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Individual action on climate change

A demonstrator at the People's Climate March (2017).
Reduction of one's carbon footprint for various actions.

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.[1]: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:[2][3]

  1. Not having an additional child (58.6[2] tonnes CO
    emission reductions per year)
  2. Living car-free (2.4 tonnes)
  3. Avoiding one round-trip transatlantic flight (1.6 tonnes)
  4. Eating a plant-based diet (0.8 tonnes)

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.[2][3] 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."[2][3]

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.[4] Others say that individual action leads to collective action.[5]

As of 2019, emissions budgets are uncertain and estimates of the annual average carbon footprint per person required to meet climate change targets vary between 1[6] and 3[7] tonnes CO
-equivalent, down from a 2018 world average of about 5 tonnes.

Family size

It is also time to re-examine and change our individual behaviors, including limiting our own reproduction (ideally to replacement level at most) and drastically diminishing our per capita ­consumption of fossil fuels, meat, and other resources.

William J. Ripple, lead author of the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice, BioScience, 2017.[8]

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,[9][10] some politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,[11] and others[3][12][13][14] 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.[15][16]

Travel and commuting

In the early 21st century perception towards climate change influenced some people in rich countries to change their travel lifestyle.[17]

Air transport

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,[18] so will need more individual action in future if the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation cannot be made to work properly.[19]

Surface transport

  • Walking and running are among the least environmentally harmful modes of transportation, followed by cycling.
  • Public transport such as electric buses, metro and electric trains generally emit less greenhouse gases than cars.
  • Electric kick scooters could also be a low-impact form of transportation, with emerging startups such as Bird and Lime providing shared scooters allowing for last-mile transportation. However, their short lifespan caused by rough usage and vandalism could mean additional resources spent on replacement units. Some models provide higher range (35+ miles, 56+ km) and speed (40+ mph, 64+ km/h), which can be used in areas with poor public transportation infrastructure where cars and motorcycles would have previously been the only option.
  • Cars: Using an electric car instead of a gasoline or diesel car helps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Diet and food

Agriculture is very difficult to fix technically so will need more individual action or carbon offsetting than all other sectors except perhaps aviation.[18]

Eating less meat, especially beef and lamb, reduces emissions.[20] 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."[21]

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.[22]

Home energy, landscaping and consumption

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.[23]

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).[24] These methods of energy production emit almost no greenhouse gases once they are up and running.

Installing rooftop solar, both on a household and community scale, also drastically reduces household emissions, and at scale could be a major contributor to greenhouse gas abatement.[25]

Low energy products and consumption

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.

Landscape and gardens

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.[26] 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.[citation needed]

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. [27][28] Reducing irrigation, chemical use, planting native plants or bushes, and using hand tools can all reduce the climate impact of lawns.[29]

Individual purchase of carbon offsets

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".[citation needed]

Citizen participation in climate change policy advocacy

Some posit that citizen participation in groups advocating for collective action in the form of political solutions, such as carbon pricing, meat pricing,[30] ending subsidies for fossil fuels[31] and animal husbandry,[32] and ending laws mandating car use,[33] is the most impactful way for individuals to act to prevent climate change.[34] It is argued that climate change is a collective action problem, specifically a tragedy of the commons, which is a political[35] and not individual category of problem.[36]

