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.
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.