When I talk to people about climate change and particularly about what we can do about it, one of the most common responses I get is that we can’t do anything — climate change has to be solved at the state/national/global level, by governments and politicians, maybe big business.  Certainly not us.

Now, I am the last one to deny the role of governments in addressing climate change.  I became a lawyer specifically because I do think that law and regulation need to be part of the solution.  But here’s the thing: so far, that solution isn’t happening, at least not as well or as fast as we need it to.  And I’m just not willing to wait and do nothing and hope that governments get themselves together if there’s any chance that there’s something else I can do to help.

I find that the “not me” response usually boils down to three basic arguments:

  1. Nothing I do can make a difference: my impact would be negligible.
  2. You can’t expect so many people to change: it’s not realistic.
  3. Climate change isn’t my fault, it’s the oil companies/coal companies/insert evil conglomerate here.

I’m going to address each of these in turn, over the next three posts.

I’m going to start by looking at the first argument: I couldn’t make a difference even if I wanted to, because my impact is just so small.  On its face, this seems completely sensible: my direct emissions, from things like driving and cooking, make up a relatively small percentage of global emissions, particularly compared to industry and commercial production.  And I can’t just install solar panels on my house — I’m renting! — and I can’t stop driving to work if there’s no good public transport option.  With big coal and oil companies producing billions of tons of carbon each year, what impact can I really have?

As it turns out, quite a bit.  The key is to focus not on my direct emissions, but on my ability to influence other emissions through my purchasing and consumption choices.  According to a 2010 UNEP report, 72% of global greenhouse gas emissions can be directly traced to household consumption; the rest is split between government consumption (10%) and investments (18%).[1]  This basically tells us what we already know: coal and oil companies and other big emitters like industrial manufacturers and agribusinesses aren’t producing emissions for the fun of destroying the environment — they’re making something for me to buy.  Almost 3/4 of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions go towards my food and clothes and heating and air conditioning and transport and recreation and health care and banking and furniture and literally every other thing in my life … and the lives of the 7 billion other people that make up the population of this planet.  And that gives us, potentially, an enormous amount of power.

[sidebar: I don’t want to give up on that last 28% that they traced to government and investments, because I’m pretty sure our actions as individuals and consumers can influence those emissions too, but for this post I want to get back to the bigger question: what can we do?]

One of the best examples of individual choices impacting climate change is diet.  There have been a lot of studies on this.  According to one:[2] imagine everyone in the world stopped eating red meat from cows, sheep, goats and other ruminants.  Yes, you can still eat your bacon, and your cheese and chicken for that matter, just no more beef, mutton, buffalo, etc.  What happens?  Well, if we all stop eating red meat by 2030, then by 2050, we’d have:

  1. freed up billions of hectares of land, which could be used for reforestation or biofuel production;
  2. cut yearly land-use related emissions almost in half; and
  3. reduced cumulative greenhouse gas concentrations by 57 ppm CO2-eq, relative to business as usual.  For context, current concentrations are about 430 ppm, and we’re trying to keep things below 450 ppm, so this is a meaningful amount.[3] (We were trying to keep things below 350 ppm, but, yeah … remember what I said about the solution not happening?)

Incidentally, this kind of diet change would also save a lot of water and reduce pollution.  And this is just one diet-based scenario — there are many, with different levels and degrees of reductions and results.  The consensus: individual diet choices matter.

But it’s not the only thing we can do.  Buying sustainable products, preferring used to new, turning down heat and air conditioning, driving less when possible and a thousand other individual choices and lifestyle adjustments can help reduce emissions across the supply chain.  In fact, the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says:

“Behaviour, lifestyle and culture have a considerable influence on energy use and associated emissions … Emissions can be substantially lowered through changes in consumption patterns (e.g., mobility demand and mode, energy use in households, choice of longer-lasting products) and dietary change and reduction in food wastes.”[3]

Full disclosure: the IPCC qualifies this with all kinds of “uncertainty” and “medium confidence”, but it’s still a pretty strong indication that at least it’s worth trying, as individuals, to make an impact.

But hold on, all these “individual” impacts depend on everyone, or at least lots of people, all making some pretty big changes.  Is that realistic? Is it fair?

Good questions, which I’ll address in my next two posts: “Individuals and Climate Part II: You can’t expect people to change”; and the grand finale, “Individuals and Climate Part III: Life isn’t fair (and neither is climate change)”.


[1] http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/Publications/PriorityProducts/tabid/56053/Default.aspx which in turn cites http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es803496a, a study tying responsibility for GHG emissions to beneficiaries of the goods and services produced.

[2] http://dels.nas.edu/resources/static-assets/banr/AnimalProductionMaterials/StehfestClimate.pdf

[3] http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/

Written by Lydia

Lydia Slobodian is a lawyer working for an international environmental organization. She splits her time between Bonn, Germany and Washington, DC.