If you’re reading this, you know things are bleak for our comfortable climate here on Earth. In report after report, in chart after chart, we can track our lack of progress – bad faith “debates” keep raging, and emissions keep rising.
The challenge can feel too big to tackle, especially for just one person. While changing our habits can’t solve the climate crisis alone, here are six things you can do that, when scaled up to the level of policy, can make an impact:
- Live in a City
Congratulations! You’re already doing the most important thing to reduce emissions. According to the economist Ed Glaeser, the average American household in 48 major metropolitan areas generates up to 35 percent less greenhouse gases when located in the city versus the suburbs. And the denser the city, the lower the emissions – New York’s are 40 percent less per capita than Houston’s. There you go, city dweller, doing your part for the planet (and maybe thinking twice about moving to the ‘burbs).
- Travel Light
So, how do you get around? One reason cities’ emissions are low is the profusion of transport options density creates. Walking, biking, and taking the train or the bus all beat life in the fast lane (or the slow lane if you’re in gridlock) – even ride-hailing, promising to reduce car ownership, has proven to increase congestion and contribute to the climate crisis. In 2016, the US EPA found that transportation had equaled electricity production as our top source of emissions and that 60% of those emissions were from light-duty vehicles, ie cars. And that’s not counting air travel, perhaps the single largest personal choice when it comes to emissions. (We were promised high-speed rail, but all we got was 280 characters.)
- Eat Less Moo, More Crudités
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” counsels The Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan. Raising livestock accounts for nearly 15 percent of global greenhouse gases so going vegan can reduce your personal emissions by as much as 50 percent! If you can’t bring yourself to give up burgers, you may not have to – companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are mainstreaming plant-based diets at blinding speed. Don’t forget to minimize your food waste and compost what you don’t consume – rotting food releases greenhouse gases from landfills to the tune of 4.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year according to Project Drawdown. That’s about equal to eight percent of global emissions.
- Zero Out Electricity
Mom was right: turn out the lights when you leave the room. Renewables may be exploding in scope and scale, but chances are your home still runs on fossil fuels (only 15 US states had carbon-free electricity as their top source as of 2017). When it comes to reducing consumption, every little bit helps: swap out light bulbs for LEDs; run appliances during off-peak hours and use your air conditioner as little as possible; washing your clothes in cold water can cut energy use in half. These tiny measures can add up to remove some of the strain on the grid and prevent the most polluting gas “peaker” plants from running during high demand. If you own a home, do the math on the payback periods for installing photovoltaic panels and battery storage. If you rent, consider an energy services company (ESCO) for one of your best shots at carbon-free energy.
- Don’t Get Trashed
Whether it’s fast food, fast fashion, or same-day everything, we consume too much stuff too quickly. Before those boxes land on our stoops, their contents must be manufactured, packaged, shipped, and delivered – a long, unbroken chain of emissions. Free shipping only makes those externalities worse. The average New York household recycles more than 90 pounds of cardboard per year, nearly tripling over the last 15 years. If you can only give up one impulse purchase, start with your closet – apparel and footwear comprise eight percent of global climate impact. Make a fashion statement with vintage shopping.
- Vote, Speak Up, Get Involved
All this talk about flipping light switches and switching to Impossible Whoppers™ can lead one to think, “Does anything I do really matter?” It does, because the last thing you can do is talk about it – speaking up and pushing for collective action. We need to make the climate crisis a topic of dinner conversations and demand our elected officials take bold action on solutions. On top of that, we need to ask more of our employers and vote with our dollars. If you work in tech, a great place to start for inspiration and community is climateaction.tech. Or, check out your local chapter of 350.org. Speak up. Vote. Work to change systems from within.