Save the planet – and cash – with a green makeover

Cutting home carbon emissions can salve your conscience and boost your bank account too.

In a few months' time, world leaders will meet in Copenhagen for a crucial climate change summit. But it's not just down to the politicians: householders can make changes to green their properties and reduce their carbon footprints. For the forward thinking, there are even measures which will help to protect against the challenges of climate change that, while green, won't send you into the red.

The amount of CO2 produced by your home depends on a huge range of factors, from the size of your property to how warm you like your living room in the winter. As a result, carbon shoe sizes for similar properties can vary wildly. There are several calculators online, including carbonfootprint.com, and the Government run actonco2, which asks you to enter details about the size of your home, your heating system, the cost of your energy usage, how much insulation your house has and even how many light bulbs there are in your property.

"These calculators can give you an idea of the kind of carbon footprint you are leaving," says Hayley Jones, a spokeswoman for green information website UK-energy-saving.com. "It's not an exact science, but at least it gives people an idea of where they sit, whether they need to make big changes or just tweaks here and there."

Once you know where you stand on the carbon scale, you can start doing something about it. For those with older properties, the best area for big savings is your heating system. Out of all the energies used in homes, the most waste is from heating and hot water – so double-glazing and insulation are by far the best things you can do. If your boiler is an ancient model, replacing it can increase efficiency by as much as 20 per cent instantly, and your emission of greenhouse gasses can be cut even further by trading your gas, electric or oil boiler in for a wood-chip or wood-pellet boiler.

Burning wood is almost carbon neutral, as long as it is sourced from a forest that is going to be replenished. Though you'll have to clean-up of the ashes each week, these boilers are much more carbon friendly. They will cost between £2,000 and £3,000 and can be fitted in any house, although pellets are more convenient for inner-city properties as wood chips requires lots of storage space.

If you can manage the upheaval of installing underfloor heating, this is much more efficient than radiators. The water in household radiators has to be heated to as high as 60C for it to have enough heat to warm the room. Underfloor heating requires water of about 25C to heat a room to a comfortable 20C as the heat permeates the floor gradually and there is less heat loss as a result. Underfloor heating costs between £50 and £100 per square metre and is well worth it in terms of CO2 production, but it is difficult to fit into older properties.

Next up is insulation. At the moment, Britons are heating the outsides of their homes as much as the insides due to poor heat retention. "If you can insulate and draft-proof your home," says Ms Jones, "you are instantly going to make savings which will affect both your footprint and your bank balance."

Grants are available for buying and installing insulation; according to UK Energy Saving. Cavity wall insulation, which costs £300 to £400 to install, will save you £100 a year. If you want to spend very little, placing draft excluders around the house can at least minimise what is going straight out of the door. To stop walls from soaking up a lot of the heat from radiators, stick some aluminium foil behind them to reflect heat away from the walls.

Insulation and heating are the big players, but small measures can make a big difference. In case you hadn't been let in on the secret, turning all UK televisions and appliances off standby during the day would save enough electricity to warrant shutting down an entire power station. In fact, your mobile phone charger uses as much power when it is just plugged in at the mains, as it does when it is charging your phone. Energy-saving light bulbs are affordable and will reduce energy consumption, and carbon output, dramatically, as will recycling materials such as plastic, glass, aluminium and paper.

You can also consider switching to a green tariff from your energy provider. Though it's still from the national grid, the energy you will be using will be as green as it gets. Tariffs vary; some will guarantee that the amount of power used by green subscribers will be generated by renewable energy sources and others will charge an annual premium on top of energy usage to be invested in research into renewable energy. Either way, it shouldn't work out much more expensive than a standard tariff.

Reducing your energy use now will save you money (and relieve your environmental conscience) but it won't prepare you for the challenges posed by climate change. Ironically, older houses are better equipped to deal with rising temperatures than new builds, as solid brick walls have a higher thermal mass, absorbing the heat and keeping the interior cool. But regardless of the age of your property there are ways to fight the heat. Matt Colmer, the head of housing at the Energy Saving Trust, says: "Those who have south-facing properties and a lot of glass can introduce awnings to reduce solar gain, and low-emissivity glass will let in light but not heat." The big advantage of this is that properties are kept cool in the summer so there's less need for air conditioning. Replacing tarmac outside your home with plants or gravel will also cool things down and help protect your property against flooding by allowing excess water to permeate the ground. Other flood protections include replacing plastic guttering with more sturdy steel and swapping your roof for a "green" model to absorb and slow down excess water.

While these measures are worth considering, there is no need to panic, says Mr Colmer. "Climate change is something people should be aware of, but not worried about. The reason we encourage people to make these changes now is because we're in it for the long game and the earlier you get in the easier it will be."

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