Skip to content
Follow us
8th January 2021

Carbon Literacy Guide

A guide to carbon literacy


To become ‘Carbon Literate’ you need an awareness of how everyday activities have costs and impacts in terms of the carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) emitted, and you need the knowledge to reduce these emissions, on an individual, community and organisational basis.

In 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a Special report: The world could be 1.5°C warmer as early as 2040. Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.

Most people know about climate change but have limited carbon literacy or awareness of their own carbon footprint, how to measure it, how to reduce it and how to offset it.

UKHACC want to encourage senior officers and others in each of our member organisations to be more carbon literate. This is a quick introduction in the format of Frequently Asked Questions FAQ. It should take about 10 minutes to increase your awareness of carbon literacy, and motivate further learning to learn how you can act to reduce green house gas emissions.


Click on the links below to navigate to the sections of this page that are of interest to you:

  1. The Carbon Footprint of the NHS
  2. The Science of Global Warming
  3. The Politics
  4. UK Legislation & Support 
  5. The Effects of Climate Change
  6. The Health Effects of Climate Change
  7. Your Carbon Footprint


1. The Carbon Footprint of the NHS

What percentage of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions is the health and social care system is responsible for, and how can we calculate the carbon footprint for the NHS?
About 6%. The carbon footprint for the NHS alone can be calculated by taking the mass of each greenhouse gas (GHG) released and multiplying by the gas’s Global Warming Potential (GWP) to give the CO2 equivalence (CO2e). Adding them all up gives the total which is about 21m tonnes for the NHS in England. Sustainability” in the health care system is providing high quality care and improved public health without exhausting natural resources or causing severe ecological damage.

The health and social care system is responsible for what percentage of road journeys?
Before the 2020 pandemic it was 5% (1 in 20) of all the UK’s road journeys.

What is the carbon footprint of using digital technology in the NHS?
While some digital services will significantly cut emissions, they also have a carbon impact through the NHS’s electricity use and in its supply chain. Data accounts for about 1% of global electricity use and is projected to rise to 8% by 2030.

Has the NHS taken any steps to reduce its carbon footprint?

Yes, it has! In 2019, NHS England launched the Greener NHS programme to set and target date and create a plan for achieving net-zero emissions. If achieved it would be the first national health system in the world to become carbon-neutral.

NHS England aims to reduce emissions in their direct control to net-zero by 2040, with an ambition to reach an 80% reduction no later than 2032. For other emissions associated with the health service, but over which they have less control (the ‘NHS Carbon Footprint Plus’), NHS England aims to achieve net-zero by 2045.

2. The science of global warming

Why does Carbon Dioxide (CO2) warm the planet?
The Earth cools naturally by emitting infrared radiation (IR). As the IR from the earth collides with molecules in the atmosphere like CO2 it causes vibration of the molecule which in turn results in secondary IR emission some of which heads back to Earth.

How long does most Carbon Dioxide stay in the atmosphere?
Between 65% and 80% of CO2 released into the air dissolves into the ocean over a period of 20–200 years. The rest is removed by slower processes that take up to several hundreds of thousands of years, including chemical weathering and rock formation

How much has the atmospheric CO2 concentration increased since pre industrial times?
Around 47%. At the pre industrial time the concentration was 280 parts per million. Currently the concentration is 412 ppm and is increasing by 3ppm annually. Carbon dioxide levels today are higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years. The annual rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past 60 years is about 100 times faster than previous natural increases, such as those that occurred at the end of the last ice age 11,000-17,000 years ago. The ocean has absorbed enough extra carbon dioxide to lower its pH by 0.1 units, a 30% increase in acidity (pH 8.2=6.3098 nmol/l H+, pH 8.055=8.88106nmol/l H+)

What is considered the safe concentration (parts per million) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?
350 parts per million.

What temperature rise (global warming) is the world currently on course for by 2100?
At least 3°C.

