8 high impact ways to fight climate change as an individual

I biked slowly down the street, almost entirely alone biking towards downtown Indianapolis at 6am. I’d been committing to the zero waste lifestyle pretty seriously for some time, dutifully dragging my zero waste kit to my emotionally exhausting job on my bike, doing my best to reduce my waste while living in a food desert, and tentatively dipping my toes into talking about zero waste more seriously in the form of a website.

But honestly? That morning, the problems all seemed insurmountable.

I headed into the underserved neighborhood I worked in, plastic bags swirling around the streets, trying to sneak into the drains. Junk food plastic wrappers whipped up in the wind and caught on the wheels of my bike. They likely came from the dollar store – the only place to get food within a mile, in a community where at least half of residents don’t have a car.

At that point, like many other days of my life, the idea that my morning bike ride could do anything substantive to change the world seemed laughable. To be honest, it probably is.

Which brings us to the eternal question in sustainability: can individual behaviors stop climate change, or is it too big of a problem?

My personal thoughts is that reversing climate change isn’t possible just by doing the typical zero waste swaps. They’re a great way to start making small behavioral changes, but it still leaves the planet catastrophically endangered through our dependence on oil, our tendency to overconsume, and many other deeper issues.

Can individual actions stop climate change?

I finally decided: yes, individual behaviors can absolutely help stop climate change. But we must boldy move far beyond plastic straw bans into the more uncomfortable truths about our individual actions. (After all, companies can find loopholes around legislation. It’s much hard to find loopholes around an unengaged, unwilling-to-participate consumer base.)

Imagine my pleasure when I recently stumbled across a 2018 report from the Center for Behavior and The Environment entitled “Climate Change Needs Behavior Change Making the Case for Behavioral Solutions to Reduce Global Warming”. The report essential echoed the logical conclusions I came to on my own and – better yet – made the amazing lessons from one of my most treasured books more easily accessible for the individual to understand!

From the beginning of their report:

As individuals, people often report feeling hopeless that they can effect change on a scale that matters for something as big as climate change. But individual behavior change when taken up by billions of people makes a decisive difference. Nearly two-thirds of global emissions are linked to both direct and indirect forms of human consumption; despite what the headlines suggest, even conservative estimates for the potential of changing behaviors to reduce natural resource consumption represent an enormous contribution to reducing global emissions. Achieving this potential, however, is a daunting challenge.

The most effective ways to fight climate change as an individual

That book I mentioned? Drawdown. It’s an ambitious book that “maps, measures, models, and describes the 100 most substantive solutions to global warming. For each solution, we describe its history, the carbon impact it provides, the relative cost and savings, the path to adoption, and how it works.” It’s all quite fascinating, though can sometimes be a little overwhelming – particularly for those of us who may not be gifted in the science-minded department.

So this recent report was an exciting thing to come across because it asked the question:

how many of these solutions are particularly reliant on changes to people’s behavior, whether that means changes to individual household consumption patterns, changes to farming practices, or changes that rely on community-scale shifts toward these solutions? And therefore, how much of the total emissions potential can be achieved by promoting their adoption on the individual scale? 

The full report covers 30 different ways individuals can engage with carbon emissions reduction, but even 30/100 seemed overwhelming.

Instead, I want to highlight two from each category that are the most immediate actions we can take in our homes and communities. I’ve included statistics but also actionable tips for how to move forward with those changes.

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FOOD

Unsurprising that something so integral to our lives would top the list of individual ways we can avert a climate crisis. Food – and in particular the wasteful way we approach it – is a critical part of anyone’s climate fight.

Fight Climate Change - Food

Reduce food waste

Food waste is a critical part of the zero waste movement – Drawdown proves just how true that is. If you’re curious to deep dive into the topic, the Wasted! documentary is a really entertaining, beneficial watch.

How effective is it?

The #1 solution. In scientific terms, Drawdown estimates for the mitigation benefits of these solutions are substantial, with potential reductions between 1.3-4.5 GtCO2-eq per year for a total of 70.5-93.7 GtCO2-eq by 2050. Globally, food waste creates 4.4 GtCO2-eq per year, or 8 percent of total anthropogenic (made by people) GHG emissions. Pretty shocking, for something most people rarely connect to climate change!

In real-life terms? The carbon footprint of global food waste is larger than every other country’s – except for China and the USA. Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — about 1.3 billion tons — gets lost or wasted. Personally, it also means if you’re someone living in an industrialized country, you’re probably wasting over $600 worth of food every year.

