Environment and Society in a Changing World

Individual Action on Mitigation


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.

Can Carbon Offsets Really Save Us from Climate Change? (5:45)
Click for a transcript of "Can Carbon Offsets Really Save Us from Climate Change" video.


PRESENTER: Recently its become trendy for corporations to advertise their efforts to become carbon neutral, which at first glance seems like a commitment to rid themselves of fossil fuels. While, this is an admirable cause it's a little too good to be true. How can a car rental company like Avis possibly achieve carbon neutrality, when its whole business model is based on a fossil fuel reliant form of transportation? In reality, the majority of this carbon neutrality is based not on changing business practices, but instead on purchasing carbon offsets to counteract a large chunk of their emissions. So today I'm going to answer a few questions.

"What are carbon offsets?"

"How do they work and are they effective carbon offsets?"

"Are essentially a trading scheme for carbon emissions?"

When someone purchases an offset, they are investing their money in an environmental project somewhere around the world. These projects include everything from building new solar installations, to planting a tree, to lighting methane releases in landfills on fire.

Clearly the types of offsets vary widely and it's often pretty difficult to figure out where the money is actually going. Additionally because offsets are so varied, they run a wide spectrum of effectiveness. And if you do want to counteract the emissions of a long car ride, for example, you'd have to buy through a company like Terra Pass. Which invests in a range of renewable projects that capture methane from landfills and abandoned coal mines. So again, it's hard to know exactly where your money is going.

"But do carbon offsets actually lower our global carbon emissions?"

In short, not really. Carbon offsets act as a band-aid that allows the root problem to continue to exist. A factory can keep on pumping out greenhouse gases by pushing the responsibility onto a wind farm halfway across the world. By buying into the idea that markets can solve problems, that markets created. Offsets may slow the more fundamental changes that need to happen in our economy government and society. As Naomi Klein author of this changes everything points out "when a company buys these offsets as a way to justify their continued rate of fossil fuel emissions, it's one step forward, one step back, at best they are running in place,"

Whether the offset is effective or not is just one part of deciding whether they are a good piece of the solution to climate change. There are also important ethical considerations to weigh as we as individuals are deciding how we approach carbon offsets.

The Guardian journalist George Monbiot likens our use of offsets to the way in which people from 15th and 16th century Netherlands absolved their bad deeds with purchases of indulgences. A system in the Catholic Church where an you could donate money in order to rid yourself of sins. On the ground some carbon sequestration efforts can do much more harm than good. As is the case for the Norwegian own green resources forestry offset project in Cottrell Uganda which has violated the basic human rights of the local residents undermine their livelihoods and threaten their very survival. Although this doesn't reflect all carbon offset projects there have been enough of these schemes to give rise to the phrase carbon colonialism. This can't be a path forward instead climate justice movements and initiatives need to work in tandem with more human centered justice movements and initiatives and vice versa.

If you feel the need to alleviate your guilt from a long plane trip via carbon offsets consider addressing your guilt head-on you may still decide to purchase a carbon offset but definitely do your research know what kind of offset you are purchasing and realize that it's not addressing the core problems that lead to climate change. Even better than carbon offsets are giving money to an environmental justice group doing good work in your area. Or try to reduce the amount of times you fly in the year. For companies and individuals offsetting should not replace the hard work of trying to reduce emissions in any way possible.

If you're struggling with carbon offsets or have to fly a lot and don't really know what to do, I'd strongly suggest heading over to my fellow youtuber Levi Hildebrand's channel and watching his video on carbon offsets. It's a really honest look at dealing with a high impact lifestyle and it's basically the part two of this video. So go on over and check it out you won't be disappointed.

Everyone if you did end up enjoying this video I've got a lot more lined up for the next couple of months. Like the environmental cost and fast fashion so make sure you hit the subscribe button share the video around or support the channel financially on patreon. All that helps me out a lot, otherwise I will see you in two weeks.

Credit: Our Changing Climate
Credit: Our Changing Climate, 2018
As you watch the video, think about these questions: Are there some issues surrounding carbon offsets? Are 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.