How many grams of carbon dioxide are typically emitted per kilo Watt hour (KWh) of energy use in the UK?
The CO2 produced by electricity generation in the UK usually varies from 200-300 g CO2 per kWh. Burning natural gas to produce a kWh energy of releases 185g CO2.

You buy and pay for your energy per kWh (kilo Watt hour) which is the amount of energy used if a 1000 Watt electrical device (a heater) was operating for 1 hour. It is the same as 3,600,000 Joules. One joule is equal to the energy transferred to a body with a mass of 1kg using 1 newton of force applied over the distance of 1 meter

Home Smart meters display the KWh energy consumption as well as CO2 emissions, and cost. 

What are the main sources of global greenhouse gas emissions?
Fossil fuels, land use and agriculture. The green house gas emissions from these are currently going up, not down and the world remains on course for at least 3°C of global warming by 2100 (Haines and Ebie 2019).

What are the main gases in global greenhouse gas emissions?
Aside from water vapour, the four principal green house gases are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and the halocarbons or CFCs (the F-gases containing fluorine, chlorine and bromine). Although water vapour is a green house gas it does not stay in the atmosphere very long. The others gases can remain in the atmosphere for different and longer amounts of time, from months to millennia, and affect the climate on very different timescales.

How much have the different greenhouse gases increased since the year 1750?
Carbon dioxide rose by 50%; Methane by 29%; Nitrous oxide by 5% and others (including carbon monoxide, black carbon & halocarbons) by 16%.

What are Halocarbon F-gases used for?
In medicine, F-gases are used as propellants in metered dose asthma inhalers (MDI), for general anaesthetic gases and small quantities in ophthalmic surgery. At home they are used in refrigerants within refrigerator cooling systems.

What is CO2e?
CO2e, or carbon dioxide equivalent, is a standard unit for measuring carbon footprints. The idea is to express the impact of each different greenhouse gas in terms of the amount of CO2 that would create the same amount of warming.

Carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) is a measure of how much a gas contributes to global warming, relative to carbon dioxide. You calculate the carbon dioxide equivalent of a quantity the gas by multiplying the mass of the gas (in tonnes), by the gas’ global warming potential (GWP).

If we are to avoid dangerous global warming there is no ‘safe’ level of carbon emissions, and we must work together across the health sector, the UK and the world to achieve carbon neutrality as soon as possible.

With so many different Green House gases, how does one compare one with another?
GHGs differ in their capacity to absorb Infra Red (IR) and are compared with their individual Global Warming Potential (GWP). The GWP for CO2 is by definition 1. Nitrous oxide has a GWP of 295. This means that 1 tonne of nitrous oxide has the same warming effect as 295 tonnes of CO2.

What is the volume of a metric tonne (1000kg) of CO2?
At sea level and 20°C, 1000kg of CO2 would occupy 636 cubic metres of CO2 – the equivalent of just over 5.5 double-decker buses.

How far would you need to travel in a car to produce that volume?
A year’s worth of commuting the average distance (8.5 miles) in an average car (emitting 160g/km) generates 1 tonne CO2.

Using gas central heating in an average home, how many metric tonnes of CO2 are produced each year?
Almost three. Energy Catapult Analysis shows that in 2017, the average household generated 2745 kg of CO2 emissions from heating.

How do the emissions of different modes of transport compare?

When was the earth’s atmosphere discovered to act like the glass in a greenhouse, trapping the sun’s heat and stopping it from leaking back into space? 1860

When were world temperature records begun?
World temperature records started in 1880. Proxy records of earlier surface temperature come from tree rings, pollen counts and ice cores.

When was a change in atmosphere carbon dioxide predicted to alter surface temperature?

3. The politics of climate change

When was the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) established to provide a scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts?

