Individual action on climate change can include personal choices in many areas, such as diet, means of long- and short-distance travel, household energy use, consumption of goods and services, and family size. Individuals can also engage in local and political advocacy around issues of climate change.
The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report emphasises that behavior, lifestyle and cultural change have a high mitigation potential in some sectors, particularly when complementing technological and structural change.:20 In general, higher consumption lifestyles have a greater environmental impact. Several scientific studies have shown that when people, especially those living in developed countries but more generally including all countries, wish to reduce their carbon footprint, there are four key "high-impact" actions they can take:
These differ significantly from much popular advice for "greening" one's lifestyle, which seem to fall mostly into the "low-impact" category: Replacing a typical car with a hybrid (0.52 tonnes); washing clothes in cold water (0.25 tonnes); recycling (0.21 tonnes); upgrading light bulbs (0.10 tonnes); etc. The researchers found that public discourse on reducing one's carbon footprint overwhelmingly focuses on low-impact behaviors, and that mention of the high-impact behaviors is almost non-existent in the mainstream media, government publications, K-12 school textbooks, etc. The researchers added that "Our recommended high-impact actions are more effective than many more commonly discussed options (e.g. eating a plant-based diet saves eight times more emissions than upgrading light bulbs). More significantly, a US family who chooses to have one fewer child would provide the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teenagers who choose to adopt comprehensive recycling for the rest of their lives."
Some commentators have argued that individual actions as consumers and "greening personal lives" are insignificant to collective action to hold fossil fuel corporations accountable, as they have produced 71% of carbon emissions since 1988. Others say that individual action leads to collective action.
As of 2019[update], emissions budgets are uncertain and estimates of the annual average carbon footprint per person required to meet climate change targets vary between 1 and 3 tonnes CO
2-equivalent, down from a 2018 world average of about 5 tonnes.
Although having fewer children is the individual action that most effectively reduces a person's climate impact, the issue is rarely raised, and it is arguably controversial due to its private nature. Even so, ethicists, some politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others have started discussing the climate implications associated with reproduction.
Two interrelated aspects of this action, family planning and women and girl's education, are modeled by Project Drawdown as the #6 and #7 top potential solutions for climate change, based on the ability of family planning and education to reduce the growth of the overall global population.
Avoiding air travel and particularly frequent flyer programs has a high benefit because the convenience makes frequent, long distance travel easy, and high-altitude emissions are more potent for the climate than the same emissions made at ground level. Aviation is much more difficult to fix technically than surface transport, so will need more individual action in future if the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation cannot be made to work properly.
Agriculture is very difficult to fix technically so will need more individual action or carbon offsetting than all other sectors except perhaps aviation.
Eating less meat, especially beef and lamb, reduces emissions. On August 8, 2019, the IPCC released a summary of the 2019 special report which asserted that a shift towards plant-based diets would help to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Ecologist Hans-Otto Pörtner, who contributed to the report, said "We don't want to tell people what to eat, but it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect."
Eating a plant-rich diet is listed as the #4 solution for climate change as modeled by Project Drawdown, based on avoided emissions from the production of animals and avoided emissions from additional deforestation for grazing land.
Reducing home energy use through measures such as insulation, better energy efficiency of appliances, and improving heating and cooling efficiency can significantly reduce individual's carbon footprints.
In addition, the choice of fuel used to heat, cool, and power homes makes a difference in the carbon footprint of individual homes. Many energy suppliers in various countries worldwide have options to purchase part or pure "green energy" (usually electricity but occasionally also gas). These methods of energy production emit almost no greenhouse gases once they are up and running.
Labels, such as Energy Star in the US, can be seen on many household appliances, home electronics, office equipment, heating and cooling equipment, windows, residential light fixtures, and other products. These may help consumers choose lower energy products.
Protecting forests and planting new trees contributes to the absorption of carbon dioxide from the air. There are many opportunities to plant trees in the yard, along roads, in parks, and in public gardens. In addition, some charities plant fast-growing trees—for as little as $US0.10 per tree—to help people in tropical developing countries restore the productivity of their lands. Conversely, clearing old-growth forests adds to the carbon in the atmosphere, so buying non-old-growth paper is good for the climate as well as the forest.
Additionally, turfgrass lawns can contribute to climate change through the impact of using fertilizers, herbicides, irrigation, and gas-powered lawnmowers and other tools; depending on how lawns are managed, the impact of emissions from maintenance and chemicals may outweigh any carbon sequestration from the lawn.  Reducing irrigation, chemical use, planting native plants or bushes, and using hand tools can all reduce the climate impact of lawns.
The principle of carbon offset is thus: one decides that they don't want to be responsible for accelerating climate change, and they've already made efforts to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, so they decide to pay someone else to further reduce their net emissions by planting trees or by taking up low-carbon technologies. Every unit of carbon that is absorbed by trees—or not emitted due to your funding of renewable energy deployment—offsets the emissions from their fossil fuel use. In many cases, funding of renewable energy, energy efficiency, or tree planting — particularly in developing nations—can be a relatively cheap way of making an individual "carbon neutral".
Some posit that citizen participation in groups advocating for collective action in the form of political solutions, such as carbon pricing, meat pricing, ending subsidies for fossil fuels and animal husbandry, and ending laws mandating car use, is the most impactful way for individuals to act to prevent climate change. It is argued that climate change is a collective action problem, specifically a tragedy of the commons, which is a political and not individual category of problem.
We recommend four widely applicable high-impact (i.e. low emissions) actions with the potential to contribute to systemic change and substantially reduce annual personal emissions: having one fewer child (an average for developed countries of 58.6 tonnes CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) emission reductions per year), living car-free (2.4 tCO2e saved per year), avoiding airplane travel (1.6 tCO2e saved per roundtrip transatlantic flight) and eating a plant-based diet (0.8 tCO2e saved per year). These actions have much greater potential to reduce emissions than commonly promoted strategies like comprehensive recycling (four times less effective than a plant-based diet) or changing household lightbulbs (eight times less).
As we'll see below, homeowners can take a measured approach to emissions reduction, gradually saving and investing small amounts of capital, and far exceed the U.S.'s Kyoto Protocol commitment to reduce all emissions of greenhouse gases to 7 per cent below 1990 emissions by 2012.