It’s easy to be overwhelmed when faced with the issue of climate change and to assume that our individual efforts are nothing but a drop in the ocean, especially when many governments and big businesses continue as though the developing climate crisis doesn’t threaten all life on earth. But is it right that change can only come from above? How can we adjust our individual lifestyles to lessen our impact on the environment? How effective can we be as guardians of our planet?
A 2017 report found that just 100 companies have been responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. For many people, this finding was discouraging or provided a reason not to worry about their own carbon footprint which seemed negligible compared with the damage being done by these massive corporations. However, climate expert Richard Heede points out that the companies in the top 100 are oil and gas companies. While they provide the fossil fuels, these are demanded and burned by consumers, so as individuals we are not separate from the corporations being blamed. One study found that 72% of greenhouse gas emissions are related to day-to-day household consumption and that the key aspects include: the food we eat; how we travel; and how we use energy and chemicals in our homes. As consumers the decisions we make feed back into the strategies of companies supplying our needs.
Making sustainable decisions about our diets can be hugely effective in limiting our impact on the environment. A recent study found that adopting a plant-based diet is the single biggest way to reduce our individual impact on the planet. This is because agriculture is responsible for 18% of global emissions of which almost 80% is related to rearing livestock. If everyone cut meat and dairy from their diets 75% of global farmland – an area the size of the US, China, Australia and the EU combined – could be freed up for carbon drawdown and allowing nature to regenerate. The Lancet Report found that a low-carbon diet can be beneficial not only to the planet but also to our health.
Food waste is not only an ethical issue but also an environmental one. Every year, 1.3 billion tons, or one third of food grown for human consumption, is wasted. This wasted food would be enough to feed 3 billion people, which is significant in a world where 800 million people are severely malnourished. Furthermore, food waste accounts for 4.4 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. To put this in context, if food waste were a country, it would be the 3rd largest greenhouse gas emitter behind the US and China. In developing countries, 40% of the food is wasted at the post-harvest and processing stages but in developed countries, 40% of the waste occurs either at retail stages or in households. There are steps we can take to reduce our individual food waste for example eating leftovers rather than throwing them away; freezing food to preserve it for longer; making a weekly menu and shopping accordingly to avoid buying more than we can use, and making sure to store our food correctly.
Buying local, seasonal produce or growing your own can significantly cut down on the greenhouse gas emissions from transporting it. Estimates suggest that meals in the US have travelled on average, a shocking 1500 miles from farm to plate, which means that for every 1kcal of food eaten, 10kcal of fossil fuels have been burned to get it to the table. Growing your own food gives you the power to avoid pesticides and fertilisers which are widely used in commercial food production but are known to have adverse effects on ecosystems as well as human health. Furthermore, producing our own food dramatically reduces the need for plastic packaging – 8 million tons of which end up in the oceans every year. The UN has recognised the urgency needed to tackle plastic pollution calling it a ‘planetary crisis’. Household and community food production can have the added benefit of connecting people to the land and their environment because the more people appreciate the value of nature the more they will be inspired to protect it from the threats of climate change and pollution.
Electricity use in homes accounts for 10.9% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This electricity is used for heating water and rooms as well as cooking and appliances. Switching to a renewable energy provider is an effective way to help to reduce your household’s contribution to climate change. Although the majority of India’s energy still comes from coal, solar energy has seen unexpected success in recent years with the country described as being ‘on the cusp of a solar powered revolution’, emphasised by its recent achievement of producing the lowest cost solar energy in the world. The Soutra (sun) project aims to contribute 350 megawatts to the state’s grid by installing rooftop solar panels on 75,000 homes, which will be enough to power 612,500 average Indian homes and displace over 549,230 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year, based on figures from First Solar’s projects. Homeowners who have installed rooftop solar panels have seen dramatic cuts in their energy bills as well as their carbon footprint.
The transport sector accounts for around a quarter of CO2 emissions globally, so collectively, if we changed the way we travelled we could make significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. A study of 2000 adults across 7 European cities found that ‘those who switch just one trip per day from car driving to cycling, reduce their carbon footprint by about 0.5 tonnes over a year’- this is not inconsiderable given that the average carbon footprint in the EU is 6.7 tonnes annually. This compares with a global average of around 4 tonnes and an average in the US of 16 tonnes. In some areas, people have no real alternative to using the car so campaigning for safer cycle paths, walking routes, and better public transport links can help individuals reduce their carbon footprint from travel. Studies show that an increase in infrastructure, such as cycle routes, leads to an increase in active, low-carbon transport.
The aviation industry is responsible for 2.5% of global CO2 emissions annually. However, this is being emitted by very few people as studies suggest that 89% of people do not fly. Therefore for those who fly aviation emissions will make up a considerable proportion of their carbon footprint. Research shows that the 1% of ‘super-emitters’ who fly the most are responsible for 50% of global aviation emissions. Shockingly, just ‘one of these wealthy jetsetters contributes 225,000 times as much to global warming as one of the world’s poor inhabitants, not including other emissions associated with their lifestyle.’ This is just one of many examples demonstrating that the richest in the world are the main drivers of climate change even though the world’s poor are disproportionately suffering from its impacts.
We are already seeing the effects of climate change with sea levels rising; weather events becoming more extreme; increased water shortages; polluted soil, water and air; and plants and animal species becoming extinct. None of us can save the world single-handedly and systemic change will be necessary to make sustainable living available to everybody. However, everyday actions and spreading the word, which may feel like a drop in the ocean, can add up to significant change. After all, the ocean is made up of drops.
Credits – Francesca Meynell
One thought on “Individuals vs Climate Change: Can we make a difference?”
Individuals will have different priority areas with respect to climate change (e.g., homes, transport, aviation).