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Last month, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its latest report, sounding a “code red for humanity.” The IPCC stressed the need for drastic emissions cuts immediately if we want to maintain a habitable planet and warned that we are running out of time to act to avoid climate catastrophe. It was hard not to come away from the report feeling helpless. By now, we all know the obvious things we should be doing to help the planet: eating less meat, avoiding single-use plastics, riding a bike, flying less, etc. But with excessive consumption and doomsday reports everywhere you look, it can be hard to know how much of a difference these changes can make — especially when many things that are touted as ecofriendly turn out to be more complicated. We spoke to experts about which actions have real impact in the face of climate change, from individual behaviors to public policies to push for.
Yes, it’s obvious, and it’s not easy to do — but it really does make a difference. According to the EPA, personal vehicles account for about one-fifth of the country’s total greenhouse-gas emissions. “The thing that is heating up the planet is that people get into cars, turn the key, and start burning fossil fuels,” says Michael Manville, an associate professor of urban planning at UCLA.
According to experts, even reducing your driving time in small ways helps. Susan Handy, a professor of environmental science and policy at the University of California, Davis, recommends making car trips more thoughtful and planned — such as staying local for grocery shopping, consolidating errands into a single trip, and, if possible, avoiding driving during rush hour, when congestion results in more time spent driving. And obviously: Don’t drive if you don’t have to. If you live somewhere that isn’t walkable, Handy suggests using an electric bike. “For people who think biking isn’t practical, e-bikes reduce your effort, increase your range, and help you go faster,” she says. “I can haul three bags of groceries on mine. In some ways, it’s easier than getting in my car and driving to the store.”
On a policy level, the best thing you can do is support infrastructure and legislation that reduces driving. “One of our hardest nuts to crack is the mind-set that we need to be widening our highways to address our congestion problem,” says Handy. Research shows that when highways are widened, people choose to drive more. To truly make an impact, experts say we need to go further than just making public transportation more accessible — we also need policies that make driving less convenient and more expensive. That means raising parking fees, increasing gas taxes, or implementing a miles-driven tax — which is included in the recently passed federal infrastructure bill. It also means getting rid of zoning codes that require new construction to include parking — which Manville calls “one of the biggest subsidies to car ownership and use that exists.”
It’s not easy or fun, but one of the best things you can do for the planet is to limit air travel as much as possible. Avoiding one trip on an airplane reduces enough emissions to equate to going car free for a year. When possible, consider a staycation or traveling to your destination by train. But you don’t have to entirely give up flying to reduce your carbon footprint. Experts recommend booking direct flights; though connecting flights are usually cheaper, taking off and landing contribute the most emissions. Flying on a full plane increases efficiency, so it’s better to fly economy. Frontier, Southwest, and Spirit are reportedly the best commercial airlines at maintaining fuel efficiency.
When you need to fly, buying carbon offsets — or paying a company to reduce emissions to compensate for the carbon footprint you personally contribute by driving or flying — is often recommended as a partial solution. However, you should check to make sure your money is actually going toward decreasing emissions, and avoid giving it to a second party, such as an airline, that offers to make the contribution for you. Giving Green, an initiative that seeks to give scientific, transparent recommendations on where to donate to fight the climate crisis, fact-checks all the carbon-offset companies on its site. But keep in mind that carbon offsets are more of a Band-Aid solution. Dan Stein, a co-founder of Giving Green, recommends supporting organizations that seek real, systemic change. “People shouldn’t forget about their carbon footprint, but they should try to make choices that support a low-carbon ecosystem,” he says.
Another one you’ve probably heard before: Experts say we all need to be eating a lot less beef, lamb, and dairy products. “Beef and lamb have the highest environmental cost in production, emissions, and land-use requirements,” says Jessica Zionts, a research analyst at the World Resources Institute. In addition to the environmental toll of its production, the inefficiency of the meat industry’s land usage destroys natural ecosystems that could store carbon. “If everybody were to go vegan right now, we could reforest the Amazon, but that isn’t socioeconomically realistic,” Zionts says. Instead of drastically changing your diet, Zionts suggests having poultry instead of beef and cutting down on your dairy intake. You can choose one dairy product to cut out entirely or pick certain days that you avoid it altogether. “If everyone were to eat like that, we’d be in a much better situation,” Zionts adds.
Of course, the biggest contribution to food-production emissions is not from individuals but from companies and governments. Zionts recommends supporting companies and restaurants that participate in WRI’s Cool Food Pledge initiative, which sets targets to reduce the impact that food production and consumption are having on the environment, aiming to gradually shift diets globally. Companies or groups who participate pledge to meet a food-related greenhouse-gas-emissions reduction target in line with the climate goals of the Paris Agreement.
When it comes to shopping, the best thing you can do is buy only what you truly need. If possible, buy clothing and other items secondhand. Above all, try to be thoughtful with your purchases, and buy items that will last. At this point, most people know to avoid fast fashion, but Olga Speranskaya, an environmental scientist and co-director at Health and Environment Justice Support (HEJ) recommends paying attention to the materials you’re buying. She says to avoid synthetics, microplastics, and inorganic materials, which are low quality, won’t last long before becoming waste, and don’t break down easily. Clothing items made with mixed fabrics can’t be recycled and will most likely end up as waste. Further, Speranskaya advises you to be aware of misleading phrases on labels — particularly, clothing made of recycled plastics. “It may seem like a good thing for the environment, but whether it’s recycled or not, it’s still plastic. When you go to wash that item, it will release a lot of microplastics back into the environment.” she says. HEJ’s website Sustainable Fashion has more information about what kinds of materials to avoid. As for how to get rid of old clothes, Speranskaya recommends extending the lifetime of your garments as long as possible through repair and extra care (or by making old clothes into other household items), instead of downcycling, and opting for donation over throwing items away.
Obviously, having items shipped to you presents a whole other array of environmental concerns, from packaging to transportation emissions. In addition to limiting the packages you receive, Handy recommends never using next- or same-day shipping.
Whether you know it or not, a lot of companies, organizations, and universities invest in fossil fuels. Lindsay Meiman, who works for 350, a nonprofit that seeks to end the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, says divestment is the most critical thing individuals can do to fight climate change. “First and foremost, understand the flow of your money and make sure it’s having the impact you want,” she says. You can use the website Fossil Free Funds to check if your 401(k) investments or other retirement plans are invested in fossil fuels. Meiman suggests using fossil-free portfolios or investment indexes that remove fossil-fuel companies, which you can request at most banks and investment institutions. (And it may be in your financial interest to switch: According to Meiman, fossil-free portfolios have outperformed their counterparts in the past year.)
In particular, Meiman says to make sure you don’t have any money invested in Con Edison and Enbridge. “The climate crisis can feel big and daunting and like there’s nothing we can do about it,” Meiman says. “These lies that ‘no one is responsible’ aren’t true. The climate crisis was caused by fossil-fuel companies. The one thing people can do is divest from fossil fuels.”
In addition to ensuring that your money isn’t actively contributing to climate change, you can donate to help fight it. Stein recommends that people use their money to support organizations working toward systemic change, such as the Clean Air Task Force, or donating to the Sunrise Movement Education Fund. Meiman recommends donating to climate-change-based mutual-aid organizations, such as Giniw Collective, which created a bail fund for those protesting Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline. Donating your time can be valuable too: “Organizations like the Sunrise Movement need people power,” Stein says.