Reversing Climate Change Starts with You

Research demonstrates steps each person can take to reduce carbon emissions.

Posted Jul 17, 2019

manfredxy/Adobe Stock
Source: manfredxy/Adobe Stock

As global temperatures continue to rise, officials across the globe work to develop plans to lower carbon emissions and ultimately stall the trend. (2018 was the 42nd consecutive year that the global temperature was above average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)

But a new systematic review demonstrates that we don’t have to wait for government policy to take action. The review, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, pulled together data from 39 peer-reviewed papers, carbon calculators, and government reports to identify the most effective steps we can take to decrease our carbon footprint.

The review compared 31 different actions people could take. Examples included purchasing green energy, reducing food waste, buying a more efficient car, and improving the energy efficiency of your home.

The authors found four lifestyle choices that would most significantly reduce a single person’s greenhouse gas emissions: eating a plant-based diet, avoiding air travel, living car-free, and having smaller families.

By far, the most effective way to reduce carbon emissions is to have smaller families. Having one fewer child saves between 23,000 and 117,000 kilograms of CO2 equivalent per year. Living car-free saves between 1,000 and 5,300 kilograms of CO2 equivalent per year. Avoiding one flight saves between 700 and 2,800 kilograms of CO2 equivalent a year, depending on the length of the flight. And eating a plant-based diet saves between 300 and 1,600 kilograms of CO2 equivalent a year.

Other actions that had a significant impact on carbon emissions were purchasing green energy and reducing the effects of driving by, for example, buying a more efficient car or carpooling.

In addition to identifying the most productive steps to reduce carbon emissions, the review looked at how society communicates about what individuals can do. The authors analyzed four government-guides to reducing carbon emissions—from the U.S., the European Union, Canada, and Australia—to understand what specific actions governments recommend. They also analyzed 10 Canadian high school textbooks to understand actions recommended to students for reducing carbon emissions.

The authors found that, by and large, government documents and educational texts do not focus on the high-impact actions for reducing carbon emissions. This leads people to believe they are taking adequate steps to mitigate climate change when, in reality, they could be doing much more.

The authors write:

“Some high-impact actions may be politically unpopular, but this does not justify a focus on moderate or low-impact actions at the expense of high-impact actions. As a specific example, one textbook says 'making a difference doesn't have to be difficult' and provides the example of switching from plastic bags to reusable shopping bags in order to save 5 kilograms of CO2 per year. This is less than 1 percent as effective as a year without eating meat. Examples like this create the impression that the issue of climate change itself is trivial in nature, and represent missed opportunities to encourage serious engagement on high-impact actions.”

In the end, the authors make the case that it is vitally important that we understand the most effective individual steps that will help reduce carbon emissions, and that our governments and educational systems inform the public about these steps. We can make a difference.