven switched on for hours keeps the house warmer than usual and means you can use less central heating.
  • Drawing the curtains when the dark December day is drawing to a close can help retain even more heat.
  • Switch off lights at night, especially outside. If you are buying new Christmas lights then make sure you buy LED ones, which can be used for years to come.

Gifts and decorations

  • Avoid buying things that will not get used or will immediately get thrown away.
  • Buying good quality toys means that these can be passed on to friends, family and charity shops, giving them a second or even a third life.
  • If you are looking at buying electrical equipment consider the energy use across their life span. More efficient equipment can sometimes cost more up front but will save money from energy bills in the long run.
  • Reuse wrapping paper wherever possible or make your own using newspaper or magazines.
  • Unsurprisingly, gifts that don’t consume electricity, such as toys and books, tend to have a lower carbon footprint than those that do.
  • The vast majority of gifts inside Christmas crackers never last beyond the end of the meal. Consider getting crackers with just jokes and hats, and make sure to recycle the paper and cardboard afterwards.

The tree

Is a real tree better than an artifical tree for the environment? That depends on the specific tree, and plans for reuse and ultimately disposal. The correct choice may depend on your circumstances.

  • An artificial tree used over multiple years (7-20 times depending on the weight and different materials in the tree) is better for the environment than buying a new, commercially grown tree every year. 
  • For real trees, those that are slow grown and use no fertilizer are preferable to those intensively grown. Check to see if it is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which ensures minimal fertiliser is used. 
  • Potted trees (with roots) are able to be re-used, spreading the carbon footprint over multiple years and potentially avoiding transport emissions, making them a more sustainable option if you’re after a real Christmas tree.
  • Re-use the stand or pot you buy for your real tree for as many years as possible – buying a new one each year has a significant impact on the footprint of your tree.

Tree disposal

Different methods of disposal for a Christmas tree can have a big impact on its footprint.

  • If you re-plant your Christmas tree, or have it chipped to spread on the garden, that will significantly reduce the carbon footprint by up to 80% (around 3.5kg CO2e). 
  • Burning the tree, such as on a bonfire, emits the carbon dioxide that it stored up when it was growing, so there is no net increase.
  • For a 2-metre-tall real Christmas tree, with no roots, the carbon footprint is 16kg CO2e if it ends up in landfill. This is because the tree decomposes and produces methane gas, which is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Travel

People often travel significant distances to visit family and friends at Christmas. These journeys matter to people, but they can be done in a more environmentally-friendly way.

  • Avoid air travel if you can, as this is one of the largest carbons impacts an individual can have.
  • A lot of people are travelling at the same time – check to see whether you can share a car or take public transport.

Christmas dinner

Eating is the focal point of the day for most Christmas celebrations, but cutting carbon and waste out of a meal doesn’t have to have any impact on enjoyment.

  • Consider what you cook for the main course, turkey has a lower carbon footprint than beef, and vegetarian options are even lower than that.
  • Don’t overdo it on cheese, which has a very high carbon footprint, especially Stilton!
  • Don’t preheat the oven for too long or leave it on after the meal is prepared to keep food heated. 
  • Let people serve themselves the amount they want to eat rather than dishing it out – food left in a serving dish can be eaten as left-overs the next day, whereas food left on plates will be binned.
  • Make sure to use your leftovers in the days after Christmas - if there is too much to eat then share it around.

Lasting impacts

Christmas is a celebration that is sometimes all too short. Most of us have a higher environmental impact than usual during this period, but it can be a great time to form lasting habits and encourage broader change.

With a lot of people together, the actions that you take have a good chance of being noticed and influencing others. This effect can be increased by telling people what you are doing and why.