Individual action on climate change

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 2019, emissions budgets are uncertain and estimates of the annual average carbon footprint per person required to meet climate change targets vary between 1[1] and 3[2] tonnes CO
-equivalent, down from a 2018 world average of about 5 tonnes.

The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report emphasises that behavior, lifestyle and cultural change have a high mitigation potential in some sectors, particularly when complementing technological and structural change.[3]:20 In general, higher consumption lifestyles have a greater environmental impact, with the richest 10% of people emitting about half the total lifestyle emissions.[4][5]

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:[6][7] 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.[6][7]

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.[8]

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."[9]

Family size

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.[10]

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,[11][12] some politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,[13] and others[7][14][15][16] have started discussing the climate implications associated with reproduction.

It has been claimed that not having an additional child saves "an average for developed countries"[lower-alpha 1] of 58.6 [lower-alpha 2]tonnesCO
(tCO2e) emission reductions per year[6] 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."[6][7] 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).[18] This has been criticised: both as a category mistake for assigning descendants emissions to their ancestors[19] and for the very long timescale of reductions.[20]

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.[21][22] 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.[23][24]

Travel and commuting

In the early 21st century perception towards climate change influenced some people in rich countries to change their travel lifestyle.[25]

Air transport

Avoiding air travel and particularly frequent flyer programs[26] 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,[27] so will need more individual action in future if the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation cannot be made to work properly.[28]

Surface transport

  • Walking and running are among the least environmentally harmful modes of transportation, followed by cycling.
  • Public transport such as electric buses, metro and electric trains generally emit less greenhouse gases than cars.
  • 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.

Diet and food

Agriculture is very difficult to fix technically so will need more individual action or carbon offsetting than all other sectors except perhaps aviation.[27]

Eating less meat, especially beef and lamb, reduces emissions.[29] 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.[30] 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.[31] 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."[32]

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.[33]

Home energy, landscaping and consumption

Reducing home energy use through measures such as insulation, better energy efficiency of appliances, cool roofs, heat reflective paints[34][35], lowering water heater temperature, and improving heating and cooling efficiency can significantly reduce an individual's carbon footprint.[36][37]

In addition, the choice of energy used to heat, cool, and power homes makes a difference in the carbon footprint of individual homes.[38] Many energy suppliers in various countries worldwide have options to purchase part or pure "green energy" (usually electricity but occasionally also gas).[39] These methods of energy production emit almost no greenhouse gases once they are up and running.

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.[40]

Low energy products and consumption

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.

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."[41]

These labels may help consumers choose lower energy products.

Landscape and gardens

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.[42] Conversely, clearing old-growth forests adds to the carbon in the atmosphere, so buying non-old-growth paper is good for the climate as well as the forest.

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.[43][44] Reducing irrigation, reducing chemical use, planting native plants or bushes, and using hand tools can all reduce the climate impact of lawns.[45]

In addition to planting Victory Gardens which provide locally grown food,[46] 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.[47][48][49]


Washing in cold water can save up to 15 pounds of carbon emissions per load.[50] Hanging laundry to dry is even more impactful for saving energy.[51][52]

A 2017 study suggests purchasing well-made, durable clothing is critical for reducing climate impact.[53]

Choice of stove

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.[54]

Rocket stoves and other biomass stoves are important in developing countries to conserve wood.[55] The UN seeks to phase out wood-burning cookstoves.[56]

Solar cookers are an environmentally sound choice.[57]

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.[58][59] Institutional level solar cooking has enabled temples in India to earn money through carbon credits.[60][61]

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.[62][63]

Digital hygiene

Digital data centers had a carbon footprint "larger than the airline industry" in 2017.[64] Curbing unnecessary use of digital data, such as binge-watching streaming video,[65] the use of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin,[66] and sending "e-mails with long and tiresome attachments"[67] has a small but measurable impact on individual carbon emissions.

Consumption by urban residents

National Geographic has concluded that city dwellers can help with climate change if they (or we) simply "buy less stuff."[68]

Lloyd Alter suggests that one way to get a practical sense of embodied carbon is to ask, "How much does your household weigh?"[69]

Individual purchase of carbon offsets

The principle of carbon offset is thus: one decides that they don't want to be responsible for accelerating climate change, and they've 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 your 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".

Citizen participation in climate change policy advocacy

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.[70][71]

Others posit that individual citizen participation in groups advocating for collective action in the form of political solutions, such as carbon pricing, meat pricing,[72] ending subsidies for fossil fuels[73] and animal husbandry,[74] and ending laws mandating car use,[75] is the most impactful way that an individual can take action to prevent climate change.[76]

It has been argued that climate change is a collective action problem, specifically a tragedy of the commons, which is a political[77] and not individual category of problem.[78]

Reform of subsidies and taxes discouraging individual action

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[79]
  • The UK CCC has advised cutting farm subsidies for livestock, which discourage individuals shifting to a plant based diet:[80]
  • 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[80]
  • Turkey's free coal for poor families[81] 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.[82]

However, sudden removal of a subsidy by governments not trusted to redirect it,[83] 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.[84]

Lack of information, or misleading information on individual actions

As recently as 2015, "about 40% of adults worldwide ... [had] never heard of climate change, or nearly 2 billion people."[85]

Focus on climate change effects, without information on taking action

Climate change education, which became mandatory in Italy in 2019 [86], 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.[87]

Presenting plant based diets as strict vegetarianism

The suggestion that eating a plant based diet requires a person to become strictly vegetarian is also misinformation.[88]

The question of what individual actions could make a difference

Media focus on low impact rather than high impact behaviors is concerning for scientists

The most impactful actions for individuals differ significantly from the popular advice for "greening" one's lifestyle.

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.

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."[6][7]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.[6][7]

The impact of "climate conversations" with friends and family

“Discussing global warming leads to greater acceptance of climate science,” according to a 2019 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.[89] The Yale Climate Communication Program recommends initiating "climate conversations" with more moderate individuals.[90][91] 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.[92] 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.[90][91]

No effort may be too small, according to other advocates

Every single solution, large and small, presented in the Project Drawdown comprehensive plan must be implemented before carbon dioxide levels can be reversed.

Drawdown advocate Bill McKibben is joined by many others in his opinion that "no effort is too small" with regards to climate change.[93][94][95][96][97]

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  1. Japan, Russia and USA only[17]
  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.[18]
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