People Don’t Know How to Best Reduce Their Carbon Footprint

In this photo taken Sunday, April 16, 2017, the Theewaterskloof Dam, a key source of water supply to Cape Town, South Africa, is shown at low levels. The city, a major international tourist attraction, is instructing people to severely restrict water use because of the area’s worst drought in more than a century. (AP Photo/Halden Krog)

(CN) – People aren’t being told about the most effective steps they can take to reduce their carbon footprints, according to a new study that examines how a range of lifestyle choices impact greenhouse gas emissions.

Published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Research Letters, researchers from Lund University present four lifestyle changes with the highest potential impact on carbon emissions at the individual level in developed nations – which the team identified after analyzing 39 peer-reviewed papers, government reports and carbon calculators.

The report comes as scientists and governments consider ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as outlined in the 2015 Paris climate agreement. The treaty aims to keep global average temperatures “well below” 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels, after which scientists believe the effects of climate change become irreversible.

“Those of us who want to step forward on climate need to know how our actions can have the greatest possible impact,” said lead author Seth Wynes. “This research is about helping people make more informed choices.”

The team found eating a plant-based diet reduces nearly a ton of carbon dioxide emissions a year per person, while living car-free conserves about 2.6 tons of CO2 annually. Avoiding one transatlantic flight a year and having a smaller family are the other highly effective actions outlined in the report.

“These actions, therefore, have much greater potential to reduce emissions than commonly promoted strategies like comprehensive recycling (which is 4 times less effective than a plant-based diet) or changing household light bulbs (8 times less effective),” Wynes said.

An infographic showing climate choices. (Seth Wynes/Kimberly Nicholas, Environmental Research Letters, 2017)

Having one fewer child and eating a plant-based diet were not among the options for reducing an individual’s carbon footprint mentioned in 10 high school textbooks, according to the team. The textbooks instead recommend conserving water, purchasing carbon offsets and minimizing waste, each of which the study considers “low impact.” The researchers note the lifestyle choices of adolescents and young adults play a large role in efforts to limit climate change.

The findings are based on individuals maximizing the possible effects of lifestyle changes, which suggests the estimated benefits could vary depending on how thoroughly a person follows through with a given carbon-reducing action.

“(A) plant-based diet is framed as avoiding all meat, and purchasing renewable energy is framed as purchasing all possible household energy from renewable sources for a year, even though it would be possible to perform these actions as half-measures.” the authors write.

The team also found that Canadian school textbooks and government resources from the United States, the European Union, Canada and Australia all fail to highlight the actions recommended in the study, instead focusing on changes that have limited potential to reduce emissions.

“It’s especially important for young people establishing lifelong patterns to be aware which choices have the biggest impact,” said co-author Kimberly Nicholas. “We hope this information sparks discussion and empowers individuals.”


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