The structure of modern life, from the conveniences in the First World to the massive poverty alleviation that has taken place in the Third World, is dependent on energy consumption.
Nobody is going to sign up for being back in the Stone Age, foraging for berries and communicating by smoke signal. It is also clear that many things can only be done by collectives: corporations and governments.
And yet: there are simple things we can all do to “do our bit” without feeling like we’ve taken a hatchet to that which makes life worth living. This essay provides a short list of those things, and it is written by someone (me) who has an appalling carbon footprint and is trying to do better.
I recognise that socioeconomic circumstances of individuals across countries vary greatly, so we (me + Alina Goh) have compiled three lists: one for the average citizen in a high per capita emissions country, one for the average citizen in a low per capita emissions country, and one for the global 1% who are the worst offenders of all.
TL;DR: The Three Lists
Decarbonise the home
Consume less, consume smart
Divest to invest
The Average Citizen in a High Per Capita Emissions Country
Reduced food waste
Smart home devices
The Average Citizen in a Low Per Capita Emissions Country
Two parameters matter in forming and understanding these categories: income group and per capita emissions. Using World Bank metrics, income group is based on GNI per capita - a high-income economy has a GNI per capita of USD 12,376 or more, while a low-income economy has USD 1,025 or less. Per capita emissions are defined as the average quantity of CO2 emitted per person in a country. When per capita emissions are aggregated in terms of income, the data is clear: higher-income countries emit far larger quantities of CO2 than lower-income countries.
The richest half of the world is responsible for 86% of global CO2 emissions, while the bottom half contributes a mere 14%. We want global incomes and standards of living to rise, especially for undeveloped and developing countries. This inevitably means their emissions will go up. To enable this whilst limiting climate change means that the onus is largely on high per capita emissions countries to shrink their lifestyle emissions - fast. Despite this, there are also ways to empower individuals in low per capita emissions countries to lower their emissions in feasible, meaningful ways.
List: The 1%
Even more so than the “average” person, the behavioral choices of the affluent will have a significant cumulative effect on emissions, not only because of the scale of their lifestyle but also because of their influence on consumption behavior in the rest of the population. In a direct sense, the per capita emissions levels of the 1% are egregiously high.
A lifestyle consumption study estimated that a typical 2-person household in this category produces a carbon footprint of 129.3 tCO2 emitted per year. Despite being a conservative estimate, this amounts to 10 times more than the global average per capita emissions. The 1% has the greatest capacity - and the most agency - to slash their carbon footprint.
Reducing air travel
As a whole, the aviation industry currently makes up around 2% of total CO2 emissions (that’s still 0.9 GtCO2 emitted per year). However, the rapid growth of the middle class in many developing countries signals a meteoric rise in the appetite for air travel in coming years. Projections peg aviation emissions to grow by 700% by 2050.
There is a host of social implications attached to denying these people the right to fly, given that developed nations were previously able to enjoy this luxury unprohibited (and are arguably more historically responsible for getting emissions to their current level). Instead, the more privileged need to step up and cut down on unnecessary emissions, regardless of the consumption preferences of the growing middle class.
The 1% are the most regular flyers in the population, and often travel out of desire rather than necessity. With the existence of powerful telepresence software, even business travel is less necessary than before. Cutting out flying completely is a tough behavioral challenge to overcome, but limiting air miles traveled per year is a definite possibility for high-income individuals.
Assuming that a large majority of high-income individuals will opt for private over public transport, choosing electric vehicles is a near-seamless lifestyle shift that sees minimal compromise in basic performance and style. Electric vehicles could potentially slash CO2 emissions by up to 52.4 GtCO2, and early adoption by those who can afford it could drive demand, eventually making prices accessible to a wider group of consumers. Thus, this solution presents a double-win: not only are the super-rich adopting climate-friendly practices in their individual lives, but their consumption now contributes to more widespread consumption later.
Decarbonise the home
On average, wealthier people tend to live in larger, more energy-demanding homes. They may even have multiple residences, all of which require large quantities of energy to run. An effective way to reduce their individual carbon footprint is to decarbonise these spaces, which can be achieved through several means. They could install rooftop solar devices that could power the home through clean energy, contributing towards emissions savings of up to 24.6 GtCO2 globally.
