How to Help Stop Climate ChangeThe guide to effectively minimizing your carbon footprint and impacting broader systemic change
You’re here because you:
- Know climate change is a serious threat to humanity.
- Understand we need to eliminate society’s greenhouse gas emissions ASAP.
- Know that your choices as an individual actually do make a difference.
- Want to contribute – to do your part in transforming society towards a better future.
Helping to stop and reverse global warming is straightforward. We have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible. To do your part, follow Gandhi’s simple, timeless advice: be the change you wish to see in the world. This can be boiled down to a two-pronged approach:
- Minimize your carbon footprint (aka personal footprint), which is defined as the amount of greenhouse gas emissions directly or indirectly attributable to you.
- Initiate and support sustainable efforts that minimize greenhouse gas emissions outside of your personal footprint. This is done in whatever ways make the most sense to you. It could include talking about the issue with others, promoting sustainable projects within your community or company, getting involved in sustainable organizations, voting, speaking with representatives, attending events, picking a sustainability-oriented career, etc. Help reduce emissions by being a part of something bigger than you. Team up with others, throw some ideas around, and ask a lot of questions to see what is possible!
I was initially focused almost entirely on my individual footprint and consumer choices. It is worth doing for several reasons. But the more I learn, the clearer it becomes that collective action is far more powerful.
So try to do both.
A lot of this article will help you with minimizing your carbon footprint. But please don’t ignore systemic action. That’s the big one. As Bill McKibben said:
“The most important things an individual can do is be less of an individual. Join together with other people in movements large enough to affect changes in policy and economics that might actually move the system enough to matter.”
My philosophy on reducing carbon footprints
1. Focus on one thing at a time.
Baby steps. There are thousands of different actions you could take to reduce emissions, but keep it manageable. Rather than getting overwhelmed by all the options, set yourself up for success by focusing on one at a time.
2. Prioritize by impact and ease.
Ask yourself this question before deciding what to focus on first: What can I do that will significantly reduce my emissions and is easy for me? Actions that combine impact and ease should come first because it maximizes carbon reductions and the chance you’ll succeed. Prioritization will vary from person to person depending on your current footprint and personal preferences. For example, if a hamburger has this uncontrollable effect on you…
…then it might be best to start on the transportation or home energy aspect of your carbon footprint rather than your diet because you’ll have a higher chance of succeeding (more on this hamburger later).
Once you’ve comfortably incorporated the first change into your lifestyle, move on to the next best action for you. Don’t burn yourself out. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
3. Find the balance that works for you
Nearly everything we do contributes to climate change. Knowing this can be stressful, but I’ve come to terms with it. It’s a result of the malfunctioning system that we were born into – out of our control to some degree. But although it’s not our fault we’re in this situation, it certainly will be our fault if we let it persist.
At times there is a trade-off between convenience and emissions. Each of us will land at different places on this spectrum for different activities and that’s perfectly fine. I have found many things people assume to be less convenient to actually be quite enjoyable such as walking, biking, and eating way less meat because they make me feel good, save me money, and I can tell I’m healthier because of them.
Personally, I do my best to minimize emissions in general, but don’t let that intent stop me from doing what’s most important to me. I do what I can, continue to improve over time, and let go of the rest. Figure out what works for you!
By following these guidelines you will prevent tens or hundreds of tonnes of GHGs from entering the atmosphere over time as the actions really do add up throughout our lives. Keep in mind the average carbon footprint per person globally is ~4 tonnes of GHGs per year and the US average is ~19 tonnes. We need to be getting close to zero by 2050, and the quicker we get to zero, the safer and happier we will all be!
Where to start
After scouring the internet and cross-referencing different sources I’ve put together what I believe to be the top 5 most effective things you can do to fight climate change and reduce your carbon footprint.
(More recently I asked 16 experts what the most effective actions are. If you’re enjoying this, definitely check that one out too – individual action alone won’t do the trick!)
