Since more then 50 years, I used to be a frequent flyer. I almost visited 106 countries worldwide. We all know (and please count me in!) that climate change is happening – but there are plenty of things individuals can do to help mitigate it. Here’s your handy guide to the most effective strategies.
In a new report published in September 2018, according to Diego Arguedas Oritz, the world’s leading climate scientists made their starkest warning so far: our current actions are not enough for us to meet our target of 1.5C of warming. We need to do more. No question about it.
It’s settled science that climate change is real, and we’re starting to see some of the ways that it affects us. It increases the likelihood of flooding in Miami and elsewhere, threatens the millions of people living along the Brahmaputra River in north-eastern India and even disrupts the sex life of plants and animals.
So we don’t need to ask whether climate change is happening – or whether humans are causing it. Instead, we need to ask: “what can we do?” Or is it really already too late?
1. What is the single most important thing humanity has to do in the coming years – and what does that mean for me?
The number one goal? Limiting the use of fossil fuels such as oil, carbon and natural gas and replacing them with renewable and cleaner sources of energy, all while increasing energy efficiency. “We need to cut Co2 emissions almost in half (45%) by the end of the next decade,” says Kimberly Nicholas, associate professor of sustainability science at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS), in Sweden.
The number one goal is to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources.
The road towards that transition includes daily decisions within your reach – like driving and flying less, switching to a ‘green’ energy provider and changing what you eat and buy.
Of course, it’s true that climate change won’t be solved by your buying or driving habits alone – although many experts agree these are important, and can influence others to make changes too (more on that later). Other changes are needed that can only be made on a bigger, system-wide basis – like revamping our subsidy system for the energy and food industries, which continue to reward fossil fuels, or setting new rules and incentives for sectors like farming, deforestation and waste management.
2. Changing how industries are run or subsidised doesn’t sound like anything I can influence… can we?
We can. Individuals need to exercise their rights both as citizens and as consumers. Putting pressure on our governments and on companies to make the system-wide changes that are needed.
Another way, increasingly undertaken by universities, faith groups and recently even at a countrywide level, is to ‘divest’ funds out of polluting activities – such as avoiding stocks in fossil fuels, or banks that invest in high-emission industries. By getting rid of financial instruments related to the fossil fuel industry, organisations can both take climate action and reap economic benefits.
Other than that, what’s the best daily action I can take?
One 2017 study co-authored by Lund University’s Nicholas ranked 148 individual actions on climate change according to their impact. Going car-free was the number-one most effective action an individual could take (except not having kids – but more on that on that later). Cars are more polluting compared to other means of transportation like walking, biking or using public transport.
One ranking found that going car-free is the most effective action one person can take
In industrialized countries such as European nations, getting rid of your car can reduce 2.5 tonnes of Co2 – about one-fourth of the average yearly emissions (9.2 tonnes) contributed by each person in developed countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
I read about it again and again: Solar energy is now the cheapest source of electricity for many households. Why can’t I apply for it in the Philippines?
The cost of utility-scale solar panels has fallen 73% since 2010, for example, making solar energy the cheapest source of electricity for many households in Latin America, Asia and Africa. In the UK, onshore wind and solar are competitive with gas and by 2025 will be the cheapest source of electricity generation.
Some critics argue that these prices disregard the price of integrating renewables on the electricity system – but recent evidence suggests these costs are ‘modest’ and manageable for the grid.
The main question is this: Could I make a difference by changing my diet?
That’s a big one, too. In fact, after fossil fuels, the food industry – and in particular the meat and dairy sector – is one of the most important contributors to climate change. If cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China and the US.
Back to my previous question: How harmful are my/our flying habits?
Planes run on fossil fuels, and we haven’t figured out a scaleable alternative. Although some early efforts to use solar panels to fly around the world have had success, we are still decades away from commercial flights running on solar energy.
A normal transatlantic round-trip flight can release around 1.6 tonnes of CO2 – almost as much as the average yearly emissions of one person in India.
A normal transatlantic round-trip flight can release around 1.6 tonnes of CO2, according to Nicholas’s study – almost as much as the average yearly emissions of one person in India. This also highlights the inequality of climate change: while everyone will be affected, only a minority of humans fly and even fewer people take planes often.
9. But if I eat less meat or take fewer flights, that’s just me – how much of a difference can that really make?
Actually, it’s not just you. Social scientists have found that when one person makes a sustainability-oriented decision, other people do too.
Here are four examples:
Patrons at a US cafe who were told that 30% of Americans had started eating less meat were twice as likely to order a meatless lunch.
An online survey showed that of the respondents who know someone who had given up flying because of climate change, half of them said they flew less as a result.
In California, households were more likely to install solar panels in neighbourhoods that already have them.
Community organisers trying to get people to install solar panels were 62% more successful in their efforts if they had panels in their house too.
Social scientists believe this occurs because we constantly evaluate what our peers are doing and we adjust our beliefs and actions accordingly. When people see their neighbors taking environmental action, like conserving energy, they infer that people like them also value sustainability and feel more compelled to act.
What if I just can’t avoid that flight, or cut down on driving?
If you simply can’t make every change that’s needed, consider offsetting your emissions with a trusted green project – not a ‘get out of jail free card’, but another resource in your toolbox to compensate that unavoidable flight or car trip. The UN Climate Convention keeps a portfolio of dozens of projects around the world you can contribute to. To find out how many emissions you need to ‘buy’ back, you can use its handy carbon footprint calculator.
Whether you are a coffee farmer in Colombia or a homeowner in California, climate change will have an impact on your life. But the opposite is also true: your actions will influence the planet for the coming decades – for better or for worse.