In early 2017, two researchers from Canada and Sweden published a paper which discussed a few of the things individuals can do to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions.
After exploring the results of previous studies, which had examined the potential greenhouse gas emission reductions resulting from over 100 specific actions, the researchers chose 12 actions to focus on (some because they were commonly recommended actions, others because they had a high potential impact). The team then examined pre-2017 textbooks and governmental climate change mitigation websites in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the USA (before these last were gutted) to see which, if any, of those 12 were included.
Selected actions with a high impact included:
- Following a plant-based diet (an estimated average potential savings of 300-1,600 kg of CO2 per year; based on studies from one or more of the countries listed)
- Giving up an electric car (or, even better, a standard car) to go car-free – instead opting for a bicycle or public transit (a savings of 1,000-5,300 kg/yr)
- Buying green energy (a savings of up to 2,500 kg/yr)
- Avoiding one long airplane trip (a savings of 700-2,800 kg)
One potential action dwarfed the impact of all of these: bringing one fewer child into the world (a savings of 23,700 to 117,700 kg).
Actions with low to moderate impacts included:
- Replacing your incandescent light bulbs with more efficient ones
- Recycling (210 kg/yr)
- Washing clothing in cold water and line-drying it (210 kg/yr)
- Replacing a standard car with a hybrid
Somewhat disappointingly, the textbooks and government sites they examined tended to concentrate on pursuing actions with low to moderate impacts, while rarely mentioning any of the high impact actions. They were also more likely to recommend watered-down versions of the most effective actions (eating less meat rather than eating no meat, driving less rather than going car-free) rather than the most effective actions themselves.
This isn’t to say that taking low impact action doesn’t help reduce your climate footprint – far from it. Many small, easy actions that someone actually does on a regular basis have a far greater impact than a few high impact ones they can’t do (or won’t do long-term because they are too hard).
(Early) Knowledge is Power
So what did this paper teach us? That leaving information about the highest impact actions out of educational materials (textbooks and climate change mitigation advice websites) undermines individuals’ opportunities to make the best lifestyle decisions for themselves, especially when they are in their teens or early adulthood. Learn the facts so you can get the most bang for your buck (or effort).
What Can You Do?
Do everything you can, but be smart about how you spend your effort or money. There are dozens of actions or decisions that can influence your climate footprint. You may already be doing some of these things (or refraining from them), so they don’t offer a potential savings. Not all potential actions are practical, or even an option, for everyone (the chances of me having one less biological child at this point in my life are zero – that ship has sailed!). There are so many things you can do to live better while using less, and leaving a healthier planet for our children and grandchildren. Keep up the good work, set an example, and aim to do a little more, whenever or however you can!
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