It’s not just about what governments or companies do. Our choices as individuals also matter to tackle the climate emergency. Two-thirds of the global emissions are linked to household consumption, which means low-carbon options have great potential to reduce emissions even further.
A new meta-study looked at the emission mitigation potential across the consumption domains of food, housing, transport, and other sectors, reviewing about 7,000 previous publications. This allowed the researchers to make a list of the best ways regular people can reduce their carbon footprint.
Transport options have the highest potential for change, especially if people live car-free, shift to a battery electric vehicle and/or take fewer long-distance flights. Both car and air travel tend to increase sharply with rising income, so these mitigation changes are particularly important in a high-income context.
Living car-free saves an average of 2.04 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per person annually, the study showed. If you still want to drive, using a battery-electric car saves 1.95 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per person annually. Taking one less long-haul flight each year also helps, reducing 1.68 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per person.
Adopting a vegan diet has the biggest impact from a food perspective, the study showed. The way food has been prepared, stored, produced and sourced is also important. Reducing animal-based products in our diet may come with various health improvements, which is an important additional benefit amid the coronavirus crisis.
The lead author, Dr Diana Ivanova from Leeds University, told BBC News: “We need a complete change of mindset. We have to agree how much carbon we can each emit within the limits of what the planet can bear – then make good lives within those boundaries. The top 10 options are available to us now.”
Other actions that we might be more familiar with are also valuable but have a lesser benefit to the climate. This includes green roofs; using less paper; buying more durable items; turning down the thermostat – and recycling, which saves 0.01 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, according to the study.
The average carbon footprint in some continents is more than four times the per person climate target for 2030. Carbon footprints are extremely unequally distributed, with wealthier people and countries releasing more greenhouse gases into the environment, the study showed.
The authors argued that the response to the coronavirus epidemic has shown that people are willing to do radical changes in their lives if they consider it necessary. That has been the case, for example, of most staying at home and not going to work to avoid the spread of the virus.
“The recent coronavirus crisis ‘lockdown’ has shown the world that options such as living car-free are possible and have a huge impact on the environment. This period of low carbon emissions should motivate governments to strive for strong environmental policies that enable new ways of consuming,” Ivanova said.
The study was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.