Before diving into the specific actions, however, I do encourage you to calculate your footprint with a carbon calculator. It’s the only way to really understand the breakdown of your unique footprint because everyone is different (location and income play a big role). Calculating your personal footprint lets you know where your biggest areas for improvement are. This enables you to spend your time effectively. Filling out the calculator takes 10 – 15 minutes. However, just putting in your zip code, income, and the number of people in your home will get you pretty far. Your call though! No worries if you’d rather save it for a later date – I’ve got you covered for now!
Here is the breakdown of the 19 tonnes that the average US citizen emits annually. As I mentioned in “Climate Change: Can One Person Really Make a Difference?“ 19 tonnes is enough emissions to fill the Statue of Liberty 3 times and is equivalent to the weight of 12 cars.
(If you live outside of the US, you can still use this to get an idea of the biggest contributors to your footprint. Click here to find annual GHGs for any country)
As you can see the biggest contributors are transportation and home energy. But again, each person’s footprint will be different. For example, the above chart shows 0.5 tonnes for air travel, but just one round trip from New York to L.A. or New York to Europe is equivalent to ~2 tonnes of GHGs. If you fly, it could very well be the biggest part of your footprint and your footprint could be much higher than the average 19 tonnes shown above.
Similarly, as car fuel is usually the largest part of one’s footprint, how many miles you drive can change your footprint drastically. 1 mile driven = 1 pound of CO2 for a car that gets 20 mpg. Here are some useful visualizations.
The following 5 actions are the most reasonable and impactful steps you can take to start minimizing your footprint and maximizing your impact beyond yourself:
1. Accelerate systemic change.
- Talk about climate change and sustainability with friends and family often. This is usually easy and powerful.
- Hearing something from someone you trust goes way farther than hearing it from any other source. In other words, you reach the people you know more effectively than the rest of the world can. Personally, I try to go for the balance of explaining the reality of our situation, being optimistic, patient, non-judgmental, non-argumentative, and explain some steps we can each take to solve the crisis. Don’t expect to move mountains in one conversation, and even if someone doesn’t believe in climate change, you can still encourage sustainable actions for economic and health reasons…and consider sending them over to Skeptical Science if they’re questioning the facts – it’s a wonderful, reputable resource.
- Vote and speak with your reps.
- Do what you can to make your company climate positive. It’s simply smart business now to be a sustainable organization for the bottom line and to keep all stakeholders happy (increasingly demanded by investors, customers, and employees).
- No matter where you are in the world, one of the most effective initiatives to get behind is a policy on carbon pricing. I personally recommend supporting Citizens’ Climate Lobby regardless of where you live. They are proposing a policy called “Carbon Fee and Dividend” which is the most simple and effective idea I’ve heard of so far. It uses market forces to lower greenhouse gases and distributes 100% of the fees on greenhouse gases to citizens so that the average person actually earns money when it’s all said and done. You can learn more here.
- Collaborate. Work with others. Join a climate organization to help make systemic change.
2. Minimize driving and flying
- Choose the low carbon option when possible as you go from A to B. Friendly reminder – walking, running, and biking are best for your health, wallet, and the biosphere 😉. Plus, it’ll help you live longer too. Public transportation and carpooling are next best, followed by efficient vehicles. Big time bonus points if you can go carless though.
- If you’re determining your carbon footprint without a calculator: Air travel may look small in the above graphic, but as I said, that’s just the average. If you fly it is likely a significant chunk of your footprint like it was for me last year while I was traveling (>9 tonnes of GHGs)…I know, I know – I’m still working on this stuff too! I offset those emissions, but after calculating the GHGs from that trip, I have a new outlook on flying because of how large it made my footprint. I’m going to see how long I can go without it.
