Tl;DR: Research finds government and education institutions aren't telling us about the best things we can do for climate change; yay that we can access the information ourselves!; we need to dramatically cut back on some of our favourite things (driving, flying, eating animals, having kids); this is hard to talk about and brings up big feelings, but is important.
“The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions.”
That’s the disconcerting title of a paper published in 2017 which found that governments and schools aren’t telling us about the most effective actions we can take to slow climate change.
(It’s okay you guys! I read the study, so today we’re going to learn about the things, and then we can just do them. Yay science. Yay freedom of information. Yay us for being powerful and brave.)
The paper assimilated the results of 39 previous peer-reviewed studies, carbon calculators and government reports to figure out the MOST effective things individuals can do to impact climate change. That is, they analysed the data to figure out which actions represented the most significant reductions in an individual’s carbon footprint.
From this data, they came up with 4 actions that represented a combination of having the biggest reduction in emissions, and being the easiest to implement by individuals on a widespread scale (right away within existing infrastructure, and with the least friction to our current lifestyles). In other words, they figured out the four actions that represent most bang for buck.
Then they noticed that these actions aren’t being promoted by governments and schools, who instead promote way less effective activities. From the study: “We found that the 216 individual recommended actions from textbooks overwhelmingly focused on moderate or low-impact actions, with our recommended actions mostly presented in a less effective form, or not at all (only eight mentions, or 4%).
Why aren’t we hearing more about the things we really need to do?
Well, they’re touchy subjects. A couple of them hit deep at people’s value systems. They all involve money—your personal money being lured into particular industries—of course. And all four of them are things that we don’t, generally, want to be told not to do.
And that’s the key. All four of these actions are things NOT to do.
That’s not sexy. We want to DO things. Our brain’s reward centres are crying out for the “ping” they get when we buy a pair of leggings made of recycled water bottles, spend an afternoon switching all our bulbs over to LED or donate money to a climate action group. We don’t want to hear about…just not doing something. That feels boring. That falls flat.
But these actions—or UN-actions—are the most effective 4 things you can NOT do, right now, to save our planet.
The big 4 things we need to just stop doing:
1. Just stop eating animals.
Estimated saving: up to 1.6 metric tonnes of emissions per year by abstaining from meat, with impacts multiplied by up to 4.7 times for reducing animal products further.
The study found that cutting meat intake is far more effective than other actions recommended by governments and schools: for example, switching from plastic to reusable bags is only 1% as effective as not eating meat for a year. Plus, it’s far more impactful to stop eating animal products altogether: “Eating a completely plant-based diet can be 2 to 4.7 times more effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions than decreased meat intake.”
2. Just stop owning a car.
Estimated saving: up to 5.8 metric tonnes of emissions per year by living car-free.
The authors of the study noted that while driving a car powered by non-emitting sources (solar, wind or nuclear) represents some reduction in emissions, giving up your car altogether has a better impact. “Living car-free reduces the need to build more roads and parking spaces, and supports higher-density urban design, which more efficient cars do not.”
3. Just stop travelling by air.
Estimated saving: up to 2.8 metric tonnes of emissions per year by skipping one long-haul return flight.
From the paper’s authors: “We estimate that an individual who eats meat and takes one roundtrip, transatlantic flight per year emits 2.4 metric tons [of CO2-equivalent emissions] through these actions, exhausting their personal carbon budget without accounting for any other emissions. It would help meet climate goals if such an individual chose to shift her or his behaviour, as technological advances may be unable to sufficiently reduce emissions from these two actions even by 2050.”
4. Just stop having kids.
Estimated saving: 24 to 118 metric tonnes of carbon emissions per year, depending on where you live, per each child you don’t have.
Having one fewer child saves an average of 58.6 tonnes of emissions annually per family (in developed countries). It dwarfs the actions usually recommended for saving the environment, like recycling: “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.”
These 4 un-actions are deeply personal and may have triggered some big feelings for you. They definitely do that for me. That’s okay. We're going to talk about it!
Meanwhile, just start asking yourself: can I just start changing in any of these 4 areas?
P.S. More of my thoughts on this:
Just stop eating animals &
Just stop driving everywhere.