Can our individual behaviour change the climate?

You’re aware of climate change? Who is responsible for solving the climate crisis? What can you, as an individual, do about it, and will it even make a difference? Many of us feel hopeless and are not convinced that their individual action will have a significant effect on our huge climate system. That’s where we should change our mindset. Individual action is the start of collective action. Climate change will not be solved by one person, but it can be solved by the collective change in behaviour. Moving towards sustainable behaviour is a key factor in addressing climate change and becoming aware of how your consumption drives climate change is the first step. The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report point out the high mitigation potential that behaviour, lifestyle and cultural change can have. It is important to understand the categories of behaviours that are most influential, and from there on make informed choices. How much emissions can we avoid by promoting change on individual scale?

Over half of global emissions are related to our consumption behavior. The main components of household footprints being car and plane mobility, meat and dairy consumption, and heating. Project Drawdown offers insight into how to reach the point where we start to draw down – where the level of greenhouse gases starts to decline. The project, led by Paul Hawken, presents 100 substantive climate solutions per sector with quantified the emissions impact or in other words, the mitigation potential. Many of these solutions refer to individual or household consumption such as reducing food waste, eating plant-based, choosing the right electricity, using sustainable transportation such as cycling or public transport.

Why you should treat every dollar you spend as a vote 

Every dollar you spend… or don’t spend… is a vote you cast for the world you want. – L.N. Smith

We are constantly spending money and are free to decide how to spend it. We buy food in the grocery store based on our diet and what we like to eat. When we go out, we can choose to order a coffee with milk. Or maybe we decide to get one with oat milk. Maybe you’re having a cheat day and decide to eat a burger. You invested in a car and spend money on the fuel or perhaps you own a bike and go by train once in a while. We pay our electricity bills. Perhaps we invested in solar panels and generate our own electricity. 

Every time we buy something, we are voting for more of that thing in the world. This is why it is so incredibly important to be aware of what you are spending your money on. Every time you open your wallet, think about your purchase or service. Is it that activity or person something you want to support? The core of our climate crisis is in our consumer behavior, in the food we eat, the products we use, the clothes we wear and the home we live in.

An example: why what you eat & buy matters

We spend a lot of our money on what we eat. What you buy in the grocery store, or order in a restaurant, has a bigger impact than you might think. The agriculture industry alone accounts for 24% of all anthropogenic emissions. And as Bill Gates states: “if all cattle were to join and start a country, they would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.” The average Western European contributes to the climate footprint with 18% through what they eat. Moving towards a plant-rich diet, and especially reducing your beef, lamb, pork and dairy intake has a huge mitigation potential. In addition, be mindful about what and how much you buy, in order to limit food waste – another huge emission source.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that one-third of the food produced for human consumption is wasted and does not reach end consumers. Especially in developed nations, food waste occurs because people don’t like the appearance of a product or the expiry date has passed. This loss of food occurs further down the supply chain and is much more carbon intensive compared to on-farm or distribution food wastage, as is mostly the case for food waste in developing countries. So, it’s largely developed countries that have the most influence in reducing emissions due to food waste. This can be done by shopping realistically, planning meals, making a grocery list, storing food in the right place and saving leftovers.

We need climate government policies and societal frameworks to be put in place for the necessary change. Our individual behavior influences the people around us, provide a setting for policy change and can create systemic change. We have the power and control we have as a citizen in environmental decisions, to shape emission pathways and push governments in the right direction. It’s not about pointing fingers to who is doing it all wrong, neither is it about changing our lifestyles fundamentally. It is about being aware of the change you as an individual, are able to make. The potential every individual has to create a sustainable world. Because after all, solving the climate crisis will rely, one way or another, on the changes in our own behavior.

References

  1. Blanco G., R. Gerlagh, S. Suh, J. Barrett, H.C. de Coninck, C.F. Diaz Morejon, R. Mathur, N. Nakicenovic, A. Ofosu Ahenkora, J. Pan, H. Pathak, J. Rice, R. Richels, S.J. Smith, D.I. Stern, F.L. Toth, and P. Zhou, 2014: Drivers, Trends and Mitigation. In: Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Edenhofer, O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, E. Farahani, S. Kadner, K. Seyboth, A. Adler, I. Baum, S. Brunner, P. Eickemeier, B. Kriemann, J. Savolainen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow, T. Zwickel and J.C. Minx (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.
  2. Broussemaere, P, 2018. Tien klimaatacties die werken. [internet] Available from: https://10klimaatacties.be/.
  3. Dubois G, Sovacool B, Aall C, Nilsson M, Barbier C, Herrmann A, Bruyère S, Andersson C, Skold B, Nadaud F, et al. 2019. It starts at home? Climate policies targeting household consumption and behavioral decisions are key to low-carbon futures. Energy Res Soc Sci. 52(January):144–158. doi:10.1016/j.erss.2019.02.001.
  4. Gates, B. October 17, 2018. Climate change and the 75% problem. GatesNotes. [internet] Available from: https://www.gatesnotes.com/Energy/My-plan-for-fighting-climate-change
  5. Hackel, L. October 26, 2018. Reducing Your Carbon Footprint Still Matters. Slate. [internet]. Available from: https://slate.com/technology/2018/10/carbon-footprint-climate-change-personal-action-collective-action.html
  6. Project Drawdown. [internet]. Available from: https://www.drawdown.org/
  7. Smith P., M. Bustamante, H. Ahammad, H. Clark, H. Dong, E.A. Elsiddig, H. Haberl, R. Harper, J. House, M. Jafari, O. Masera, C. Mbow, N.H. Ravindranath, C.W. Rice, C. Robledo Abad, A. Romanovskaya, F. Sperling, and F. Tubiello, 2014: Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU). In: Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Edenhofer, O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, E. Farahani, S. Kadner, K. Seyboth, A. Adler, I. Baum, S. Brunner, P. Eickemeier, B. Kriemann, J. Savolainen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow, T. Zwickel and J.C. Minx (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.
  8. Williamson, K., Satre-Meloy, A., Velasco, K., & Green, K., 2018. Climate Change Needs Behavior Change: Making the Case For Behavioral Solutions to Reduce Global Warming. Arlington, VA: Rare.