What can you do?
  • Audit your food waste. Conducting a kitchen trash audit is a great place to start. Knowing your weak areas is the first step to fixing them. Once you see what you’re wasting, either commit to not buying it anymore (seriously, you’re not going to eat that kale you buy…) or buying significantly less. The Essential Zero Waste Blueprint discusses food waste extensively.
  • Buy final sale food, bruised produce, or dumpster dive. Plastic packaging is not the be-all-end-all of waste reduction. If you have the chance to rescue produce in a final sale – particularly tropical produce that has high travel miles or has a large water footprint – diverting that waste from the landfill is probably more effective than buying package free from a carbon emissions perspective.
  • Find a way to connect food wasters to people or organizations that need food. Drawdown notes that in higher-income regions, major food waste issues occur at the retail and consumer levels. Get in touch with your local food bank or any local food rescue programs going on to see where they need help. Alternatively, get started with an app like YourLocal or Glean that connects food waste with organizations that can accept it.

Fight Climate Change - Plant-Based

Plant-rich diets

While 100% global veganism is probably not the golden standard we once assumed, there’s no doubt that a massive shift towards more plant-based eating is critical. This is particularly true for the factory farm driven, meat-heavy diets of countries like the US.

How effective is it?

The #2 solution. Emissions savings globally from shifts to a plantrich diet could total around 1.5 GtCO2 -eq per year by 2030, for a total of 66.1-87 GtCO2 -eq by 2050.

If you want the in-depth version of why this is so critical, check out this post on plant-based eating (and my very pointed opinion that we cannot expect everyone to go vegan).

But the TL;DR reason? Animal proteins are a huge part of our global carbon footprint; in fact, it’s estimated that 14.5% of anthropogenic GHG emissions come from the livestock sector. That’s HUGE. From deforestation to animal waste to the water, electricity, and other resources needed to raise, kill, and sell animals, eating animal products is a big issue.

What can you do?
  • Eat as few animal products as possible. Reducing our dependence on violent, unsustainable factory farms is a key part of the zero waste journey. With that, realize that veganism isn’t necessarily ethical or non-violent and that many people for many reasons cannot go fully vegan.
  • Make your own swaps based on what’s local and seasonally available. Importing exotic produce from thousands of miles away isn’t a sustainable practice either, so make sure your plant-based diet relies heavily on local (or near local) food whenever possible. If you have any space to grow food or could become involved in a local community garden, that would be a great place to start!

Agriculture & Land management

While it may seem strange that I include this on a list of individual actions since we likely focus regenerative agriculture ideas on large-scale farming, I think it’s critical that everyone become more aware of the bigger systems. Plus, these mindful practices can absolutely be included in a small-scale garden operation.

So many of us are so distanced from the act of growing food we don’t realize how many resources it takes to grow food, the effect of converting wild lands into farms, or even what our foods may look like in their original forms!

Fight Climate Change - Agriculture

Regenerative agriculture

Simply put, regenerative agriculture is ” farming and grazing practices that… reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity.” Rather than stripping the land of nutrients like traditional farming, it’s a holistic way of working with the land. Find out more about regenerative agriculture here.

How effective is it?

The #8 solution. The estimated mitigation potential of this type of agriculture is 23.2-32.4 GtCO2-eq by 2050. While it doesn’t have the huge numbers of the food-related swaps, it’s an important way of reconnecting ourselves to the systems we so often ignore.

Regenerative agriculture is made up of six practices; Drawdown encourages adopting at least four:

  • Compost application. Compost is amazing! Make your plants and soil happy by adding in a compost made of your old food scraps. Compost adds in some much-needed nutrients and organic compost doesn’t contribute to environmental degradation like synthetic options.
  • Cover crops. Grow crops that protect and enrich the soil, not just pull nutrients out. 
  • Crop rotation. Again, give your soil a break. Planting the same crops over and over in the same space ensures the same nutrients are being sucked from the soil each planting season, which produces some sad, unhealthy soil.
  • Green manures. The easiest! When you pull up old crops (usually cover crops), just leave them on the field to break down and become a mulch. Seriously, low-impact gardening can be really simple!
  • No-till or reduced tillage. Tilling breaks up soil and adds excess oxygen to the soil (which leads to increased CO2 emissions). It also greatly increases soil erosion. Plus, it’s just hard work.
  • Organic production. Avoid environmentally-toxic pesticides and go organic. Learn how cultures used to maintain their crops before access to these options.

