The Most Effective Individual Steps To Decrease One’s Carbon Footprint

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What are the most effective ways for an individual to reduce their carbon footprint?

Oftentimes when people discuss the need to “do something” to avoid extreme anthropogenic climate change, the focus is entirely on actions that could be taken on the national, global, or commercial levels. It’s not too often the case that people discuss what can be done individually to limit one’s contribution to rising atmospheric greenhouse gas levels and the problems accompanying them.

Partly this is probably due to the fact that many people consider individual actions to be ineffective (unless on the mass level, but they see that as unlikely to happen through individual initiative and social movement alone). Of course, partly, this is also often simply due to laziness, selfishness, and an unwillingness to stand apart from one’s neighbors.

If you haven’t guessed yet, I’m of the opinion that individual actions are a necessity if catastrophic levels of climate instability, warming, and associated problems (food and water scarcity in many regions, mass migrations, rapid disease emergence and spread, etc.) are to be avoided.

With that in mind, there was a study published recently that identified the 4 actions that “most substantially” diminish an individual’s carbon footprint. They are, in no particular order: having smaller families; living car-free; avoiding air travel; and eating a plant-based diet. Here’s a chart on the findings:

I’ll note here before moving on that there are caveats to all of these generalized ways of reducing one’s carbon footprint, of course. For instance, someone who eats meat but mostly scavenges it as roadkill or limits it to small animals that live on their property is obviously not going to reduce their carbon footprint much (or at all) by becoming a vegan. Alternately, “living car-free” may not end up meaning much if one is instead relying on carriers such as UPS or FedEx to bring them supplies every couple of days via online retailers, or if that means ordering Ubers a couple times a day to get around (something that could actually mean twice as much driving).

Here’s more from the press release for the study: “The research analysed 39 peer reviewed papers, carbon calculators, and government reports to calculate the potential of a range of individual lifestyle choices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This comprehensive analysis identifies the actions individuals could take that will have the greatest impact on reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.”

The lead author of the study, Seth Wynes of Lund University, commented: “There are so many factors that affect the climate impact of personal choices, but bringing all these studies side-by-side gives us confidence we’ve identified actions that make a big difference. Those of us who want to step forward on climate need to know how our actions can have the greatest possible impact. This research is about helping people make more informed choices.

“We found there are four actions that could result in substantial decreases in an individual’s carbon footprint: eating a plant-based diet, avoiding air travel, living car free, and having smaller families. For example, living car-free saves about 2.4 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, while eating a plant-based diet saves 0.8 tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year.

“These actions, therefore, have much greater potential to reduce emissions than commonly promoted strategies like comprehensive recycling (which is 4 times less effective than a plant-based diet) or changing household lightbulbs (8 times less effective).”

The researchers noted in the press release that government-provided information resources in the US, EU, Canada, and Australia don’t mention the potential of any of these actions to reduce one’s carbon footprint. And neither do school textbooks for that matter.

Why not? Is it pure cynicism on the part of those that responsible for creating school textbooks and government resources? Or is it something else?

You would think that people who are serious about limiting anthropogenic climate change to less than civilization-destroying levels would make the obvious point that maybe people should start changing their lives on a individual level. Doing so would also help to reduce the speed at which the world’s pollution problems and habitat loss is growing.

The co-author of the study, Kimberly Nicholas, noted: “We recognize these are deeply personal choices. But we can’t ignore the climate effect our lifestyle actually has. Personally, I’ve found it really positive to make many of these changes. It’s especially important for young people establishing lifelong patterns to be aware which choices have the biggest impact. We hope this information sparks discussion and empowers individuals.”

So there you go. No one is stopping you from making these changes to your life. Have at it.

The new study was detailed in a paper published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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