6 thoughts on “Can our individual behaviour change the climate?

  1. Great blogpost Carolina! Thanks for sharing, and I found the statistics very valuable, especially the graph showing cattle emissions in comparison to country emissions. While reading your blogpost, I couldn’t help but think about the demographic of individuals who are able to make choices like these. Often we see that individuals with high educational background and wealthier socioeconomic status are also those who are capable of initiating these lifestyle changes, and understand the importance of them. If we look at the issue from a demographic viewpoint, do you have any suggestions about how we could target different groups of people to initiate change? For example, older groups or those with less financial means? I would be interested to start this discussion with you and with anyone else!

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  2. Hi Carolina!

    Interesting blog post! I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on arguments from developing countries, who are just now getting the economic opportunity to regularly consume meat and other animal products (a nice paper on this: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S030917401530005X). In China, for example, per capita meat consumption has grown 470 percent since the 1980s (https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2018/07/the-chinese-are-eating-more-meat-than-ever-before-and-the-planet-cant-keep-up/), particularly because citizens in this country faced times of extreme poverty, malnutrition, and even starvation within recent history. Do you think it’s ethical to also tell citizens of nations like China, who have just now had the luxury of being able to eat meat and other animal products, to also become vegetarian, given that haven’t had they haven’t had the same opportunity to eat meat in the past as those of us in Western nations? I think this is a really tough ethical question, and one I don’t have an answer to myself.

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  3. Hey, thanks for your post! I think this a really interesting debate. In a way I am really tired of people spending their time on trying to influence personal behaviour instead of focussing on more systematic change (for example in the agricultural sector as you mention in your post). On the other hand you cannot deny that it works to some extent. While lobbywork and research are important, they also often lead to very little, while collectively changing our lifestyles can achieve a great bit.

    As you say, we should be careful though to not let the idea of the individual action become stronger than the idea of systemic change. Fossil fuel companies for example often use the same discourse of “if everyone does a little, we’ll all be fine”, which to me is a way for them to avoid the difficult choices they and governments globally need to make.

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  4. Hi,

    Thank you for your post, Very interesting and I agree with you that personal behaviour lies at the centre of change.

    Personally, I think that the consumption of energy is where individuals can generate the most impact. Consumption alone reduces certain impacts. Further, an increase in the demand for renewable energy sources will pave the way for resources which can accelerate research and innovation. Thereby further reducing environmental impact whilst simultaneously preparing societies for increases in demand and development.

    Perhaps research is slow and costly, yet I feel like research and development needs to guide in this process. Especially now in this COVID crisis, it becomes more evident than ever before.

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  5. Thank you @malaauwen and @laniepreston for your valuable comments! Demographics indeed play a big role in variation of behaviour/vegetarianism. Unfortunately, it’s often true that it is those from higher educational background and higher income level that choose to make such lifestyle changes. But that doesn’t mean others are not able to make this change. Take India as an example. It has been shown that India has many vegetarians, due mainly to the fact that meat is not in their traditional cuisine. This example shows how important culture and tradition is. Take the US on the other hand, where some might find it ridiculous to be vegetarian. It’s difficult to talk about the most effective solution or approach, but people often make decisions based on their traditions and surroundings. In addition, it is often exactly those of lower-income that are affected the most by climate change – leading to a higher incentive and awareness around climate change perhaps, compared to developed nations who do not always (yet) experience the impacts directly.

    To conclude my answer, I think our society needs a shift. It shouldn’t be our lifestyle to consume meat daily. This should just not be the baseline in our society, and it must shine through in every aspect. In restaurants, the menu should contain vegetarian options, and indicate you can add meat if you want. In supermarkets, more emphasis should be put on the impact of meat (e.g. clearly expressed on the package). Children should be taught about the environment and climate change in middle and high school, learning that everyone should care for it and treat it kindly. That eating meat, or buying everything in plastic, does have an impact. It often starts with the new generation, because it’s true that it’s challenging to change people’s way of live they have followed for decades. A shift in our society can not happen overnight, I realise that. But, I hope, that little by little, we are going to be able to make a change and ultimately live in harmony with our planet.

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  6. Thank you @tomasterreehorst for your comment! You are completely right, energy plays a huge part not only in reducing impact but also creating the needed shift for our energy system. For example, the mode of transportation people choose every day, going by bike or taking the car, already has a big impact. Unfortunately my blog post was too short to also discuss energy, but it should be recognised indeed as a very important part in reducing our emissions. Bill Gates also talks about energy and other areas where we need interventions in his post:
    https://www.gatesnotes.com/Energy/My-plan-for-fighting-climate-change

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