Individual action on climate change

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A demonstrator at the People's Climate March (2017)
Reduction of one's carbon footprint for various actions according to a 2017 study [1]

Individual action on climate change can include personal choices in many areas, such as diet, means of long- and short-distance travel, household energy use, consumption of goods and services, and family size. Individuals can also engage in local and political advocacy around issues of climate change.

As of 2020, emissions budgets are uncertain but estimates of the annual average carbon footprint per person required to meet the target of limiting global warming to 2 degrees by 2100 are all below the world average of about 5 tonnes CO

The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report emphasizes that behavior, lifestyle and cultural change have a high mitigation potential in some sectors, particularly when complementing technological and structural change.[6]:20 In general, higher consumption lifestyles have a greater environmental impact, with the richest 10% of people emitting about half the total lifestyle emissions.[7][8]

Several scientific studies have shown that when people, especially those living in developed countries but more generally including all countries, wish to reduce their carbon footprint, there are a few key "high-impact" actions they can take such as[1][9] having one fewer child (58.6 tonnes),[dubious ] living car-free (2.4 tonnes), avoiding one round-trip transatlantic flight (1.6 tonnes), and eating a plant-based diet (0.8 tonnes). These differ significantly from much popular advice for "greening" one's lifestyle, which seem to fall mostly into the "low-impact" category.[1][9] But according to others avoiding meat and dairy foods is the single biggest way an individual can reduce their environmental impact.[10]

Some commentators have argued that individual actions as consumers and "greening personal lives" are insignificant in comparison to collective action, especially actions that hold the fossil fuel corporations accountable for producing 71% of carbon emissions since 1988.[11][12][13] The concept of a personal carbon footprint and calculating one's footprint was popularized by oil producer BP as "effective propaganda" as way to shift their responsibility to "linguistically... remove itself as a contributor to the problem of climate change".[14] Others have shown that sometimes individual measures may effectively undermine political support for structural measures. In one example researchers found that "a green energy default nudge diminishes support for a carbon tax."[15]

Others say that individual action leads to collective action, and emphasize that "research on social behavior suggests lifestyle change can build momentum for systemic change."[16] Furthermore, if individuals shrink their consumption of fossil fuel products, fossil fuel corporations are incentivized to produce less, as the demand for their product would decrease.[17] In other words, each individual's consumption plays a role in the total supply of fossil fuels and emission of greenhouse gases.

Suggested individual target amount[edit]

Global average greenhouse gas per person per year in the late 2010s was about 7 tonnes[18] - including 0.7 tonnes CO2eq food, 1.1 tonnes from the home, and 0.8 tonnes from transport.[19] Some estimates of the annual carbon footprint per person required to meet the Paris Agreement are: 4.5 tonnes by 2030,[2] 3 tonnes[4] and 2.1 tonnes by 2050.[5] As of 2020 this is somewhat more than the average person in India, somewhat less than the average person in France or China, and vastly less than the average person in the USA or Australia. Per capita emissions also vary significantly within countries, with wealthier individuals creating more emissions.[20][21] A 2015 Oxfam report calculated that the wealthiest 10% of the global population were responsible for half of all greenhouse gas emissions.[22]

Family size[edit]

It is also time to re-examine and change our individual behaviors, including limiting our own reproduction (ideally to replacement level at most) and drastically diminishing our per capita consumption of fossil fuels, meat, and other resources.