They could also fit the home with a range of smart devices designed to maximise energy efficiency, from smart thermostats to smart plugs. All of these home adaptations come at a marginal cost to the super-rich, but can generate significant energy and emissions savings over time.
Consume less, consume smart
An exceedingly simple solution that is often overlooked is to consume less. Many people, especially those in the 1%, live a life of excess, purchasing items that aren’t needed only to leave them collecting dust in a storage closet
Personal note: there is little doubt that I will occupy a prominent position in any consumption hall of fame. I am trying to fix this and there are so many easy choices — a trivial one is to extend electronic device replacement periods.
In the words of Prof Sir Ian Boyd, “the more we consume, the more we absorb the resources of the Earth.” This is not to say that we can’t have nice things at all, but it is worth making more prudent judgements on the environmental cost of our choices and cutting superfluous consumption where possible.
Like electric cars, many consumables have emissions-friendly counterparts, albeit not always at competitive prices. Supporting sustainable producers, however, is a key step towards bringing down prices and emissions alike. Those that are able to pay a premium for products that are more durable and/or sustainable should do so.
Divest to invest
In a climate context, divestment involves removing high-emitting stocks (most commonly those of fossil fuel corporations) from one’s financial portfolio. By refusing to fund corporations that contribute to climate change in real, direct ways, investors would be able to “fight” against big polluters with their dollars.
However, simply divesting from climate polluting stocks is not by any means a world-saving solution. What matters then is where the money goes. For Bill Gates and others, divestment means nothing unless the money is reinvested into climate innovations for the future.
High-income individuals hold great power in that they can financially boost projects they believe in, and investing in innovations could spur technological breakthroughs needed to accelerate mitigation efforts.
List: The Average Citizen in a High Per Capita Emissions Country
Countries cannot be homogenized into a one-size-fits-all scenario, but we can safely assume that the average citizen in a high per capita emissions countries is economically better off, with access to a greater range of goods and services than their low per capita emissions counterparts. This gives individuals far more flexibility and control in constructing a low-emissions lifestyle.
Hailed by experts and the media alike as a major opportunity to mitigate and adapt to climate change, reducing meat consumption or going fully plant-based has gained recent traction in Western societies, most of which overlap with the high per capita emissions bucket.
The benefits of this lifestyle change include significantly reduced emissions from livestock - beef and lamb in particular - and more sustainable land use. An Oxford University study even estimated that cutting out meat alone could reduce individual carbon footprints up to 73%.
In societies where meat-eating is ingrained into culture and history, taking action in this way can be difficult. An intermediate step could include only eating meat on a day or two of the week, for example.
Individuals living in areas with developed public transport systems could cut their personal emissions by opting to take public transport or use carpool services instead of a private car. Last-mile micromobility options such as shared bikes and e-scooters also present greener alternatives to driving, and could even be more optimal choices in traffic-heavy cities. Estimates say that a shift towards mass transit could generate emissions savings of up to 6.57 GtCO2, while micromobility could act as a valuable and integrated supplement to shared transit systems.
Reduced food waste
Globally, one third of all food produced is lost or wasted. This occurs across the supply chain, and industry-level adaptation is needed to minimize this at the production and processing stages, but individuals have the power to minimize waste at the consumer end of the sequence.
This is particularly easy in urban and suburban settings, where apps tackling food waste are commonplace. Individuals can opt to purchase food that is Too Good To Go from restaurants, or receive Oddbox vegetables and trade unwanted food items with others on Olio. Recycling and upcycling, if effectively implemented, are also useful ways of ensuring that food waste is given a secondary purpose, although these solutions tend to lie above the individual or household level.
The total efforts to reduce food waste could result in 70.56 GtCO2 mitigated, of which minimized consumer waste is a valuable portion.
The cost of renewables has nosedived in the past decade, and is now cost-competitive with fossil fuels in every major region of the world. In practice, accessibility and individual price varies, but it is now cheaper and more efficient to build a solar or onshore wind plant than it is to install a new fossil fuel plant. On a personal level, opting into renewable energy is much more of a reality now than it was a few years ago and, especially for those in urban or suburban areas, could be an effective and cost-friendly way to reduce household carbon footprints.