Most of these are incredibly easy for the average gardener to do; in fact, a lot of regenerative agriculture is taking a step back from the high-intensity farming we usually do! If most people are doing this in their own gardens, the awareness of how food ought to be grown in relation to the environment will become more clear.

What can you do?
  • Support local farmers using these practices. Chances are pretty good small local farmers are using many of these regenerative practices as a matter of simple common sense. But if you’re at a loss of resources, Regeneration International, Savory, and Sustainable Harvest International have a large list of partner organizations organized by location.
  • Start composting and use it to grow something! You can compost anywhere – here’s how to start composting – and it can be used to grow your own food, whether in your backyard, on a patio, or in a container on your shelf. Starting your own compost pile can help you begin to reconnect yourself to the natural world.
  • Destroy your lawn (or a nearby vacant space) and make it productive. Whether you have your own lawn space or just have an eye on a sad patch of land in between parking lots, make land productive again. I talk more about this in my zero waste and privilege post.

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Fight Climate Change - Farmland Restoration

Farmland restoration

Unsustainable farming practices have caused once-fertile land to become “farmed out”. One study estimated there were around 1 billion acres of deserted farmland worldwide. 1 billion acres – not being used for food, not being reforested… nothing.

As the report notes, “Soils that are left to erode can be a source of emissions whereas converting abandoned lands back into productive ones can turn them into carbon sinks.” Reclaiming these lands are critical to not only food security, but reducing carbon emissions.

How effective is it?

The #9 solution. By 2050, 424 million acres of abandoned farmland could be restored for a combined emissions reduction of 14.1-30.8 GtCO2-eq.

Again, this might seem like something that shouldn’t be included for a lot of people, but I think this is going to be a critical kind of guerilla warfare as we move forward. Imagine: abandoned land outside your small town being sneakily turned into a food forest. A vacant lot in a crowded city cleaned up and converted into a community garden filled with native plants. Reclaiming spaces like this will help with erosion and flooding, provide food security, and – in urban settings – actually improve community safety.

What can you do?
  • Get involved with pre-existing organizations. Many places probably have people already doing work to reclaim abandoned land and put it to use. Check with local community gardens, reforesting groups, conservation organizations, and anyone else who may have a vested interest in seeing these spaces put to good use.
  • Purchase plants and put them in unused spaces. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re a white woman. Use that privilege to go in and disrupt spaces that others might put themselves in danger for. (Very explicitly: our whiteness will not get us shot if we’re trespassing.) Buy a few tomato plants and put them in the bare spot next to your work. Little abandoned lot? Grab a sapling or two from the store and help them brighten the space.
  • Keep an eye out at public auctions. The truth is there’s no financial incentive for people to do this as a business. Instead, keep an eye out for very cheap lots of land going up for sale in your area and – if you have the means – purchase them and begin rewilding.

Transportation

A 2010 study found that transit was responsible for over 1/4 of energy demand. And while some countries seem to be focusing in on sustainable transit options, many others (uh, hi USA) continue to ignore the fact. Looking at this issue on an individual and local community level is the way forward, it seems.

Fight Climate Change - Bikeable City

Bicycle infrastructure and walkable cities

I combined these two because I do believe they go hand-in-hand. Both push back on the idea that roads are only safe for motorized vehicles and that it’s acceptable for people to require cars in order to easily reach the resources they need.

How effective is it?

The #17 and 18 solutions. A modest two percent increase from the existing 5.5 percent of total urban trips taken by bicycles could displace 2.2 trillion passenger VMT by 2050, resulting in 2.3-11.4 GtCO2-eq in total avoided emissions by 2050.103. If an additional five percent of vehicle trips are made by foot instead of by car, we can mitigate 2.9-11.1 GtCO2-eq by 2050.

As you can see, these numbers are not large. A mere 7% total increase of non-motor travel within urban cities would have a massive impact on carbon emissions. And it really doesn’t seem that difficult when you hear the shocking finding that, worldwide, most people only walk just seven minutes daily. (Con confirm – people are constantly shocked when I tell them I walk 20 minutes each way to work.)