William J. Ripple, lead author of the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice, BioScience, 2017.[23]

Although having fewer children is arguably the individual action that most effectively reduces a person's climate impact, the issue is rarely raised, and it is arguably controversial due to its private nature. Even so, ethicists,[24][25] some politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,[26] and others[9][27][28][29] have started discussing the climate implications associated with reproduction. Researchers have found that some people (in wealthy countries) are having fewer biological children due to their concerns about the carbon footprint of reproduction,[30] as well as beliefs that they can do more to slow climate change if they do not have children.[31]

It has been claimed that not having an additional child saves "an average for developed countries"[a] of 58.6[b] tonnesCO
(tCO2e) emission reductions per year[1][dubious ] and "a US family who chooses to have one fewer child would provide the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teenagers who choose to adopt comprehensive recycling for the rest of their lives."[1][9] This is based on the premise that a person is responsible for the carbon emissions of their descendants, weighted by relatedness (the person is responsible for half their children's emissions, a quarter of their grandchildren's and so on).[33] This has been criticised: both as a category mistake for assigning descendants emissions to their ancestors[34] and for the very long timescale of reductions.[35] An April 2020 study published in PLOS One found that, among two-adult Swedish households, those with children increased carbon emission in two ways, by adding to the population and by increasing their own carbon emissions by consuming greater quantities of meat and gasoline for transportation than their counterparts without children; an increase of some 25% more than the latter. According to one of the contributors to the study, University of Wyoming economist Linda Thunstrom, "If we're finding these results in Sweden, it's pretty safe to assume that the disparity in carbon footprints between parents and non-parents is even bigger in most other Western countries."[36]

Two interrelated aspects of this action, family planning and women and girl's education, are modeled by Project Drawdown as the #6 and #7 top potential solutions for climate change, based on the ability of family planning and education to reduce the growth of the overall global population.[37][38] In 2019, a warning on climate change signed by 11,000 scientists from 153 nations said that human population growth adds 80 million humans annually, and "the world population must be stabilized—and, ideally, gradually reduced—within a framework that ensures social integrity" to reduce the impact of "population growth on GHG emissions and biodiversity loss." The policies they promote, which "are proven and effective policies that strengthen human rights while lowering fertility rates," would include removing barriers to gender equality, especially in education, and ensuring family planning services are available to all.[39][40]

Travel and commuting[edit]

In the early 21st century perception towards climate change influenced some people in rich countries to change their travel lifestyle.[41]

Air transport[edit]

Avoiding air travel and particularly frequent flyer programs[42] has a high benefit because the convenience makes frequent, long-distance travel easy, and high-altitude emissions are more potent for the climate than the same emissions made at ground level. Aviation is much more difficult to fix technically than surface transport,[43] so will need more individual action in future if the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation cannot be made to work properly.[44]

Flying is responsible for 5 percent of global warming".[45] The number of planes in the sky can be anywhere from 8,000 to 20,000 planes flying in the Troposphere. Depending on if these planes are domestic or flying international, these planes carry anywhere from 90 to 544 passengers per flight. Compared to longer flight routes, shorter flights actually produce larger amounts of greenhouse gas emissions per passenger they carry and mile covered. Airplanes contribute to damaging our environment since airplanes cause greater air pollution as they release carbon dioxide along with nitrogen oxides, which is an atmospheric pollutant. These gases lead to the formation of the greenhouse gas ozone. Ozone has a greater concentration level in higher altitudes than being on the ground. The carbon in the fuel which jets burn gets released into the atmosphere forming carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere also causes ocean acidification, the decrease in the pH of the oceans. Ocean acidification causes a shift in the water's pH balance from seawater to acidic water. While it may seem that one plane ride will not cause much damage, over time the carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides do contribute to climate change.

Surface transport[edit]

Amish kick scooters
  • Walking and running are among the least environmentally harmful modes of transportation.
  • Cycling follows walking and running as having a low impact on the environment.
  • Public transport such as electric buses, metro and electric trains generally emit less greenhouse gases than cars per passenger.
  • Electric kick scooters could also be a low-impact form of transportation, with emerging startups such as Bird and Lime providing shared scooters allowing for last-mile transportation. However, their short lifespan caused by rough usage and vandalism could mean additional resources spent on replacement units. Some models provide higher range (35+ miles, 56+ km) and speed (40+ mph, 64+ km/h), which can be used in areas with poor public transportation infrastructure where cars and motorcycles would have previously been the only option.
  • Cars: Using an electric car instead of a gasoline or diesel car helps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Going car-free may be the most effective action an individual can take, according to the BBC.[46]

