Geographic Perspectives on Sustainability and Human-Environment Systems

Individual Action on Mitigation


Suppose you want to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions. What can you do? Here are some major suggestions.

Plan where you live

Where you choose to live is probably the single biggest factor in how much greenhouse gases you emit. This includes what city you live in, what neighborhood you live in within the city, and even what building you live in within the neighborhood. Where you live is important for several reasons.

First, as we saw in Module 7, the type of urban area you live in has a large influence on your transportation. This includes what modes of transportation you use (cars, transit, walking, etc.). In general, cars cause the most greenhouse gas emissions, followed by transit. Walking and bicycling cause almost no greenhouse gas emissions. This also includes how much transportation you’ll be using. In general, the farther you travel to go from place to place, the more greenhouse gas emissions you’ll cause.

Second, as we also saw in Module 7, buildings vary tremendously in how much energy they require per person. Much of this energy is in heating and air conditioning. Buildings in more moderate climates (such as the west coast of the United States) need less energy for heating and air conditioning than buildings in more extreme climates (such as the east coast of the United States). Apartment buildings need less energy per person than stand-alone houses because apartments share walls with each other and don’t lose heating and cooling to the outside as much. Finally, buildings can vary in the efficiency of their design. Buildings with better insulation and other ‘green’ design features require less energy for heating and air conditioning. Buildings with energy efficient technologies also require less energy.

Where you live also influences what social interactions you’ll have. This includes who you’ll meet and be friends with and what opportunities you’ll have to get involved in a democracy. These factors are also important to greenhouse gas emissions, though this relates to social norms and collective action as much as it does to individual action. Wherever you choose to live, it’s also important to maintain your residence effectively. This includes using insulation and choosing efficient appliances. It also includes using less heating and air conditioning by setting the temperature lower in the winter and higher in the summer. Finally, it means turning off lights and other devices when they’re not needed. In general, the biggest electricity savings come from the biggest devices: washing machines, dryers, refrigerators, and other big appliances that get used frequently. Light bulbs are also important because they are used so often and there’s such a big efficiency difference between incandescent (less efficient) and fluorescent (more efficient) lights.

Choose low-impact foods

In Module 6, we saw that livestock has a large shadow, i.e., a large environmental impact, including a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions. This is because we need to grow a lot of plants to feed livestock animals and because the animals produce pollution, including greenhouse gases, on their own. Eating less of an animal-based diet and more of a plant-based diet will, in general, have much lower greenhouse gas emissions. This is among the biggest actions that individuals can take to reduce emissions.

There are other actions we can take with food as we also saw in Module 6. We can eat locally-grown foods that do not use as much energy for shipping. Eating fresh foods instead of refrigerated or frozen foods also helps, because the refrigeration and freezing processes use a lot of energy. Food processing, in general, requires energy, so processed foods will usually require more energy. This includes processing we do in our homes: cooking, refrigerating leftovers, etc. But there can be tradeoffs. For example, some processed foods last longer than fresh foods and are thus less likely to go to waste. It can often be difficult to identify exactly which foods cause the least emissions.

Buy carbon offsets

A carbon offset is a way to pay other people to reduce their emissions. It’s called an offset because you can use it to ‘offset’ the emissions that you cause. It’s an appealing scheme because you get to do what you wanted that causes emissions and the climate won’t be affected. This depends on the offset working as it's supposed to. This scheme follows from ends ethics and not means ethics: the means of causing emissions are OK as long as the ends of climate change are unaffected.

Click for a transcript of "How does Carbon offsetting work" video.

PRESENTER: Lots of activities produce carbon dioxide. Like running a house, for example, and flying in a plane. But today I'm going to concentrate on driving.

And I'll tell you why. 24% of the entire UK carbon footprint comes from road transport. And that means a massive four tons of carbon dioxide from every one of us drivers. So it's very important to reduce that. Let's see how we can do it.

First of all, I'm going to drive more gently. I'll accelerate more gently, and I'll brake more gently. Then I'm going to remove excess baggage. For example, all this stuff in the back that I don't really need, and the roof rack if I'm not carrying anything, to cut down the drag.

And then sometimes I won't use the car at all. Instead I'll use public transport. Or if I'm feeling energetic, I'll go by bike.


Then there are various things I can do to the car itself. I can replace the tires and the fuel and the lubricants with better ones. And some people may even be able to afford to buy a more economical car.

And if I do all those things, then I'll reduce my car output significantly from four tons to about three. But nevertheless, I still produce about three tons of CO2 per year. And so do most of you. But there is something you can do about it.