Smart home devices
There are a range of household adaptations that could result in a reduced carbon footprint across a wide range of price points. Private energy producers such as rooftop solar and micro-wind solutions are feasible, but carry high associated costs and are not regarded as the most accessible or efficient home solution for the average earner.
Lower-cost options that aim to maximise energy efficiency in the home include both smart and manual fittings. The former group includes the likes of the smart thermostat, which could reduce emissions by 2.62 GtCO2 if widely implemented, and smart glass, which could see 2.19 GtCO2 emissions reductions. The latter group includes tap aerators, which restrict water flow and can generate savings of around 50% for water, energy and carbon emissions.
List: The Average Citizen in a Low Per Capita Emissions Country
In comparison to high per capita emissions countries, we assume here that the average citizen in a low per capita emissions countries is economically worse off, with more limited access to goods and services than their high per capita emissions counterparts. This narrows the feasible set of personal solutions that individuals can turn to to “fight” climate change.
Additionally, the mechanisms needed to enact many of the solutions in these communities lie with political and economic institutions rather than at the individual level. Nevertheless, individual choices can still make a difference, be it directly through reduction in carbon footprint or by influencing others to make conscious consumption choices.
Skyrocketing appetites for meat due to rising incomes can be clearly observed in rapidly developing countries - see China - but it is a tough sell to simply tell these communities to cut it out completely. It is far more realistic a goal to promote diets that are lower in meat, both for environmental and health reasons.
This requires some large-scale social change - meat was traditionally perceived as a luxury in previous generations - but initiatives can start from the ground up. Individuals can choose to adopt a diet that only occasionally includes red meat such as beef or lamb, more often opting for white meat or plant-based protein to maintain a balanced diet.
Although it is an uphill battle, cumulative instances of this behavior could spur community-wide behavioral change, with possible knock-on effects at a larger scale.
Clean cookstoves can be defined as “solar-powered or fuel-burning household stoves that reduce greenhouse gas emissions by either increasing thermal efficiency, reducing specific emissions, or increasing ventilation.” They replace wood and biomass powered stoves that typically lack adequate ventilation and are much less efficient. Traditional biomass cookstoves, which are used by about a third of the global population, emit pollutants like CO2, methane and black carbon, affecting not only the climate but also the health of household inhabitants.
Developing affordable renewable cookstoves has proven a challenge, but those utilising “cleaner” fossil fuels like propane are a viable option that trumps biomass cooking. Organisations like the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves hope to enable adoption of affordable, effective and durable clean cooking technologies in the near future. Individuals will have increasing access to such innovations, and will be able to make the switch to clean cooking with minimal economic cost. If successful, up to 15.81 GtCO2 could be reduced.
The price competitiveness of renewable energy bodes particularly well for citizens in developing countries. It could resolve issues that plague fossil fuels such as resource-intensive installation and high operating costs, consequently reaching more of the 1.1 billion people globally who do not have access to electricity.
On an individual level, households could opt into renewable energy programmes, particularly near to urban areas. The deployment of micro-grids in countries like India could give countless more rural communities the opportunity to switch over to clean energy sources.
LED lighting, which has been widely adopted in many high per capita emissions countries, is one way for households in lower per capita emissions countries to achieve a win-win for the climate and themselves. Not only is LED lighting far more energy efficient than traditional light sources like kerosene or halogen, it is also far more long-lasting.
A shift to LED lighting at the household level could result in up to 7.81 GtCO2 reduced - an even greater impact than commercial LED lighting implementation. LED lighting still remains more expensive upfront than halogens or kerosene lamps, but its life span and efficiency far outweigh such costs.
Many low per capita emissions countries are located in regions that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. More intense weather patterns bring about a need for these communities to adapt in a cost-effective way. Climate-smart housing, encompassing a range of material innovations that maximise resource utilization and efficiency, enables just that.
Examples include rainwater collection and filtration systems, vertical agriculture and cool roofs. Aside from low to moderate upfront costs, these innovations provide durability and maximise resource utility, making them a prime solution to the vulnerability created by climate volatility.
Although this solution does not actively “fight” climate change by slashing emissions, it actively builds climate resilience, shielding communities from physical, social and economic catastrophe at the hands of an intensifying climate. For many low per capita emissions countries, this is a frontline battle that cannot be ignored in the conversation on climate.