How to cut your carbon footprint and curb climate change

Since I began writing more about climate change about two years ago, I’ve received several emails from people asking me what they personally can do about global warming.

The simple answer, I tell them, is to cut their emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. The hard bit is figuring out how to do so.

Last month, I published a piece about a man who got scientists to help him figure out exactly how much additional CO2 his lifestyle has added to the atmosphere. Then he asked the scientists to help him reduce his emissions, drastically.

While Dirk Gratzel’s low-carb lifestyle is probably too extreme for most (he only showers for 45 seconds and hunts wild boar so his dog can eat meat), many of the insights drawn from his personal experiment can be applied to the public at large. 

As one of the scientists involved in the study put it to me: “We can achieve a lot if … everybody gives up what isn’t too important to them.”

So if you absolutely have to have long showers, but don’t mind cutting down meat, do that. If a protein-hungry former bodybuilder like Arnold Schwarzenegger can do it, so can you. Because meat, particularly beef, requires vastly more resources to produce than vegetables, and cows belch a lot of methane (another greenhouse gas) during their lifetime.

Sadly, for the same reasons dairy is a pretty big cause of greenhouse gas emissions. Cutting down cheese and milk will reduce your environmental footprint.

Maybe you, like many people in the developed world, enjoy airline travel or rely on it to see friends and family abroad. You feel forgoing flying just isn’ an option, but still want to cut your carbon quota? Then consider offsetting your flights. Many airlines now let you do this while booking, or you can use a third-party service such as Atmosfair. The extra money you spend (usually less than 10 percent of the regular ticket price) goes toward projects aimed at reducing carbon emissions elsewhere by the same amount your flight produces.

Car travel is another obvious source of carbon emissions, unless you drive an electric vehicle and your utility company uses only renewable sources of energy. Even if you don’t sell the car immediately, using public transport or cycling for at least some of your journeys will lower your emissions, save you money and probably improve your health.

Conscious consumption in general is a good way to shrink your carbon footprint. Do you really need that plastic gizmo? Will a second-hand one off eBay do, saving you money and CO2?

Think long-term! If you own your own home, then improving insulation is probably one of the most effective ways of reducing your emissions, because the energy savings will build up, year after year. 

Finally, there’s the impact that just talking about your carbon footprint will have on people around you and, by extension, the wider public debate. Politicians, who are often in a position to do far more than most individuals, are sensitive to what people say they’re concerned about. A sustained public debate about what can and should be done about climate change will have a profound, long-term effect. Just as public debates about slavery, women’s rights, gay rights, air pollution and nuclear safety have done in the past.

If you want to cut your carbon footprint but can’t do a full Gratzel, don’t feel bad. Most people can’t. Remember than even a few changes in your life will have an effect, especially if you manage to convince others around you to do the same.

ap environmental science