While the world is starting to talk more and more about what each of us can do to tackle climate change, we’re still not addressing most of the elephants in the room, though. According to new research, we need to better communicate the most effective ways to reduce our carbon footprints.
Current anthropogenic climate change is the result of greenhouse gas accumulating in the atmosphere. We like to think of it as a massive and immutable process but, this is actually the result of billions of individual decisions — the decisions of all of us. In a new study, researchers mapped the most impactful lifestyle choices when it comes to reducing greenhouse gases.
The team analyzed 39 peer-reviewed papers, carbon calculators, and government reports to calculate the effects of individual lifestyle choices in 148 possible scenarios. They found that the 4 most impactful choices are:
- having one fewer child. For developed countries, this reduces emissions by 58.6 tonnes of CO2 — by far the most impactful option, though something most people likely wouldn’t consider up for discussion;
- living car-free (2.4 tonnes of CO2);
- avoiding airplane travel (1.6 tCO2e saved per roundtrip transatlantic flight);
- eating a plant-based diet (0.8 tCO2e saved per year). This is also something that many people don’t consider when it comes to reducing emissions, but meat comes with a huge carbon footprint (as well as water and land usage).
“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),” says lead author Seth Wynes.
Instead, sustainability discussions often focus on things like recycling and using more efficient lightbulbs. These are also important and can make a substantial difference, but as previous research has shown, we humans are notoriously bad at judging the scale of things. We might feel, for instance, that we’ve done a good thing by fitting our house with more efficient light bulbs and not feel as guilty about taking one extra plane flight — but when you put those things in the balance, they’re hardly equal.
Lastly, the study also found that these impactful actions aren’t highlighted in textbooks and government resources in the US, EU, Canada or Australia. Instead, these resources focus on incremental changes with a much smaller potential.
While researchers concede that merely being informed does not mean taking positive action, it’s still an important starting point. Study co-author Kimberly Nicholas concludes:
“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,” she concluded.
The study has been published in Environmental Research Letters.