Updated: Jul 19
My family is always looking for ways to reduce our ecological footprint. I'm sure a lot of families are. It's a neverending process of learning and self-improvement, and one that, at times, can feel kind of pointless and overwhelming. We find ourselves asking, "Is this a waste of time?" or, "Are we really making a difference?", but it's important not to get discouraged. There are now 8 billion of us on this planet, and if you don't make a change, who will? To that end, it's important to pick your battles, and even more important to know which battles have the biggest payoffs in terms of reduced emissions and environmental impacts. Thankfully, other people have begun to conduct this research and we can use what they've learned to help us save time and energy while minimizing our effect on the Earth.
A few years ago everyone was up in arms about straws. Restaurants and cafes were under attack by environmentalists who insisted that they ban tiny plastic tubes or face intense public backlash. Although I agree that plastic straws are unnecessary (because I am not a 3-year-old and can drink from a cup without one), I had to laugh at what I perceived to be misplaced anger and effort. According to National Geographic, out of 8 million tonnes of plastic waste flowing into the ocean each year, plastic straws represent only 0.025% of the total. By piece, straws rank much higher - around 4% according to some studies - but even so, their impact is still comparatively small. In any case, as a result of public outcry, many companies took note and began offering non-plastic alternatives or simply stopped offering straws at all.
Anti-straw warriors could then pat themselves on the back while large fast-food chains marketed themselves as eco-friendly and progressive for making a change that probably cost them next to nothing and made no difference to them anyway. So was this a win? Well, you could argue that every little bit helps, and while I'm tempted to support that view, a September 2022 study from the journal Science shows that we may have already crossed the threshold of five climate tipping points and are on track to cross at least six more, suggesting that we don't really have time for small changes. Meanwhile, demand for international flights is now creeping back towards pre-pandemic levels and the Amazon is being deforested at the highest rate in nearly 15 years. We need big changes, and we need them yesterday. A shift to paper straws is simply not going to cut it.
Comparing lifestyle changes
Ask Google what you can do to reduce your environmental impact and you'll get a standard list of changes you should make in order to improve your energy efficiency and reduce waste at home. This includes obvious changes like switching to energy-efficient appliances, ensuring your home is properly insulated, driving an electric car, and switching to renewable energy sources. The problem is that all of these changes are going to cost you, and it's not a negligible amount. With the Consumer Price Index (CPI) in the United States at 7.7% as of October 2022 and other countries around the world feeling the pinch as well, it's unrealistic to expect consumers to be able to make the necessary changes in order to prioritize the environment when they can barely afford to drive their cars.
So if you want to help the planet but you don't have the time, money, or motivation to do everything possible, what should you focus on? Let's compare a few major studies and see what we can conclude from their findings.
A 2017 analysis compared the carbon emissions for developed countries from 39 sources. The researchers found striking differences between the annual carbon savings of different actions. Some of the most commonly suggested changes, like using energy-efficient lightbulbs and air drying your clothes, have an extremely limited ability to curb emissions. On the other hand, where you source your energy from and how you get around are hugely important, although the country you live in matters quite a lot (Canadians, for example, can make a big impact by purchasing or installing renewable energy sources).
Unsurprisingly, cars are not particularly environmentally friendly, so ditching your car comes in second place for positive changes you can make. Transportation is a pretty flexible category, which is good news for those who aren't ready to walk or cycle everywhere. Switching to an electric vehicle roughly halves your impact. Other alternatives include carpooling and making use of public transportation. Even the way you drive makes a difference. According to this carbon calculator, slowing your acceleration and reducing your highway speed can reduce your emissions significantly, even when you have to drive alone.
Similarly high on the list are international flights. The authors point out that individuals who eat meat and take one transoceanic flight per year emit 2.4 tonnes of CO2 without taking any other lifestyle considerations into account, which is already higher than the 2.1 tonnes per year recommended to keep the global temperature increase under 2 degrees C by the year 2050. Each long-distance flight you forgo prevents an average of 1.6 tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. The impact of flights cannot be overstated, a fact made crystal clear by the temporary air quality improvements observed during the early days of 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Consider domestic travel for your next holiday, or take fewer business trips if you can avoid it.
At the very top of the list is the controversial suggestion that having fewer children would result in drastically reduced emissions, by a factor of 10 or more compared to the next highest change. This is due to the fact that each of your children is a potential future parent themselves, and so on for many generations. Thus a decision to have fewer children is a very significant factor affecting future humans and their emissions. This is a thorny issue not because it is untrue, but because it affects one of the most personal decisions a family can make. While most people would never suggest something as drastic as the PRC's one-child policy (or two-child policy, these days), I don't think it's unreasonable for prospective parents to give the environment the same level of careful consideration they might give to say, their personal financial situation when contemplating whether to have additional children.
On a related note, a growing number of studies have suggested that one of the best ways to limit population growth (and thus reduce our global environmental impact) is to educate young women. This might seem like a strange link, but when girls are well-educated, they are more financially independent and have better access to healthcare, both factors that lead to fewer children.
Other impacts (land, water, biodiversity, etc.)
Examining carbon emissions might provide a relatively straightforward way to compare impacts, but it is far from a comprehensive one. To fully appreciate the impacts of various lifestyle choices, we must examine how land, water, and other resources are affected by the decisions we make.
I've already written extensively on the pros and cons of eating meat, which you can read here, but it's worth looking at a comparison of food and agriculture in terms of the different impacts they have on the environment.
As you can see in the graphic above, although food accounts for only 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions, it represents 50% of land use and 70% of freshwater usage. The biodiversity statistics are truly shocking, however, with livestock mammal and bird species outnumbering their wild counterparts by anywhere from 2:1 to 15:1.
The UN Environment Programme produced a recent report that looked at how lifestyle changes affect biodiversity and other factors. They suggest that if everyone was to switch to a plant-based diet, it would result in a 76% reduction in land use for food and nearly a 50% reduction in eutrophication. Furthermore, reducing our reliance on livestock for calories has the added benefit of reducing the risk of pandemics, of which Covid will almost certainly not be the last. Where food is concerned, the TL:DR is that you should cut down on meat consumption, especially beef and dairy, but it isn't necessary to remove meat from your diet completely.
The UN report makes several other unconventional but useful suggestions as well, including using a product until the end of its life, making ethical investments, and acquiring experiences instead of 'things'.
I don't mean to belittle the value of making modest incremental changes in order to reduce your ecological footprint, especially since those changes are often the easiest and least costly to make. However, if those are the ONLY changes we are willing to make, we will likely face dire environmental consequences in the future.
As with any complex issue, we could delve so much deeper if we wish to. However, the purpose of this article was to make it clear that big changes are necessary if we are to avoid a climate catastrophe, and that those changes might not be what you think. If you decide to go down the rabbit hole, you'll find no shortage of resources to explore. Whatever you choose to do though, don't wait.
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