At the international level, 195 nations agreed to limit global average temperature increase to ‘well below 2°C’ under the 2015 Paris Agreement. The lag time involved in structural changes has turned attention to the impact of aggregated individual lifestyle choices, which can have a more immediate impact on emission reductions particularly from high-carbon individuals (the wealthy and those living in developed countries), which are estimated to produce nearly 50% of global emissions. The global emission reduction target calculated on a per person basis is 2.1 tonnes.
Per capita carbon emissions vary considerably around the world. For example, the average American generated 16.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2014, while the average person in India only generated 1.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide. In this context, a recent study tried to quantify which lifestyle choices affluent individuals could make to reduce their carbon footprint. Recognising that the cumulative potential emission reductions of any behaviour depends on both the magnitude of the action and the proportion of individuals likely to adopt a given action (behavioural plasticity); the first step is to know the effectiveness of the action for a single person.
Three of these high impacts actions will be briefly explored here:
- Living car-free (2.4 tCO2e saved per year)
- Avoiding airplane travel (1.6 tCO2e saved per roundtrip transatlantic flight)
- Switching to green energy (jurisdiction dependant)
A fourth action has been previously covered:
- Eating a plant-based diet (0.8 tCO2e saved per year)
1. Living Car Free
A car-free lifestyle reduces traffic congestion and contributes to reduced dependence on petroleum while avoiding the environmental pollution and toxicity issues associated with electric vehicle production. Individuals without a car are also likely to be healthier and less likely to be obese. This is because a car free lifestyle involves more walking and often switching to other transport modes, such as cycling. A 2017 British study found that people who commuted by bike/bicycle were less likely to die from cancer or heart disease.
2. Avoiding Airplane Travel
While air travel only contributes between 1-2% of carbon emissions globally, long distance air travel can significantly impact an individual’s carbon footprint. For example, one round-trip flight between New York and Los Angeles contributes the same amount of greenhouses gases as 2.5 months of driving in a car. The total climate impact of flying is likely two to three times greater than the impact from the CO2 emissions alone as planes emit mono-nitrogen oxides into the upper troposphere. Global warming is enhanced in the short term due to these three effects. And air travel is only expected to grow. By 2036, fliers will take 7.8 billion trips annually.
3. Switching to Green Energy
Switching to green energy has a number of benefits for the environment, human health and the economy. Renewable power is a clean energy source, which means it does not generate carbon and greenhouse emissions. Coal powered energy emits high levels of greenhouse gas and carbon dioxide, which contribute to global warming, climate change, and reduced air quality. Renewable energy also stimulates job creation. A recent report released by the International Renewable Energy Agency reported that renewable energy jobs in the United States increased 25% from 2015, which is growth rate 17 times faster than the United States economy as a whole.
There are many other ways to reduce carbon emissions and help the environment, however these three options would potentially deliver the greatest aggravated impact to limit global warming.
Celis-Morales, Carlos A., et al. “Association between active commuting and incident cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mortality: prospective cohort study.” bmj 357 (2017): j1456.
Gore, Timothy, Extreme Carbon Inequality: Why the Paris climate deal must put the poorest, lowest emitting and most vulnerable people first, Oxfam, 02 Dec 2015, https://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/extreme-carbon-inequality-why-the-paris-climate-deal-must-put-the-poorest-lowes-582545
IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L. White (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 1132 pp.
IRENA, Annual Review 2017, https://www.irena.org/DocumentDownloads/Publications/IRENA_RE_Jobs_Annual_Review_2017.pdf
The World Bank, CO2 emissions (metric tons per capita) – United States, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.ATM.CO2E.PC?locations=US
Wyne, Seth and Nicholas, Kimberly A, The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions, Environ. Res. Lett. 12, 12 July 2017
2036 Forecast Reveals Air Passengers Will Nearly Double to 7.8 Billion, 24 October 2017, https://www.iata.org/en/pressroom/pr/2017-10-24-01