Diet and food[edit]

Vegan pho ingredients

Agriculture is very difficult to fix technically so will need more individual action[10] or carbon offsetting than all other sectors except perhaps aviation.[43]

Eating less meat, especially beef and lamb, reduces emissions.[47] A diet which is part of individual action on climate change is also good for health, averaging less than 15g (about half an ounce) of red meat and 250g dairy (about one glass of milk) per day.[48] The World Health Organization recommends trans-fats make up less than 1% of total energy intake: ruminant trans-fats are found in beef, lamb, milk and cheese.[49] In 2019, the IPCC released a summary of the 2019 special report which asserted that a shift towards plant-based diets would help to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Ecologist Hans-Otto Pörtner, who contributed to the report, said "We don't want to tell people what to eat, but it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect."[50]

Meats such as beef have a higher climate impact since cows release methane, a greenhouse gas that is more harmful than carbon dioxide. Overbreeding this animal for beef just increases the amount of methane in an environment that is already high.[51]

Eating meat not only affects the climate but also affects our bodies. Studies show that eating meats such as red meats have many links to current diseases and illnesses. A research team led by Dr. Frank Hu of the Harvard School of Public Health, studied over 37,000 men from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (beginning in 1986) and over 83,000 women from the Nurses' Health Study (beginning in 1980).[52] All the participants were free of cardiovascular disease and cancer at the start of the study. Dr. Hu states that there is evidence that shows a link between a high intake of red and processed meats and a higher risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and premature death. The results state that almost 24,000 participants died during the study, including about 5,900 from cardiovascular disease and about 9,500 from cancer.

Eating a plant-rich diet is listed as the #4 solution for climate change as modeled by Project Drawdown, based on avoided emissions from the production of animals and avoided emissions from additional deforestation for grazing land.[53]

A 2018 study indicated that one fifth of Americans are responsible for about half of the country's diet-related carbon emissions, due mostly to eating high levels of meat, especially beef.[54][55]

Home energy, landscaping and consumption[edit]

Reducing home energy use through measures such as insulation, better energy efficiency of appliances, cool roofs, heat reflective paints,[56] lowering water heater temperature, and improving heating and cooling efficiency can significantly reduce an individual's carbon footprint.[57]

In addition, the choice of energy used to heat, cool, and power homes makes a difference in the carbon footprint of individual homes.[58] Many energy suppliers in various countries worldwide have options to purchase part or pure "green energy" (usually electricity but occasionally also gas).[59] These methods of energy production emit almost no greenhouse gases once they are up and running.

Seattle watershed education center (10508655873).jpg
Solar thermal roof
Solar panels on a roof.jpg
"Sungril" solar cooker photo4.jpg

Installing rooftop solar, both on a household and community scale, also drastically reduces household emissions, and at scale could be a major contributor to greenhouse gas abatement.[60]

Low energy products and consumption[edit]

Labels, such as Energy Star in the US, can be seen on many household appliances, home electronics, office equipment, heating and cooling equipment, windows, residential light fixtures, and other products. Energy star is a program in the U.S. that promotes energy efficiency. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. The Department of Energy runs the program, and they produce energy-efficient products, which help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to data found by[61] Energy star appliance lasts for 10 to 20 years and uses anywhere from 10 to 50 percent less energy each year than a non-energy efficient equivalent.

Carbon emission labels describe the carbon dioxide emissions created as a by-product of manufacturing, transporting, or disposing of a consumer product.

Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) "present transparent, verified and comparable information about the life-cycle environmental impact of products."[62]

These labels may help consumers choose lower energy products.

