When it comes to dealing with Climate Change we perhaps think about big ticket items such as coal fired power stations. On a far smaller scale what exactly can we as individuals do that will really make a difference, if anything?
We often strive to recycle, and to also use more efficient lightbulbs, but are those the most meaningful steps we can take?
Roughly about one year ago, some researchers asked this question. One key point that they raised is that our collective individual actions can have a huge impact.
What exactly did they Do?
Within their paper titled “The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions” they looked into this topic …
Here we consider a broad range of individual lifestyle choices and calculate their potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries, based on 148 scenarios from 39 sources.
You want me to do what?
They recommended four widely applicable high-impact (i.e. low emissions) actions. Each has the potential to contribute to systemic change and substantially reduce annual personal emissions.
This is perhaps the cue for the the screams of “You want me to do what?”
So here is what they identified …
- Having one fewer child (an average for developed countries of 58.6 tonnes CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) emission reductions per year)
- Live car-free (2.4 tCO2e saved per year)
- Avoid airplane travel (1.6 tCO2e saved per roundtrip transatlantic flight)
- Eat a plant-based diet (0.8 tCO2e saved per year).
The following diagram illustrates it all …
Each of the high impact actions has a 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).
This also highlighted this observation. Teens are poised to establish lifelong patterns, yet ten high school science textbooks (from Canada) generally failed to mention any of these high-impact choices.
They noted that government resources on climate change from the EU, USA, Canada, and Australia generally focused recommendations on lower-impact actions.
How do people react to such Ideas?
Not so well.
As a science journalist and editor, I spend most of my days thinking about climate change—our rapidly heating planet, a melting Arctic, species loss, political inaction, and public apathy. In the evenings I go home and take care of my daughter, who is two.
So when a new study came out today suggesting that having fewer kids is the most effective way to reduce our carbon emissions—sparking media headlines like “Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children” in The Guardian—I had to stop what I was doing and read it. It notes that a US family choosing to have one fewer child would be responsible for the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teens who “adopt comprehensive recycling” for the rest of their lives.
… having a kid is what gives me hope for the future, even when environmental catastrophe is keeping me up at night—that it has to work out, because she’s here.
In this context, do you know what might actually make a huge difference?
Decent access to good fact-based sex education and also good access to birth control for teens. We live in a world where the one political party has striven to gut the sex education programs for teens, and instead promote the utterly ineffective abstinence-only proposals.
Given the latest SCOTUS appointment, we appear to be on course for the Republic of Gilead imposing a sex education approach that consists of telling teens to simply think of Jesus. Hint: there is a reason why red states have far higher rates of teen pregnancy.
When it comes to climate change, what is inevitable is that one way or another radical change is coming. Either we take decisive meaningful and quite radical action that mitigates the worst impacts of climate change, or we don’t and so instead we face the consequences.
Kimberly A Nicholas, the co-author of the paper lays out her thoughts …
“We recognise these are deeply personal choices. But we can’t ignore the climate effect our lifestyle actually has, It is our job as scientists to honestly report the data. Like a doctor who sees the patient is in poor health and might not like the message ‘smoking is bad for you’, we are forced to confront the fact that current emission levels are really bad for the planet and human society.”
“In life, there are many values on which people make decisions and carbon is only one of them,I don’t have children, but it is a choice I am considering and discussing with my fiance. Because we care so much about climate change that will certainly be one factor we consider in the decision, but it won’t be the only one.”