See also


  1. ^ Edenhofer, Ottmar; Pichs-Madruga, Ramón; et al. (2014). "Summary for Policymakers" (PDF). In IPCC (ed.). Climate change 2014: mitigation of climate change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-107-65481-5. Retrieved 2016-06-21.
  2. ^ a b c d Wynes, Seth; Nicholas, Kimberly A (12 July 2017). "The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions". Environmental Research Letters. 12 (7): 074024. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/aa7541. 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).
  3. ^ a b c d Perkins, Sid (July 11, 2017). "The best way to reduce your carbon footprint is one the government isn't telling you about". Science. Retrieved 29 March 2019.
  4. ^ Lukacs, Martin (July 17, 2017). "Neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals". The Guardian.
  5. ^ Sparkman, Leor Hackel, Gregg (2018-10-26). "Actually, Your Personal Choices Do Make a Difference in Climate Change". Slate Magazine. Retrieved 2019-07-23.
  6. ^ Welle (, Deutsche. "İklim korumada en önemli beş adım | DW | 15.02.2019". DW.COM (in Turkish). Retrieved 2019-07-23.
  7. ^ Reality, Better Meets (2019-02-03). "What Is A Sustainable Carbon Footprint (Per Person) To Aim For?". Better Meets Reality. Retrieved 2019-07-23.
  8. ^ Ripple, William J.; et al. (13 November 2017), "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice" (PDF), BioScience, 67 (12): 1026–1028, doi:10.1093/biosci/bix125
  9. ^ Conly, Sarah (2016). One child : do we have a right to more?. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-020343-6.
  10. ^ "Bioethicist: The climate crisis calls for fewer children". Retrieved 21 March 2019.
  11. ^ "We need to talk about the ethics of having children in a warming world". Retrieved 21 March 2019.
  12. ^ "Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children". Retrieved 21 March 2019.
  13. ^ "Population Matters: Climate change". Retrieved 21 March 2019.
  14. ^ Bawden, Tom (April 26, 2019). "Save the planet by having fewer children, says environmentalist Sir Jonathan Porritt". i. Retrieved April 26, 2019.
  15. ^ "Family Planning". Drawdown. 2017-02-07. Retrieved 2019-10-20.
  16. ^ "Educating Girls". Drawdown. 2017-02-07. Retrieved 2019-10-20.
  17. ^ "Is 'green' the new black?".
  18. ^ a b "Seven charts that explain what net zero emissions means for the UK". Retrieved 2019-07-23.
  19. ^ "Carbon offsetting flights. A dangerous distraction. Helping Dreamers Do". Retrieved 2019-07-23.
  20. ^ Briggs, Nassos Stylianou, Clara Guibourg and Helen (2018-12-13). "Climate change food calculator: What's your diet's carbon footprint?". Retrieved 2019-07-22.
  21. ^ Schiermeier, Quirin (August 8, 2019). "Eat less meat: UN climate change report calls for change to human diet". Nature. Retrieved August 9, 2019.
  22. ^ "Plant-Rich Diet". Drawdown. 2017-02-07. Retrieved 2019-10-20.
  23. ^ Heede, Richard (2002-04-09). "Household Solutions" (PDF). Rocky Mountain Institute. Retrieved 2007-07-07. 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.
  24. ^ "What is green gas? – Ecotricity". Retrieved 2019-07-22.
  25. ^ "Rooftop Solar". Drawdown. 2017-02-07. Retrieved 2019-05-12.
  26. ^ "Our Story". Trees for the Future. Retrieved 2019-09-25.
  27. ^ "Lawns may contribute to global warming". Christian Science Monitor. 2010-01-22. ISSN 0882-7729. Retrieved 2019-10-20.
  28. ^ Townsend‐Small, Amy; Czimczik, Claudia I. (2010). "Carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emissions in urban turf". Geophysical Research Letters. 37 (2). doi:10.1029/2009GL041675. ISSN 1944-8007.
  29. ^ Fountain, Henry; Kaysen, Ronda (2019-04-10). "One Thing You Can Do: Reduce Your Lawn". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-10-20.
  30. ^ Gabbatiss, Josh (January 4, 2019). "Government must consider meat tax to tackle climate change, says Caroline Lucas". The Independent.
  31. ^ Irfan, Umair (May 17, 2019). "whopping $5.2 trillion: We can't take on climate change without properly pricing coal, oil, and natural gas. But it's a huge political challenge". Vox.
  32. ^ Simon, David Robinson (September 1, 2013). Meatonomics: How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much–and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter. U.S.A.: Conari Press. ISBN 1573246204.
  33. ^ Shill, Gregory (July 9, 2019). "Americans Shouldn't Have to Drive, but the Law Insists on It: The automobile took over because the legal system helped squeeze out the alternatives". The Atlantic. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)
  34. ^ Stern, Stefan (June 21, 2019). "Politicians must find solutions for the climate crisis. Not outsource it to us". The Guardian.
  35. ^ Anomaly, Jonathan. "Political: Collective Action Problems". Khan Academy. Retrieved 13 July 2019.
  36. ^ Kejun, Jiang (December 14, 2018). "Climate change is a problem of politics, not science". Euractiv.

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