Landscape and gardens[edit]

People's Climate March 2017 in Washington DC 196.jpg

Protecting forests and planting new trees contributes to the absorption of carbon dioxide from the air. There are many opportunities to plant trees in the yard, along roads, in parks, and in public gardens. In addition, some charities plant fast-growing trees—for as little as $US0.10 per tree—to help people in tropical developing countries restore the productivity of their lands.[63]

Turfgrass lawns can contribute to climate change through the impacts of fertilizers, herbicides, irrigation, and gas-powered lawnmowers and other tools; depending on how lawns are managed, the impact of emissions from maintenance and chemicals may outweigh any carbon sequestration from the lawn.[64][65] Reducing irrigation, reducing chemical use, planting native plants or bushes, and using hand tools can all reduce the climate impact of lawns.[66]

In addition to planting Victory Gardens which provide locally grown food,[67] gardeners may wish to experiment with companion planting of diverse species of plants and trees, in order to develop novel carbon sequestration and NOx reduction techniques suitable for their local area.[68][69][70]

Laundry and choice of clothing[edit]

Using a shorter, cold water wash cycle can conserve energy by as much as 66%, while simultaneously reducing color loss and shedding of microfibers into the environment.[71] Hanging laundry to dry also saves energy and reduces carbon footprint.[72][73][74][75]

Purchasing well-made, durable clothing, and avoiding "fast fashion" is critical for reducing climate impact.[76][77][78]

Producing raw materials such as clothing has a big impact on our environment. Factors such as spinning material into fibers, dyeing, and weaving require massive amounts of water and chemicals. Some materials such as cotton require pesticides like Aldicarb for growing as cotton. "The World Resources Institute estimates that the so-called "fast fashion" industry annually releases about 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming" [79]  Not only is making clothes hurtful to the environment but getting rid of clothes also hurts the environment. According to PlanetAid.Org "Clothing is the second-largest pollution source in the world". Some clothing is donated and recycled, meanwhile, the rest of the waste heads to landfills where they release "greenhouse gases and leach toxins and dyes into the surrounding soil and water".[79]

Choice of stove[edit]

The choice of stove may vary depending on location.

Electric stoves are preferable to natural gas in locations where the electric grid has a high proportion of renewable energy, such as California.[80]

Rocket stoves and other biomass stoves are important in developing countries to conserve wood.[81] The UN seeks to phase out wood-burning cookstoves.[82]

Solar cookers are an environmentally sound choice.[83] A solar cooker is a device which uses the energy of direct sunlight to heat and cook food materials. They need no fuel to operate [84] Solar cookers are bowls that reflect sunlight toward a pan and convert sunlight to heat energy inside the cooker to operate and require no fuel or electricity.

Solar cooking has been practical for households in the highlands of China and Tibet, where "solar irradiation levels are high, cooking traditions correspond to the use of a solar cooker" and biomass is not readily available.[85][86] Institutional level solar cooking has enabled temples in India to earn money through carbon credits.[87][88]

In Vermont, an EPA compliant woodstove or pellet stove, which uses sustainably harvested local wood, may be optimal despite its black carbon and carbon dioxide emissions, as it reduces the state's fossil fuel use.[89][90]

Digital hygiene[edit]

Curbing unnecessary use of digital data, such as binge-watching streaming video,[91] the use of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin,[92] and sending "e-mails with long and tiresome attachments"[93] has a small but measurable impact on individual carbon emissions.

Less consumption of goods and services[edit]

The production of many goods and services results in the emission of greenhouse gases as well as pollution. One way for individuals to decrease their environmental footprint is by consuming less goods and services. Decreasing the consumption of goods and services results in a lower demand, and lower supply (production) follows.[17] Individuals can prioritize shrinking the consumption of those goods and services whose production results in relatively high pollution levels. Individuals can also prioritize discontinuing the use of those goods and services that offer little to no real utility, since they neither satisfy consumer wants/needs nor the environment's.

National Geographic has concluded that city dwellers can help with climate change if they (or we) simply "buy less stuff."[94]

Lloyd Alter suggests that one way to get a practical sense of embodied carbon is to ask, "How much does your household weigh?"[95]

For-profit companies usually promote and market their products as useful or needed to potential consumers, even when they in reality are harmful or wasteful to them and/or the environment. Individuals should be diligent in self-assessing and/or researching whether or not each product they purchase and consume is really of value to decrease consumption.

