What Can One Person Do about Climate Change?

Seth Wynes/Kimberly Nicholas, Environmental Research Letters, 2017

Seth Wynes/Kimberly Nicholas, Environmental Research Letters, 2017

By Sally Stovall

High Impact Personal Choices to Reduce our Contribution to Climate Change

A recently published scientific peer-reviewed study identified 4 high-impact lifestyle choices that produce the greatest reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The comprehensive study analyzed 39 peer-reviewed articles, carbon calculators and government sources to quantify the most high-impact personal lifestyle choices in developed countries.

“Bringing all of 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.”  -- lead author, Seth Wynes

The study’s findings show that the actions that would have the greatest impact on an individual’s greenhouse gas emissions are:

  1. Eating a plant-based diet (saves 0.8 tons of CO2 equivalent per year)

  2. Flying less: One transatlantic flight (or equivalent) avoided per year (saves 1.8 tons of CO2 equivalent)

  3. Living car free for a year saves 2.4 tons of CO2 equivalent

  4. Having one fewer child would save 58.6 tons of CO2 equivalent based on current emission rates. However reducing overall national emissions could make the climate impact of an additional child significantly less.

Note:  While the above four actions are the only ones that met the criteria of the study for recommended actions throughout the developed world, the authors state that in countries with carbon-based energy grids like Australia and North America, buying green energy (e.g., solar and wind) has the potential to greatly reduce emissions associated with home energy use which is why it is still shown in the figure.

In order to meet the goal of limiting the global temperature increase to well below two degrees Celsius – a goal articulated in the Paris climate agreement -- per capita carbon dioxide emissions should not exceed 2.1 tons annually by the year 2050.

“We recognize that 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 highest impact.”

Source:   http://www.kimnicholas.com/responding-to-climate-change.html - Press Release from Lund University, Sweden in reference to research publication: “The Climate Mitigation Gap: Education and Government Recommendations Miss the Most Effective Individual Actions,” by Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas, in Environmental Research Letters, Vol. 12; July 12, 2017.

See also:  “A Hard Look in the Climate Mirror:  One scientist looks at her own carbon emissions and makes some major lifestyle changes.” By Kimberly A. Nicholas, Scientific American, July 12, 2017.