What can you do?
  • Avoid using motorized transport when possible. To make that a little more useful, set yourself a goal. “I’ll walk/bike to the store/work twice a week.” “I’ll walk to my meeting instead of driving.” Can’t avoid driving at all? “I’ll walk at least 30 minutes for exercise every day.”
  • Support local legislation or interest groups advocating for car reduction. Most towns and cities have a local biking group that advocates for bike-friendly streets. Your town may have a bikeable/walkable city advisory board looking for citizens. You may help on the campaign of someone you know will bring that up when they get elected. I don’t love the inefficiencies of local politics, but if you find that fulfilling – get involved!
  • Help others get access to bikes. Having a well-maintained bike can be a great point of access for many people! Many communities already have programs in place. For example: Indy has Freewheelin’ Bikes, an organization that teaches kids valuable bike repair skills (and bigger skills like patience and critical thinking) and give them the chance to earn the bike they fixed up.

Fight Climate Change - Transportation

ridesharing

Carpooling! Something most cities have been pushing for since I can remember, but which still remains unpopular in the States, where cars are often a requirement for getting to work. If you aren’t able to walk, bike, or take public transit, ridesharing is a great option!

How effective is it?

The #26 solution. Like anything, the numbers on this are hard to pin down exactly. Drawdown estimates “the reduction in passenger vehicle miles traveled (VMT) through an increase in carpooling from 10 percent to 15 percent can reduce 6.9-29.5 GtCO2-eq in total by 2050.” The added bonus, of course, is that you can be more productive as you travel. Get some work done, write your next novel, or even take a nap!

What can you do?
  • Find a local ride-sharing app. I’d offer options, but a lot of these apps tend to be focused locally. Google “ride share + [your city]” and see what comes up – many larger cities also have dedicated sites themselves for people to match up with each other!
  • Reach out to your work place. Why not start local and ask around your work place to see if your co-workers could be potential ride share partners? Sure, spending extra time with your co-workers isn’t necessarily the dream, but there’s a decent chance you can find someone to meet up with!

Energy & materials

Energy and materials is a massive topic that covers so much of what we consume. It’s a daunting task, to be sure, but critical: at a minimum, the carbon emissions from energy usage is expected to at least double by 2050. Reducing the demand for goods made from resource-intensive, eco-unfriendly materials (palm oil, timber, etc) is critical to move forward effectively. Less consumption, less worry about the excessive use of energy and materials.

Fight Climate Change - Energy & Material

LED lighting

LED lighting is one of the sectors that’s actually really encouraging – I’m sure we’ve all heard of a local company proudly switching over or gotten an offer for low-cost LED lights for your own home. And it’s true: it’s estimated  that by 2050 nearly 100% of the lighting market by 2050! Some sectors are actually changing for the better!

How effective is it?

#21 most effective. Residentially, “LEDs can reduce emissions by 7.8-8.7 GtCO2-eq”  by 2050. On an individual level, the bulbs last around 5-10 years and are more energy-efficient which end up saving money!

What can you do?
  • Buy LED lights the next time a bulb goes out. Again, the most zero waste option is to use what you have. Don’t replace perfectly good bulbs, but just plan to set aside a few extra dollars for every time you need to replace a bulb moving forward.
  • Call your energy company to see if they offer LED deals. Many electric companies are now offering deals for LED lights if you buy through them. Head to their website or call them to see what deals they do. Our particular energy company offers a deal if you buy them in (small) bulk options.

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Fight Climate Change - Household Water Saving

household water saving

Our water footprint is a critical part of reducing waste that can be very hard for people to grasp. Plastic waste is easy to see and quantify – how much water we use for everything is much harder to guess at. What we do know is that “household consumption of energy and water accounts for around 23 percent of total global energy demand”.

How effective is it?

#23 most effective. Again, it’s a very hard number to pin down, but Drawdown estimates that “just for low-flow showerheads and taps, alone they can prevent 4.6-6.3 GtCO2-eq by 2050”. It’s comforting to see that relatively small individual swaps can add up to big things!

What can you do?
  • Install water-saving devices. While most houses that have been updated in the past decade already have these, it’s worth double-checking to see you have low-flow showerheads, taps, toilets, etc. If you don’t, swap them out!
  • Voluntarily reduce your use of water-using appliances. Drawdown suggests taking shorter showers and doing laundry more efficiently. Also be sure to reduce energy use through turning off lights and less thermostat usage. All of that can reduce your home energy usage by 15-20%!

While it can be overwhelming to tackle the big issues of sustainability, I hope that these eight high-impact ways to fight climate change give you an idea of how to get started!

8 high impact ways to fight climate change as an individual - Green Indy Blog