What does the acronym COP stand for?
The Conference of the Parties. The United Nations Climate Change Conferences are yearly conferences held in the framework of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). They serve as the formal meeting of the UNFCCC Parties. The COP is the supreme decision-making body of the Convention. All States that are Parties to the Convention are represented at the COP, at which they review the implementation of the Convention and any other legal instruments that the COP adopts and take decisions necessary to promote the effective implementation of the Convention, including institutional and administrative arrangements

The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) will be held the Scottish Event Campus (SEC) in Glasgow on 1 – 12 November 2021.

Notable previous COP related events include:

What is the target for global warming?
The target is to limit global warming at 1.5°C, just half a degree above where we are now. Global warming refers to the planet’s average surface temperature. It does not mean there is a uniform rise in temperature everywhere. There will be more extremes of high temperatures but there will still be some extremes of low temperature weather. Climate change is a better description than global warming for all the complex changes caused by higher average temperatures.

What are the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030?
In 2015 the UN adopted the Agenda for Sustainable Development for 2030. This provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet. It has 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These are an urgent call for action by all countries. They recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

Was Margaret Thatcher one of the first political leaders to warn of global warming or a climate sceptic?
In short, both. In the late 1980s she gave speeches with environmental passion to the Royal Society and to the UN “What we are now doing to the world, by degrading the land surfaces, by polluting the waters and by adding greenhouse gases to the air at an unprecedented rate – all this is new in the experience of the earth. It is mankind and his activities that are changing the environment of our planet in damaging and dangerous ways.” She continued: “It is no good squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay. We shall only succeed in dealing with the problems through a vast international, co-operative effort. However, by 2003 in her final book Statecraft she issued what amounted to an almost complete recantation of her earlier views.

4. UK Legislation & Support

What year did the UK introduce a new Climate Change Act?
2008. The same year it established the UK Committee on Climate Change (the CCC) as an independent, statutory body to advise the UK Governments on emissions targets and report to Parliament on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for climate change.

What target for greenhouse gas emissions has the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) recommended to government?
The Committee on Climate Change recommended a new emissions target for the UK: net-zero greenhouse gases by 2050:
“A net-zero Green House Gas target for 2050 will deliver on the commitment that the UK made by signing the Paris Agreement. It is achievable with known technologies, alongside improvements in people’s lives, and within the expected economic cost that Parliament accepted when it legislated the existing 2050 target for an 80% reduction from 1990. However, this is only possible if clear, stable and well-designed policies to reduce emissions further are introduced across the economy without delay. Current policy is insufficient for even the existing targets.”
Committee on Climate Change. Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming. 2019.

In what year was the NHS and Public Health England’s Sustainable Development Unit (SDU) established?
Both the Sustainable Development Unit (SDU), which has now become the Greener NHS Unit, and the charity the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare (CSH) were founded in 2008. The GreenerNHS Unit is responsible for delivering on NHS England’s target to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2040.

5. The Effects of Climate Change

What effect will a 1.5°C rise in global warming be likely to have?
The Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported (2018) that warming of 1.5°C will see weather extremes become more prevalent. Extremes in heat are projected to be largest in central and eastern North America, central and southern Europe, the Mediterranean region, western and central Asia, and southern Africa. Holding warming to 1.5°C rather than 2°C will see around 420 million fewer people being frequently exposed to extreme heatwaves. High and low extremes in rainfall are also expected to become more frequent. The largest increases in heavy rainfall events are expected in high-latitude regions, such as Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, northern Europe and northern Asia. Whereas in the Mediterranean region and southern Africa, for example, “increases in drought frequency and magnitude are substantially larger at 2°C than at 1.5°C”.

Global sea level increases are projected to be around 0.1m less at 1.5°C than at 2°C by 2100 which would mean that “up to 10.4 million fewer people are exposed to the impacts of sea level globally”. However, sea levels will continue to rise beyond 2100, and there is a risk that instabilities in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets triggered by 1.5–2°C of warming cause “multi-metre” increases in sea levels in the centuries and millennia to come.

