climate change

What simple actions can people do to reduce their carbon footprints?

This is one of the questions I get asked most often. What simple actions can ordinary people do to reduce their carbon footprints? I expect you’ve heard it before.

Let me reply with a question of my own: which simple household objects can I use to battle a T-Rex?

None, right?

If I need to fight a T-Rex for some reason, I’m not going in with a toilet brush and a pair of scissors. I’m going to gear up, and I’m going to bring friends.

I mean, I’m open to discussing the running away option first.

Stopping climate change is nothing like fighting a T-Rex, but running away is not an option and we need to confront it. Are we going to do that with personal actions? Or collective ones? The climate crisis will not be resolved by personal actions alone. It’s what we do together that makes the biggest difference.

And are we really going to limit our imaginations to simple actions? Is that all we’re prepared to discuss? We have to overturn an industrial system that’s had 200 years to embed itself into every aspect of our economic and political systems. The best solutions might not be simple.

If you want to help prevent a climate catastrophe – and I hope you do – then our personal carbon footprints are not the best place to start. Start with the things that change the system. Vote for politicians who support climate action. Engage with representatives. Write to companies that you spend money with and press them for more ambition. Badger your workplace, your school, your place of worship, your gym, your bank, your supermarket, your landlord.

We all have a limited number of hours in the day. Direct your attention to the things that will make the biggest possible difference.

Still got time and energy left? Okay, let’s talk about ourselves. Our personal actions matter too. It’s how we live out our values. Our choices can model change to our community and family. How we spend our money sends signals to companies. Taking responsibility for our carbon footprints shows solidarity with those suffering the effects of climate change now and in the future. And we want to know that we’re doing what we can, and making a meaningful contribution. Lifestyle change and system change is not an either/or – so what should we do?

First of all, let’s put aside the word ‘actions’ and talk about habits instead. Actions suggest one-time things. Habits have huge cumulative impact.

Choosing a vegan option on a menu is an action. Eating a plant-based diet is a habit. Based on UK averages, if you eat vegan for two years, you’ll save the lives of a pig, a sheep, 31 fish and 41 birds – and all the food, water and energy used to raise, butcher and process them.

Taking the bike to work once is an action. Make it a habit, and a two-mile commute will save over a thousand miles of car travel in a year. You’d be saving oil, money, air pollution, carbon emissions and traffic all in one go.

Think about the cumulative effect, and you’ll see that little changes are bigger than they appear. Use that as motivation to get over the initial inconvenience.

Putting in place some green habits is a great way to build confidence for more ambitious actions, which is where the big carbon reductions come in. Giving up car travel, flying less. Refurbishing the house. Investing in an electric vehicle, sustainable heating, or solar panels. These are big-ticket actions that most of us have to plan for and work towards. But if we’re serious about reducing carbon emissions, that’s where the big cuts lie.

That brings me to a final problem with the question in the title: it only asks about the things we can do. If we stop at the stuff we can do right now, we may be ruling out the biggest opportunities to make a difference. Progress often lies in what can’t do – yet. It’s when we push at those limits that the most significant breakthroughs happen.

Perhaps I’d like to cycle to work, but it’s too far and I can’t afford an e-bike. If we’re only talking about simple actions I can do, then that’s the end of the conversation and I get in my car. But let’s talk about the actions I can’t do. Why not? What needs to change? Now we’re getting somewhere. I talk to my boss and my work introduces a salary sacrifice scheme so employees can buy e-bikes. They fit a bike rack with charging points. Now I can cycle, and a bunch of colleagues might consider it as well.

The actions that we can’t do are often useful indicators for campaigning. Interrogate them, and a bigger target might show itself. Get some friends and neighbours together to push for the bigger change.

If you want a straightforward list of actions you can take and what makes the biggest difference, those are available. Here’s a scientific study with dozens of actions, and a summary of it. Here’s a book. Here’s a campaign, and here’s more on what I’ve done myself.

But maybe we can ask a better question.

What wider change can I influence?
What meaningful things can I work towards?
What would I like to do that I can’t? What needs to change, and what can I do to bring that change?

We have a world to transform. Gear up. Bring Friends.

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