Today I want to write about some of the choices we as individuals can make that can significantly impact global warming. It’s a thorny subject, and I want to preface my thoughts by emphasizing two things: first, that personal/domestic changes are only one level of action—there are also choices we can make with respect to our local communities, as well as advocacy that can potentially trickle up to affect national or even global trends. So if the following list of lifestyle changes only serves to paralyze you (with guilt, exhaustion, depression, take your pick), don’t give up, just shift your focus.
Second, based on current reports about the accelerating pace of climate disruption, it’s clear that national/global reform is necessary. We can’t fix the planet as individuals; we need government action. But that doesn’t let us off the hook at home; in fact, it’s most likely that government reforms (a carbon tax, for instance) will be tailored to essentially force our hands. So, the choice is probably between taking some of these steps now, when we feel ownership over our actions, or taking them in 5, 10, or 20 years when the alernatives have become untenable. Personally, I like the little dose of dopamine that comes from taking independent action to save the planet.
But there are actions, and then there are actions. Most of Canadians recycle, and many have taken advantage of energy rebates to replace our light bulbs, or even a couple of appliances, with more energy-efficient models. Maybe you’re considering making your next car a hybrid? These are all low- to moderate-impact actions—that is, they reduce your carbon footprint by less than 0.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide (or equivalent) emissions (tCO2e) per year. That’s good for dopamine, but it’s not enough to make a significant impact.
These estimates come from from a 2017 study, co-authored by climate scientists in Sweden’s Lund University and the University of British Columbia, called “The Climate Mitigation Gap.” The “tl;dr” version of the article is here, in the form of an infographic. I’ll talk through five of the high-impact actions, going from least to greatest:
5. Eat a plant-based diet (0.8 tCO2e)
Factory farms produce methane, the second-worst greenhouse pollutant after CO2. Humans need to eat, of course, and our psychological and cultural attachment to meat is even stronger than our economic dependency. But switching to a plant-based diet remains one of the simplest actions, as well as the most popular—estimates suggest 375 million people on Earth are vegetarian.
You’ve got options, too. Instead of going full vegan (ie. giving up meat, fish, and dairy products), you can ease in with a reducetarian diet. That’s what I did, starting in June of this year. I still eat dairy, but I’ve reduced my meat consumption to once a week or so. No regrets; I feel healthy and my grocery bills have dropped sharply.
Even if you’re not ready to quit being a carnivore just yet, there are ways to reduce your food footprint. Buy local to reduce transport emissions. Favour products with minimal packaging (bulk is best). And try not to waste food—that’s just adding insult to injury, especially with imported food.
4. Buy green energy (1.5 tCO2e)
Depending on where you live, your home’s heat and electricity probably come from a combination of oil (dirty), natural gas (dirty), hydroelectric (cleanish), and—especially in the Maritimes—coal (way dirty). Until the federal and provincial governments really step up their games and roll out large-scale renewable energy solutions, it remains our responsibilty as homeowners to explore carbon-light options: wind, geothermal, and solar.
For years, I held off on pursuing these options for the dumbest of reasons: I didn’t really understand them. But I recently went to a public forum on solar installation, and I learned one crucial fact: I don’t need to understand them. Solar companies will do all the heavy lifting, figuratively and literally, to determine how best to convert your house. Once you’ve got panels, your house will generate its own energy, using your city’s grid as a battery to store up unused juice for when you need it.
The conversion process isn’t cheap, but my province at least is offering major rebates. Think of it like buying energy in bulk; plus, once you’ve paid off the installation cost, your bills will drop to nearly zero. I’m currently waiting on my home assessment, and hope to get the installation done in springtime.
3. Avoid one roundtrip transatlantic flight (1.6 tCO2e)
I spent 2016 and 2017 jetting across the planet without realizing how hard I was being on it. Estimates vary, but most sources I read suggest that one round-trip flight from Eastern Canada to Europe unleashes 2-3 tonnes of CO2 per passenger. Considering the average Canadian’s carbon footprint is 18.8 tCO2e per year, one flight represents about 13% of your annual contribution to global warming. That’s a massive impact for one decision.
But, just as many of us have made meat a central part of our identities, travel can be an intensely personal thing to give up. Some of us are expected to fly for work; others are fleeing the cold Canadian winters, even if only for a brief tropical vacation. Whereas air travel was inconceivable a few generations ago, it can now seem like our birthright, or at least like the reward for all our hard work.
Since my carbon-costly sabbatical year, I’ve only flown once. My family and I are planning vacations closer to home, and we’re looking into more carbon-efficient means of travel, like rail. And while it pains me to think that I might never make it back to Paris, I can acknowledge that my intercontinental adventures have been the result of historical luck—being born in the right country at the right time—not entitlement. We’ve had an amazing run with air travel, but the Earth has spoken: it is time to wind down.
2. Live car-free (2.4 tCO2e)
You knew it would be on the list. We’ve all known forever: car culture is killing the planet. And much as we’d love to convince ourselves that those upgraded appliances will off-set our exhaust costs, the Swedish study makes it plain: surrendering the wheel is one of the single most effective actions any individual can take to help reverse global warming.
Canada is not designed with its car-less citizens in mind. Some cities are better than others, but most of our urban planning was done under the blithe assumption that everyone drives. And while European and Asian cities are actively working towards car-free status, there’s very little momentum in North America for alternative transportation systems. All of which is to say: going car-free in 2018 is a brave but thankless choice.
My family isn’t there yet. But I carpooled to work all summer, and I’ve stopped allowing myself short-distance drives in the city. My wife bikes to work when it’s warm enough. Like most Canadians, we aren’t yet at a point where we can toss the keys in the trash, but we are starting to conceive of what changes need to happen before we take that inevitable step. More than any other item on the list, this can afford to be a community effort before it becomes a personal choice. Write your city council to ask what transportation reforms are currently in the works.
1. Have one fewer child (58.6 tCO2e)
What a devastating thing to ask of any family! I’m all done having children (and even the one kid took a lot of cajoling before I agreed), yet I can still empathize with those who sincerely want to make a difference on the Earth—not just for themselves, but for their children. And now I’m telling you the best solution (by far—look at that carbon reduction!) is to not have children?!
It makes perfect logical sense: humans themselves are the problem, carbon-emitting in almost everything we do. As the population grows, resources become scarcer. Global warming compounds that exponentially, through droughts, floods, and weather events that strip us of our resources. Fewer humans means smaller communities, which means less pressure on the planet. It makes sense.
But logic and parenthood have never been partners. Our urge to reproduce is stronger than a love for travel or a lust for meat; in the long run, it may be stronger than our instincts for survival. No legislation, nor any emotional appeals will ever convince the planet to stop having kids. But fewer kids? One fewer kid than you predicted in your high school yearbook? Maybe.
I think this is a sobering and suitable place to end the list, because it illustrates the stark choices we have ahead of us. If your response to “Have one fewer child” is entrenched resistance—or if, like me, you’ve already hit your planned maximum—then, well, earn your right to a legacy by reviewing the other five items on the list, and resolving to put one or more of them into practice. Make them your New Year’s resolutions, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Whatever you do, do something. Personal, local, municipal, provincial, federal, global—choose the scale of your map, and strike out on a journey. We are nothing if not adaptable creatures, but sometimes we need a nudge out of the nest. For Canadians at least, the twentieth century has been an extraordinarily comfy nest, but the clock is ticking. Choose a direction, and get nudging.