Hot water consumption[edit]

Domestic heated water using non-renewable resources such as gas contributes to significant global Carbon Dioxide emissions and reduces carbon pool reserves.[96] Turning off the water heater and using unheated water for laundry, bathing (weather permitting), dishes, and cleaning eliminates those emissions. Besides being good for decreasing emissions, colder water is healthier than heated water, since heated water releases more lead from pipes than cold water.[97] Cold showers are also seen to have benefits over warm/hot showers.[98][99]


Using reusable containers such as lunchboxes, grocery bags, produce bags, tupperware, and buying fresh produce and unpackaged foods reduces carbon emissions and pollution from the production of single use containers and packaging.[100][101] Eliminating paper towel usage by using reusable washable towels also saves energy.


The U.S. is estimated to use 30.3 billion rolls of toilet paper every year, the production of which consumes 387 billion gallons of water, 207,000 tons of chlorine, 12.3 million trees, and 14.1 Terawatts of electricity annually.[102] The amount of water used by a typical bidet is about 1/8th of a gallon.[103]


Traditional way of eating in Uzbekistan uses less furniture

Furniture accounts for a significant portion of all harvested trees. In many developing countries, tables are not used for serving food, but instead food is served on a sheet on the floor around which people gather to eat.[104] This eating arrangement relies on a much smaller volume of manufactured furniture material than serving food on a raised table and chairs.

Individual purchase of carbon offsets[edit]

The principle of carbon offset is this: one decides that they do not want to be responsible for accelerating climate change, and they have already made efforts to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, so they decide to pay someone else to further reduce their net emissions by planting trees or by taking up low-carbon technologies. Every unit of carbon that is absorbed by trees—or not emitted due to one's funding of renewable energy deployment—offsets the emissions from their fossil fuel use. In many cases, funding of renewable energy, energy efficiency, or tree planting — particularly in developing nations—can be a relatively cheap way of making an individual "carbon neutral".[citation needed]

Political advocacy[edit]

Will Grant of the Pachamama Alliance describes "Four Levels of Action" for change:

  1. Individual
  2. Friends and family
  3. Community and institutions
  4. Economy and policy

Grant suggests that individuals can have the largest personal impact on climate by focusing on levels 2 and 3.[105][106]

Others posit that individual citizen participation in groups advocating for collective action in the form of political solutions, such as carbon pricing, meat pricing,[107] ending subsidies for fossil fuels[108] and animal husbandry,[109] and ending laws mandating car use,[110] is the most impactful way that an individual can take action to prevent climate change.[111]

One Fast Company article notes that "Focusing on how individuals can stop climate change is very convenient for corporations," and calls for holding industries and governments accountable on climate.[112]

It has been argued that climate change is a collective action problem, specifically a tragedy of the commons, which is a political[113] and not individual category of problem.[114]

Reform of subsidies and taxes discouraging individual action[edit]

Fossil fuel and other subsidies, and taxes which discourage individual action include:

  • India is considering abolishing its subsidy of kerosene, which discourages individuals switching to other fuels[115]
  • The UK CCC has advised cutting farm subsidies for livestock, which discourage individuals shifting to a plant based diet:[116]
  • The UK CCC has advised rebalancing the taxes and regulatory costs, which are currently higher for electricity than gas and thus discourage individuals from switching from gas boilers to heat pumps[116]
  • Turkey's free coal for poor families[117] discourages them switching to natural gas in cities.
  • Redirecting the money which would have been spent as subsidies, together with any carbon tax, to form a carbon dividend in equal shares for everyone or for poor people has been suggested by the International Monetary Fund and others to encourage individuals to take action as part of a just transition away from a high carbon lifestyle.[118]

