How can I decarbonise my life?

The question

What can we, as a family, do to reduce our carbon footprint and have a more ecologically sound lifestyle in general?

I know there are a lot of resources out there but I don’t have any particular expertise or the time to research everything, so I need a step-by-step or a handbook.

A related question – a lot of the difficulty is inertia. Any advice on how to get momentum turning away from the consumerist vortex of middle class American life (give me convenience or give me death) towards a more sustainable lifestyle?

This excellent question was posted to an online forum recently. It received some very good answers so I thought that I would treat it like a similar question on ethical investing a year ago and turn the discussion into a blog post.

As before, I will use others members’ contributions without acknowledging or directly quoting them; I’m sure they won’t mind, and I do thank them.

The answers

What really needs doing?

Current estimates for a sustainable personal carbon footprint range from 2 to 3 tons CO2e (CO2 equivalent) per person per year, to limit warming to below 1.5 degrees. Most experts favour the lower end of the range; see, for instance, Nature Conservancy (which also offers a footprint calculator) and ecocivilization.

To put this into context, the global average is 4.5 tons per person per year, and the U.S. average is 17.5 tons. Everyone in the world has a big task ahead of them, but Americans (and everyone in the West, in fact) have a bigger task than most. This is partly because each of us is, like it or not, the beneficiary and victim of our society’s infrastructure.

…in a society largely powered by fossil fuels, even someone without a car, home, or job will still carry a sizeable carbon footprint. A few years after BP began promoting the “carbon footprint,” MIT researchers calculated the carbon emissions for “a homeless person who ate in soup kitchens and slept in homeless shelters” in the U.S. That destitute individual will still indirectly emit some 8.5 tons of carbon dioxide each year.

… Stanford’s Franta [said], “As long as fossil fuels are the basis for the energy system, you could never have a sustainable carbon footprint. You simply can’t do it.”

That quotation is from Mashable’s article about the history of the carbon footprint; the MIT study it refers to is here.

So no, individuals can’t do enough. But that only means that individuals must act in the community and in politics if they are really going to decarbonise their lives.

The psychology of change

There are three basic things to consider when looking at any change you might make: how convenient it is for you, how expensive in time or money it may be for you, and the environmental difference your choice will make.

In general, the best way to move toward a zero waste lifestyle is one small step at a time. For instance:

As you continue making one change after another, you may find yourself considering a home composting setup, buying food in bulk, turning down free samples (and their associated packaging), taking steps to eliminate junk mail, and acquiring other reusable items to replace disposable products. Remember that each of these steps is only as sustainable as your willingness to stick with it long term…

(from reddit –

Key principles of the changes we need

The easiest and most sustainable way of changing your life is incremental, so any change you can make incrementally is easier and more sustainable than a one-shot wonder. Fortunately, there’s only one one-shot wonder on anyone’s list. (Unfortunately, it’s a really big one.)

In a society largely powered by fossil fuels, even someone without a car, home, or job will still be responsible for an unsustainable carbon footprint. That makes social and political action a crucial part of the project.

$$ cost is roughly equivalent to energy cost: your personal environmental footprint is proportional to your annual expenditure. This isn’t too hard to see when we break down our purchases into materials, energy, manufacturing, transport and labour costs, as the concept of “embodied energy” encourages us to do.

Personal changes

A study by Wynes and Nicholas published in Environmental Research Letters in 2017 identified four large and many smaller ways for people to reduce their own carbon footprint:

We recommend four widely applicable high-impact (i.e. low emissions) actions with the potential to contribute to systemic change and substantially reduce annual personal emissions: having one fewer child (an average for developed countries of 58.6 tonnes CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) emission reductions per year), living car-free (2.4 tCO2e saved per year), avoiding airplane travel (1.6 tCO2e saved per roundtrip transatlantic flight) and eating a plant-based diet (0.8 tCO2e saved per year). These actions have much greater potential to reduce emissions than commonly promoted strategies like comprehensive recycling (four times less effective than a plant-based diet) …

Each of these actions was high-impact (reduces an individual’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 0.8 tCO2e per year, about 5% of current annual emissions in the US or Australia) regardless of study parameters. They are also ‘best in class’—most fully achieving emissions reductions within a given domain (e.g. car travel), and with the potential to contribute to systemic change (for example, living car-free reduces the need to build more roads and parking spaces, and supports higher-density urban design, which more efficient cars do not).

decarbonisation options
Ranking our options

Wynes and Nicholas did not look at the community footprint but I will insert where it belongs in the  discussion below.

