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Here's What You Can Do About Climate Change

While governments and industry can effect greater change, individual actions also have the power to help mitigate some of the catastrophic potential effects of climate change -- like giving up your car. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
While governments and industry can effect greater change, individual actions also have the power to help mitigate some of the catastrophic potential effects of climate change -- like giving up your car. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Concern about climate change has risen sharply among Massachusetts voters in recent years.

A June WBUR poll found that 88 percent believe the world is getting warmer, up from 78 percent in 2015. And the belief that human activities are primarily responsible for the warming is up 11 points over that same time period.

So we know there's rising concern, but we also know climate change is the kind of problem that isn't great at motivating people to act. Researchers say climate change's massive potential consequences make us susceptible to a condition known as "psychic numbing," or apathy about problems that are large in scale.

While governments and industry can effect greater change, individual actions also have the power to mitigate some potential effects of climate change.

So at a time of heightened concern, perhaps you're thinking more about what you can do to reduce your personal greenhouse gas emissions. Here are some ideas:

Think More About What You Eat 

Food production is responsible for a large portion of the world's greenhouse gas emissions — with meat and dairy being the worst offenders.

Livestock accounts for 14.5 percent of worldwide emissions, according to the United Nations. Beef production accounts for 41 percent of that, while dairy production accounts for 20 percent.

According to the National Resources Defense Council, beef accounts for more climate-warming pollution than any other food in the American diet:

And while eating locally produced food has its benefits — like avoiding the emissions associated with getting your veggies from a far-away country to your local Market Basket -- giving up red meat and dairy products one day a week has been found to achieve more yearly emissions savings than buying only locally sourced food.

Food waste also contributes to the problem, through both greenhouse gases emitted during production and from decomposing foods. Estimates suggest Americans waste 40 percent of the available food supply.

The bottom line: If you're not ready to give up all meat and dairy, consider going meatless one to two days a week to start. Avoid red meat if possible, and plan out your meals to reduce waste.

Think More About How You Get Around

Flying is bad for the environment, but under some circumstances driving can be worse.

"For a long business trip, driving solo is worse [for the environment] than flying, while for a long family vacation, driving is better than flying,” Michael Sivak, of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, told Yale Climate Connections.

Consider booking the family vacation closer to home and driving, or taking the bus or the train.

And if you need to book a flight, fly coach. According to the World Bank, flying business class leaves you responsible for about three times more emissions than if you fly coach — and nine times more emissions if you fly first class.

And then there's everyday travel. In Massachusetts, the transportation sector is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector — and the numbers aren't budging.

If you're a regular driver, consider how your driving habits and car maintenance can have an effect on the environment. Switching to a hybrid or electric car would, of course, reduce your personal emissions.

When it comes to everyday travel, the New York Times puts it this way:

If you drive to work alone every day, your commuting alone eats up more than your entire carbon budget for the year. Taking the bus — or biking! — would sharply reduce your output.

Consume Less 

Chances are you've heard this mantra before: reduce, reuse, recycle.

Everything you purchase — not just your food or plane tickets — has an impact on the environment. A 2015 study from the Journal of Industrial Ecology found that household consumption accounts for 60 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and 50 to 80 percent of total land, material and water use.

"If we change our consumption habits, this would have a drastic effect on our environmental footprint," the study's lead author, Diana Ivanova, said in a press release.

Of course, household consumption varies widely. The study found that the average carbon footprint per household around the world was about 3.4 metric tons CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) a year, while in the U.S., it was more than five times that.

On the flip side, if you're getting rid of something you no longer need, try to find a new owner or recycle it before tossing it in the trash. (If you want some inspiration on your journey toward cutting consumption and waste, check out Lauren Singer's blog Trash is for Tossers. She's been living a zero waste lifestyle for years.)

Three wind turbines from the Deepwater Wind project off Block Island, Rhode Island, as seen in August 2016. Massachusetts is slated to start spinning at its own offshore wind farm off the coast of Martha's Vineyard in a couple years. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
Three wind turbines from the Deepwater Wind project off Block Island, Rhode Island, as seen in August 2016. Massachusetts is slated to start spinning at its own offshore wind farm off the coast of Martha's Vineyard in a couple years. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

Buy More Renewable Energy 

When we recently polled Massachusetts voters about climate change, 74 percent told us they'd be willing to pay $10 more a month on their energy bill if it significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions. But what some might not know is there's often actually a way to do that — if you can afford it.

Some utilities allow customers to purchase more renewable energy — like wind and solar — by opting in to a higher cost level.

And more communities in Massachusetts are switching to what's known as "municipal aggregation programs" in order to purchase more environmentally friendly power. Under these programs, cities and towns buy electricity in bulk so residents' power includes more renewable sources than is required by the state. Most communities also offer a more expensive, 100 percent renewable option.

The Boston Globe reported in July that about 100 communities in Massachusetts have switched to such programs, mostly in the past two years.

To find out what your options are, try contacting your city or town hall.

Your Highest-Impact Options 

If you're looking for the highest-impact actions you can take to reduce your carbon footprint, consider this recently published study from Lund University in Sweden.

Researchers looked at which emissions-cutting steps give you the most bang for your buck and came up with four actions that have the “potential to contribute to systemic change and substantially reduce annual personal emissions.” They are:

  • Having one fewer child reduces your personal emissions by 58.6 tCO2e per year.
  • Living car-free reduces your emissions by 2.4 tCO2e per year.
  • Avoiding airplane travel reduces your emissions by 1.6 tCO2e per year.
  • Eating a plant-based diet reduces your emissions by 0.8 tCO2e per year.

The study authors point out that acting on any of these suggestions has the potential to reduce your emissions far more than more commonly recommended actions, like recycling or using energy efficient light bulbs.

But some have questioned whether "having one fewer child" fits in this framework. Vox's David Roberts took issue with the recommendation.

"There is no reasonable system of carbon accounting that attributes people’s emissions to their parents," he wrote when the study came out. "There is a point to be made about the connection between population and emissions, but reducing it to the individual-choice frame only distorts and unnecessarily moralizes that point."

Lead author Seth Wynes says the study is all about "helping people make more informed choices."

Calculate Your Carbon Footprint

And some of those choices will be hard if we want to create real change. The Lund study suggests that we humans must adjust to a lifestyle that approaches 2.1 tons of emissions per person per year, in order to limit global warming to what was laid out in the Paris Agreement. Currently, according to the World Bank, Americans on average account for 16.4 tons of emissions each.

Of course, your actual carbon footprint could be higher or lower than the average. As a study from Oxfam points out, the top 10 percent of American earners are responsible for more than twice as many emissions as the average American. But the same study also points out that the average American earner is responsible for more emissions than the wealthiest residents of countries like China, Japan and Mexico.

The best way to start planning how to reduce your personal emissions is to calculate your personal carbon footprint. There are many online tools to do this. The EPA is a good place to start. The Nature Conservancy is another good option. From there, decide what to cut in an effort to get closer to that 2.1 ton budget.

Ultimately, once you have a better understanding of your personal emissions, you can make informed decisions about how to reduce them. But keep in mind that individual actions are just one part of the collective puzzle.

And it turns out, for instance, that people who say the environment is one of their most important issues aren't all that consistent in terms of actually voting.

Related:

Abby Elizabeth Conway Twitter Digital Producer/Editor
Abby Elizabeth Conway was formerly a digital producer and editor at WBUR.

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