However, sudden removal of a subsidy by governments not trusted to redirect it,[119] or without providing good alternatives for individuals, can lead to civil unrest. An example of this took place in 2019, when Ecuador removed its gasoline and diesel subsidies without providing enough electric buses to maintain service. The result was overnight fuel price hikes of 25-75 percent. The corresponding fare hikes for Ecuador's existing gas and diesel powered bus fleet were met with violent protests.[120]

Lack of information, or misleading information on individual actions[edit]

As recently as 2008, "about 40% of adults worldwide ... [had] never heard of climate change, or nearly 2 billion people."[121]

Focus on climate change effects, without information on taking action[edit]

Climate change education, which became mandatory in Italy in 2019,[122] is completely absent in some countries, or fails to provide information on action that individuals can take.

In some countries media coverage of global warming reports the effects of climate change, such as extreme weather, but makes no mention of either individual or government actions which can be taken.[123]

Presenting plant based diets as strict vegetarianism[edit]

The suggestion that eating a plant based diet requires a person to become strictly vegetarian is also misinformation.[124] A plant-based diet focuses on consuming foods primarily from plants. Some examples of food consumed in a plant-based diet are fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes, and beans. People may consider it as being vegan or vegetarian but it is very different. Vegan diets eliminate all animal products, meanwhile, plant-based diets do not completely eliminate animal products, but they encourage the focus on eating mostly plants. One downside of having a plant-based diet is that plant-based diets carry some risk of inadequate protein and mineral intake. But, according to the Physicians Committee,[125] you can choose the right plant-based food to overcome the risk "Plant-based foods are full of fiber, rich in vitamins and minerals, free of cholesterol, and low in calories and saturated fat".[125]

Impact of individual actions[edit]

People's Climate March 2017 in Washington DC 199.jpg

Media focus on low impact rather than high impact behaviors is concerning for scientists. The most impactful actions for individuals may differ significantly from the popular advice for "greening" one's lifestyle. For instance, popular suggestions for individual actions include:

  • Replacing a typical car with a hybrid (0.52 tonnes);
  • washing clothes in cold water (0.25 tonnes);
  • recycling (0.21 tonnes);
  • upgrading light bulbs (0.10 tonnes); etc. -- all lower impact behaviors.
  • switching bank accounts to a greener bank.

Researchers have stated that "Our recommended high-impact actions:

  • one fewer child,
  • living car-free
  • avoiding one trans-Atlantic flight
  • eating a plant-based diet

are more effective than many more commonly discussed options. For example, eating a plant-based diet saves eight times more emissions than upgrading light bulbs."[1][9] Public discourse on reducing one's carbon footprint overwhelmingly focuses on low-impact behaviors, and as of 2017, the mention of high-impact individual behaviors to impact climate was almost non-existent in mainstream media, government publications, K-12 school textbooks, etc.[1][9]

However, advocate Bill McKibben is joined by many others in his opinion that "no effort is too small" with regards to climate change.[126][127][128][129][130]

Climate conversations[edit]

"Discussing global warming leads to greater acceptance of climate science," according to a 2019 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.[131] The Yale Climate Communication Program recommends initiating "climate conversations" with more moderate individuals.[132][133] Patient listening is key, to determine the personal impacts of climate events on an individual, and to elicit information about the other person's core values.[134] Once personal climate impacts and core values are understood, it may become possible to open a discussion of potential climate solutions which are consistent with those core values.[132][133]

See also[edit]


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  1. ^ Japan, Russia and USA only[32]
  2. ^ Wynes and Nicholls have done a calculation (not specified in either paper but not complicated); inputs to their calculation include the results calculated by Murtaugh and Schlax in their scenario which assumes 1) per capita emissions from each country remain at 2005 levels 2) UN "medium variant" 2007 fertility estimate. By projecting an unspecified number of years into the future Murtaugh and Schlax have estimated the emissions of a person born in 2005 and half their children, quarter grandchildren etc. as USA 9441 tonnes, Russia 2498, Japan 2026.[33]

External links[edit]