Does individual climate action matter?

on August 23, 2019

Whenever the media talks about climate change, the conversation tends to focus on big-picture solutions like the Paris Agreement, cap-and-trade legislation, or California’s vehicle emissions standards. But what about you as an individual? Can your personal actions make any meaningful contribution to the cause? That’s the question taken up by a recent episode of the podcast, The Interchange. The hosts debated whether individuals can have any consequential effect on climate change, or if making environmentally-friendly lifestyle changes is a big waste of time.

In the face of climate change, it’s easy to feel like our individual actions are just a drop in the bucket. But as an organization made possible by the collective power of individual actions, we’re digging into the data to identify the lifestyle changes with the greatest carbon-cutting power.

Choose clean energy

Burning fossil fuels for electricity is the number one contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. So connecting to clean energy is one of the most significant changes you can make to lower your footprint. In fact, the average Arcadia member averts 6.8 metric tons of CO2 annually through wind energy. Considering the average American emits 16.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide in a year, this single change can nearly half your carbon footprint.

And clean energy is more affordable and accessible than ever. “Since 2009, the cost of wind has fallen by 69 percent,” reports AWEA’s Greg Alvarez, “largely due to technological advances and improved domestic manufacturing.”

Our takeaway: Our takeaway: Matching your usage with clean energy can reduce your carbon footprint by over 40 percent. And with digital platforms like Arcadia that make clean energy accessible nation-wide, it is one of the easiest ways to make a difference, too.

Eat less meat

It’s widely known that meat products generate a larger carbon footprint than fruits and vegetables do. Not only do animals raised for food require more land and resources, but cows in particular also generate a lot of methane gas. But how stark is the environmental difference between a vegetarian and non-vegetarian diet?

According to a 2014 study published in the journal Climatic Change, vegetarian diets produce half the carbon footprint of meat-based diets, with the former generating 8.4 pounds of CO2 a day versus the 15.8 pounds generated from a “high meat” diet. Vegan diets are better still; they only produce 6.4 pounds of CO2.

What’s more, the study also showed that merely cutting down on the consumption of meat could significantly reduce a diet’s carbon footprint. “The difference between a heavy meat eater and a light meat eater was actually bigger than the difference between a light meat eater and a vegetarian,” wrote Vox’s Brad Plumer in his coverage of the study. “That underscores the idea that eating less meat can have a significant impact — even if a person doesn't give it up altogether.”

Our takeaway: Going vegetarian would eliminate almost half of your food-based carbon footprint, but the data also shows that even something as simple as “meatless Mondays” can make a real difference.

Ride a bike

Not everyone in the U.S. lives within biking distance to work, and public transportation options outside major coastal cities are lacking. That being said, there are tens of millions of Americans who live in areas where getting to work without the use of a car is technically feasible. The question is whether going to all that extra effort is worth it.

Determining the carbon footprint of a mode of transportation is trickier than you might realize. It’s not just a matter of calculating the amount of gas consumed during a commute and then dividing that by the number of individuals per vehicle. You also need to consider the carbon footprint generated by the production of the vehicles. Then there’s the damage those vehicles inflict on the road. And finally, you also have to take into account the carbon footprint of the food that the cyclist consumes to fuel their commute.

Accounting for all these factors, it’s estimated that driving a car to work generates 10 times the carbon footprint of biking. As for switching to public transportation, research suggests that it can reduce your carbon footprint by as much as 40 percent. But as Slate’s Brian Palmer noted, what time of day you take public transportation matters. “A fully loaded bus is responsible for 2.6-times the carbon emissions total of a bicycle per passenger mile,” he wrote. “But the night and weekend service ruins the bus’s overall environmental credentials. Off-peak buses account for more than 20 times as many greenhouse gases as a bicycle.”

Our takeaway: What’s not to love? Swapping out your car for a bike saves you money on gas, is good for the environment, and provides free exercise. Some car insurance companies will even charge lower rates if you drive fewer miles during the week.

Fly less

Some Europeans have engaged in what’s being dubbed as “flight shame” in an effort to convince people to reduce the amount they fly. But given that a flight often carries hundreds of other passengers, is your individual carbon footprint from flying all that high?

In 2017, The New York Times’s Tatiana Schlossberg addressed this very question. Noting that the aviation industry generates 11 percent of transportation industry greenhouse gases, she calculated that “one round-trip flight between New York and California, and you’ve generated about 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that your car emits over an entire year.”

Schlossberg also highlighted data showing that “25 percent of airplane emissions come from landing and taking off” and noted that “the emissions associated with flying in business class are about three times as great as flying in coach.”

Our takeaway: Flights can’t always be avoided, but something as simple as booking a non-stop flight and switching from business to coach can decrease your carbon footprint significantly.

So do my actions matter?

Based on rough estimates, adopting some of the above changes can reduce one’s annual carbon footprint by more than half. Now, eliminating eight metric tons of carbon dioxide in a year won’t, by itself, do much to battle climate change, but it’s easy to see how these kinds of changes can scale very quickly. As the Interchange’s hosts note at the end of their debate, if only 10 percent of the population were to cut its carbon footprint in half, it would result in an overall 5 percent reduction in carbon emissions. That’s significant.

What’s more, studies show that humans are highly susceptible to social persuasion. Seeing others commute to work by bike makes you more likely to do so. Owning an electric car has become a status symbol. Nobody wants to tell their house guests that they don’t have an available recycling bin.

In other words, individual actions matter. They won’t solve the climate crisis on their own, but any political movement is impossible without those who are willing to lead by example.