What are the main risks that the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA2) and National Adaption Programme (NAP) have identified?

What are the main Climate Hazards to the UK’s Infrastructure?

What is the current and future risk of flooding at your (health or social care) place of work?

Whose homes are most at risk of flooding in the future?
50% are in just ten local authorities

6. The Health Effects of Climate Change

What is the Lancet Countdown?
Since 2017 the Lancet Countdown is an annual report that tracks >40 indicators across key areas of health and climate change. The reports have found that the delayed response to climate change over the past 25 years has jeopardised human life and livelihoods, with the health impacts of climate change already being felt in every region of the world. However, the past 5 years have seen an accelerated response to climate change, providing clear and unprecedented opportunities for public health.

How may health outcomes be badly affected by climate changes?

At what temperature do we start to experience excess deaths from the heat?
Mortality from the heat starts around 23°C. While there are some very hot (at >30°C) days there are many more other hot days. Deaths from heat in the UK could treble to 7000 pa by 2050.

7. Your Carbon Footprint

What is the Social Cost of carbon?
The social cost of carbon is the cost – from the destruction of property by storms and floods, declining agricultural and labour productivity, elevated mortality rates, and more – of releasing an additional ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It is, in other words, the cost of climate change. It is a critical component of regulatory policy in this area because, by conveying the costs of CO2 emissions, the social cost of carbon allows for the calculation of the monetary benefits of regulations that reduce them. These benefits can then be compared to the costs that the regulation imposes to determine whether the regulation is socially beneficial on net.

Updated periodically, that estimate is now at about $50 per ton ($55 per metric tonne) of carbon dioxide.

What is your personal carbon footprint?
You can check your personal carbon footprint using various calculators, two are listed below:

How can you reduce your personal carbon footprint?
GIKI Zero is an easy to use personal/family tool to reduce your carbon footprint.

How can you offset your ongoing and/or past CO2 emissions?
YOuFor more on offsetting your ongoing and/or past CO2 emissions, visit:

Other watchdogs that verify carbon offset schemes and projects to make carbon savings include the American Carbon Registry, Climate Action Reserve, Gold Standard, Plan Vivo and Verra, which offer many hundreds of projects for business and individuals to choose from.

What is your organisations carbon footprint?
You can check your organisation’s carbon footprint using the following tools:

8. What Next?

Where can you find out more about Climate Literacy?
There are courses like the Carbon Literacy course that teach the basics of climate change science, what’s already happening globally and locally, how your actions may be affecting climate change and what you, as an individual, can do to help. During the course, you make at least two significant low-carbon pledges: To create at least one significant action, as an individual, to reduce your own personal carbon footprint and create at least one significant action involving other people to reduce the collective footprint of your workplace, community or place of education. The Centre for Sustainable Healthcare also runs a number of courses specifically for health professionals.

What do health professionals all need to do about climate change?
We all need to do three things:

  1. Understand the likely impact on health.
  2. Adapt our health and care systems (including being able to withstand more frequent and severe extreme weather events) to minimise threats to health.
  3. Change our behaviour to live sustainably and reduce our emission of climate change gases.

Climate change is likely to be linked with extra ill health from extreme weather events (causing injuries, fatalities and mental health effects), heat stress (causing increased illness and death), worse air quality (causing increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease), problems with water quality and quantity (causing more infectious diseases), food supply and safety (causing undernutrition and foodborne diseases), vector-borne infectious diseases (causing more widespread diseases like dengue, Lyme disease, and malaria), and social factors like economic migrations (causing physical and mental ill health). These effects will be felt worst in low-income countries. In higher income countries like the UK the use of fossil fuels, over-consumption, and badly designed cities also have adverse effects on health and the less privileged communities may be more vulnerable to the adverse effects than others. The important co-benefit for everyone is that actions to mitigate climate change that reduce air pollution, produce healthier diets and increase active transport can also improve health outcomes.