3. Evaluate home energy options
- Electricity: It’s cheaper than ever to go solar and you’ll have more money in the long run (10’s of thousands of dollars), but upfront costs, although dropping quickly, aren’t affordable for everyone yet if you intend to buy rather than lease. Typically it’s a 5 to 10 year payback period. You can buy renewable energy credits instead (RECs), which are 0 to 15% on top of your typical bill, but your electricity is clean (this is what I currently do). If you do this, it’s best to get clean energy that is “additional”, meaning the electricity comes online because of your payment.
- Either way, this is a one-time investment of time on your part to figure it out. It’s not that hard and once you do it, it’s automatic – you’ve eliminated your electrical emissions and don’t have to think about it again.
- Heating and cooling: Mini-split heat pumps > natural gas > oil. Believe it or not, adjusting your temperature up or down just a tiny bit actually adds up big time. Throw on an extra layer when it’s cold. Make sure you’re not heating/cooling your house unnecessarily when you’re not home or when you’re sleeping. Saves you some of your hard-earned money too!
- Get a home energy audit. Sometimes they give you a lot of free, energy-efficient stuff so you save both energy and money.
4. Waste less food and eat less meat
- 33% of food is wasted. By not wasting what you buy, your emissions immediately go down…and your bank account goes up!
- Eat less meat, especially beef.
- Just by replacing all beef with chicken you would reduce your food footprint by ~25%.
- By going vegetarian you would eliminate ~50% of your food footprint. Vegan is 66%.
A big question I had and have heard from others is, “How will I get enough protein?”. Great question. We want to be healthy after all! It turns out that we really don’t need meat to satisfy our daily protein needs. This helpful chart shows protein, GHGs, and the price of various foods, as well as daily protein requirements. Some great alternative sources of protein are lentils, beans, quinoa, nuts, and eggs.
At the end of the day, this isn’t an all or nothing choice. I encourage you to do what you can and start moving in the right direction. I am vegetarian 95% of the time now (aka flexitarian as I’ve been told). When I shop, I don’t buy meat, but if I’m at someone’s house and they’ve prepared a meal with meat, I will eat it because I am grateful for their kindness and know they are well intended. Largely cutting out meat has been way easier than I thought and I feel fantastic.
As is often the case, being more sustainable improves your health and your wallet.
5. Carbon offsets
- Having reduced your GHGs as best you can, offset the rest!
- How it works: you pay $10-$20 per tonne of CO2e that you emit ($11 for the above organization). This money funds projects that prevent emissions from entering the atmosphere that otherwise would have had you not given money to support the project.
- My favorite projects are those that simultaneously help improve people’s lives in low-income countries. Some common projects include bringing clean electricity to those without it, efficient cookstoves, water purification, and protecting rainforests.
- Also, if it makes a difference, the offsets are usually tax deductible.
- Important to remember that this is not a pass to pollute guilt free – always do what you can to minimize your footprint first. If you don’t, it’s not necessarily helping to solve the problem as much as you might think.
- Fight climate change for a living! There are plenty of opportunities out there today and many more will come. You can work for a company that helps reduce emissions or simply have a sustainably oriented position at any company. Sustainability is becoming a priority for corporations around the world so if you are savvy in this area there are plenty of opportunities out there. Companies that make our planet more sustainable are growing because it’s economically beneficial and because, well, you know…decarbonizing the world is something we have to do. Cultivating skills in these areas will serve you well because they are becoming increasingly valuable.
The hand we have been dealt is not ideal. We are already feeling the early impacts of the climate crisis — and it will get worse. But there is still a vast difference between the best and worst-case scenarios.
For our future to be as bright as possible we are going to have to change our ways ASAP — in all our spheres of influence. Change isn’t easy, but luckily these changes aren’t just good for us via the habitability of our planet — they will also make us healthier, wealthier, and happier people.
The first steps to re-building this better world start with each one of us. You and me. By being mindful of, and consistently improving in, the five categories mentioned above you will have an enormous impact beyond what can be measured. As a result, sustainability will naturally spread through our social networks. Eventually, it will be ingrained in our society as the social norm.
This is how we will reverse global warming. It starts with us!
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