I've been driving around and generating three tons of carbon dioxide, which I've released into the atmosphere to join all the rest of the greenhouse gases that are already up there. Now, imagine that miles away, maybe on the other side of the world, somebody else takes three tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

So what's happened? Three tons in, three tons of out, results? Zero. No change in the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

It's an idea called carbon offsetting. And I'll show you how it works. Here's a town that's growing fast.

There are new houses all over the place. And these ones haven't got any power yet. Now to provide them with power, the town were thinking of just burning a whole lot of extra coal in the power station.

But the trouble with burning extra coal is that it'll produce extra CO2 in the atmosphere. And that's obviously bad news. However, suppose I were able to persuade the town to use not coal power, but wind power. That would have several advantages.

For one thing, it would mean a whole lot of CO2 not going into the atmosphere. The turbines will provide power for the new houses. And as a bonus, there'll be less air pollution.

There are other ways to do carbon offsetting. Here, a forest is being planted. As the saplings grow into mature trees, they grab carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into, well, tree. A properly-run forest is a splendid carbon-offsetting project, and Target Neutral have one in Tanzania.

Carbon offsetting isn't all about carbon dioxide. Because there are other greenhouse gases. Take agriculture, for example.

Pigs are a bit of a problem, because they fart a lot. And when they fart, and when their poo decomposes, they produce a lot of methane, which is a very potent greenhouse gas. The answer is to contain the pigs like this. And then put a roof on the pigsty, so we capture all that methane and prevent it from getting into the atmosphere.

But even better than that, we can burn the methane like this, and use the heat to generate electricity. But I don't actually know any pig farmers, power-station owners, or Tanzanian foresters. And even if I did know them, I don't have enough money to persuade them to invest in one of these projects.

But there is a clever scheme for linking me with them. And this is how it works. Suppose an entrepreneur wants to generate energy from the wind.

The trouble is that, like all these projects, it simply isn't commercially viable. Because there's always a cheaper and dirtier way to do the job. But carbon offsetting can make it happen, by providing the money he needs.

What the project owner needs to do is to draw up detailed plans. And then an independent panel comes along to see whether those plans meet rigorous international standards. Well what do you think?


Ah! Whoopee! So now he can have the money to start building his turbines. And he can go ahead and get rolling.

And that's terrific. Now, one year later, and indeed, for every year, the panel comes back to make sure he really is capturing those greenhouse gases, or at least, preventing them from escaping into the atmosphere. What do you think? Is he doing it?


Brilliant. So now what he gets is not money, but carbon credits. One credit for every ton of carbon dioxide not going into the atmosphere. Here you are, carbon credits. Now he's got those carbon credits, he can sell them to someone like Target Neutral. And they can sell them to me.

Now, remember, I have three tons of carbon dioxide to offset. This is the Target Neutral headquarters, where they actually have the carbon credits. But I don't have to go there. I can go to their website and pay with my credit card. And then-- this is really important-- they take three carbon credits, one for each ton of carbon dioxide, and they tear them up. Literally, tear them up, like this.

Because that means that they cannot then be sold to anyone else. This is the carbon market. The system guarantees that when I offset one ton of carbon, there really is one ton of carbon dioxide, or the equivalent, in other greenhouse gases, that's been captured, or at least has been stopped from being released into the atmosphere.

Some people criticize carbon offsetting. They say it's just a way for people who can't be bothered to reduce their carbon footprint to throw money at the problem. But I'd like us all to be bothered. I'd like everyone to reduce their carbon emissions to zero.

And maybe one day technology will make that possible. But even today, with carefully-monitored schemes, carbon offsetting will allow you to make a difference. So here's the deal. If you will reduce, as much as possible, the amount of carbon dioxide you release into the atmosphere, then Target Neutral will help you to neutralize the rest.


BP London 2012
As you watch the video, think about these questions: Are there some issues surrounding carbon offsets? Is carbon offsets an effective way for climate change mitigation?
Carbon offsets are somewhat controversial. Some people are concerned that offsets make it easier for the rich to keep polluting while placing the mitigation burden on the others, instead of having all members of society carry their share of the burden. Others respond that with offsets, everyone benefits, since the people who are reducing their emissions in an offsets scheme are agreeing to make the reductions in exchange for being paid. Another concern is that sometimes the offset doesn't actually happen. If the money isn't spent properly, then the climate benefits won't be realized. For example, the money could go to an emissions reductions project that would have happened anyway, in which case the offsets bring no additional climate benefits. This 'additionality' issue is a major concern with offsets. All things considered, offsets cannot, on their own, solve all of our mitigation problems, but they can be a useful component to a broader set of mitigation efforts.