Teachers and policymakers are missing a golden opportunity to show people the best ways to cut climate change and reduce their carbon footprint, a study says.
It identifies four ways of behaving that it says will have the most substantial effect in decreasing someone’s climate impact: Eating a plant-based diet, avoiding air travel, living without reliance on a car, and having smaller families.
The researchers, from Lund University in Sweden, analysed 39 peer-reviewed papers, carbon calculators and government reports to calculate the potential of a range of individual lifestyle choices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They say their comprehensive analysis identifies what people can do to have the greatest impact.
Writing in the journal Environmental Research Letters, the authors say their study found the incremental changes advocated by governments may represent a missed opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions beneath the levels needed to prevent 2°C of climate warming, the goal set by the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Seth Wynes, researcher, Lund University
The lead author of the Swedish study, Seth Wynes, said: “There are so many factors that affect the climate impact of personal choices, but bringing all these studies side-by-side gives us confidence we’ve identified actions that make a big difference.
“Those of us who want to step forward on climate need to know how our actions can have the greatest possible impact. This research is about helping people make more informed choices.
“For example, living car-free saves about 2.4 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, while eating a plant-based diet saves 0.8 tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year.
“These actions, therefore, have much greater potential to reduce emissions than commonly promoted strategies like comprehensive recycling (which is four times less effective than a plant-based diet) or changing household lightbulbs (eight times less effective).”
The researchers also found that neither Canadian school textbooks nor government resources from the EU, US, Canada and Australia highlight these actions, focusing instead on incremental changes with much smaller potential to reduce emissions.
Study co-author Kimberly Nicholas said: “We recognise these are deeply personal choices. But we can’t ignore the climate effect our lifestyle actually has. Personally, I’ve found it really positive to make many of these changes. It’s especially important for young people establishing lifelong patterns to be aware which choices have the biggest impact.”
The four behavioural changes on which the study concentrates have all been urged to different degrees, from the virtues of eating no (or at least less) meat to avoiding flying and reducing car pollution. There have also been warnings about the impact of that sensitive issue, human numbers.
All the choices were compared on a life cycle basis for one individual making the decision under current average conditions in developed countries.
This means, for example, that the emissions saved by switching from the prevailing Northern omnivorous diet to a plant-based one includes emissions from fertilisers, methane production by livestock, and the transport of food to shops and markets.
The calculation for flights is based on the emissions for one person flying on a return flight (for instance New York to London) under average conditions, while living car-free estimates not only the emissions saved per person (based on average vehicle miles travelled and vehicle occupancy) but also those from vehicle production and maintenance, and from the burning of fuel.
The calculation on family size measures the cumulative impact of current and future descendants, and current levels for all emissions produced over the lifespan of descendants, divided by the life expectancy of the parent.
Buying green energy, often suggested as an effective way to cut a person’s carbon footprint, was sometimes but not always treated by the researchers as a high-impact action.
They say the sorts of behaviour that are most effective at reducing people’s personal emissions can also be seen as desirable choices which promote a slower and healthier lifestyle.
They also confront the distinct possibility that some readers will not like their suggestions: “Though some high-impact actions may be politically unpopular, from an emissions reduction perspective this does not justify a focus on moderate or low-impact actions at the expense of high-impact actions.
“As a specific example, one textbook says ‘making a difference doesn’t have to be difficult’ and provides the example of switching from plastic bags to reusable shopping bags in order to save 5kg of CO2 per year.
This is less than 1 per cent as effective as a year without eating meat. Examples like this represent missed opportunities to encourage serious engagement on climate change.
“Focusing on high-impact actions (through providing accurate guidance and information, especially to ‘catalytic’ individuals such as adolescents) could be an important dimension of scaling bottom-up action to the transformative decarbonisation implied by the Paris Agreement.”
This story was published with permission from Climate News Network.
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