The biggest one

Having fewer children has much more effect than all our other decisions put together but there’s not much to say about it since environmental impacts are so unlikely to figure in the decision making.

The hidden one

Bigger than any of your personal consumption choices is the mere fact that you live in a developed country. Its magnitude, roughly four times the size of the next-biggest change, highlights the importance of political and social activism.

The other big ones

Remembering that energy costs and emissions are roughly proportional to $$ costs, it’s no surprise that our most effective personal choices target our biggest expenses. All of these, however, can be tackled incrementally. We don’t have to go cold turkey but can cut down, repeatedly, until we reach our personal best position.

Travel less. For medium-haul trips, prefer trains over planes. For local trips, prefer public transport, car pooling or bicycles over private cars. If you must use a car, a smaller one or an EV is best. (In the US, emissions from the transportation sector are greater than those from the energy sector.)

Reduce home heating, cooling and hot water energy usage.
Consume less electricity, or get it from renewable sources, or both.
Install rooftop solar if it’s feasible. Replace your old hot water system with a more efficient heat-pump sytem when the time comes. Use natural ventilation and temperature control instead of AC. Make sure your house is well-insulated. (See this post for thoughts about hot water systems and rooftop solar.)

(Your heating or cooling energy consumption is proportional to the temperature difference you maintain between indoors and outdoors. If you can turn down your thermostat by one degree in winter, and maybe wear a sweater, you will save about 10% of your energy consumption (and cost); if you turn it up one degree in summer, and take that sweater off, you will save a similar percentage.)

Move towards a plant-based diet. Prefer food grown locally over food grown far away. Waste less food. Compost what you don’t eat. Eating for the planet, here on Green Path, surveys vegan, vegetarian, omnivore, paleo, etc, diets to conclude that the best diet, “is one which minimises harm to the environment and to animals while maximising benefits to our health [and] … there is a ‘sweet spot’ where all three happen to coincide: a plant-based diet emphasising fresh, local, seasonal food.

Smaller changes
  • Many commonly promoted solutions, such as washing clothes in cold water or swapping incandescent bulbs for LEDs, have only a small impact but they are still good to do.
  • Reduce your trash. Start being more conscious of what you’re tossing into garbage, then identify one thing that you commonly throw away and could easily replace with a reusable item. If you must throw something away, try to recycle it rather than sending it to landfill.
  • Buy secondhand where possible. Learn some repairing/mending skills, and repair rather than replacing household goods.

Dozens more small improvements are promoted regularly enough that we don’t need to itemise them here, and if any of them are difficult or impossible for you, there’s no need to worry about them. It’s not a test of moral purity, and every small change you can make is a step in the right direction. Pick that low-hanging fruit!

Communal changes

Try to become comfortable with the idea that your personal actions are insignificant on a global scale but are still worth taking. Bear in mind that your own actions are amplified by the personal example you offer to people around you, since they will start bringing their keep-cups, riding their bikes, recycling their drink cans, etc, as you help to normalise those behaviours for them.

Getting active in local, state or national politics is important and can be highly effective although it is often frustrating and time-consuming. In both the USA and Australia, local communities are taking the initiative in spite of (or because of) federal, and sometimes state, government inertia. We’re seeing good action at local council level, and even at levels below that like neighbourhood gardens. And the smaller the community, the louder your voice is.

Denser housing, better public transport, food co-ops, more green space, community gardens, greener power generation portfolios, right-to-repair laws, bike paths and walking tracks, etc., are all bigger than anything you can do personally but are well within the reach of community activism. Take part in planning surveys, etc; write to your local council members and parliamentarians; join volunteer groups cleaning up local waterways; and so on – all the way up to joining Extinction Rebellion, if you like.

A separate quasi-political arena is the business community. For instance, groups like Market Forces are pushing (very successfully) for companies, banks and superannuation funds to disinvest from fossil fuels.

Once again, doing anything is better than doing nothing but it isn’t a competition or a jihad. Just do whatever you’re comfortable with.

References and further reading

The first of these is almost what was asked for in the first place – short, simple, reliable and user-friendly. The second is rather different since its “we” is Western society, but its answer is good and it will be worth exploring here another day.

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