Do Personal Steps to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint Really Make Much Difference?

©. Lukas Schulze/Getty Images

It was déjà vu all over again, reading the Guardian's recent list of ways to reduce your carbon footprint. All the green living websites used to be full of lists like this (including TreeHugger) but they have pretty much disappeared, since they were often impossible to do or really, did not make that much difference. Sami has addressed the complexity of this issue by noting:

By focusing too strongly on the ethics of each personal lifestyle decision, I fear we lose many a would-be environmentalist who would support policy-level action to transition to a low carbon culture which in itself would do more to discourage fossil fuel use and overconsumption than any individual lifestyle decision ever will.

Do our individual actions matter anymore? Are the lifestyle suggestions that the Guardian recommends actually meaningful? Do they still make any sense?

1. Reduce air travel

According to Chris Goodall, "a single return flight from London to New York – including the complicated effects on the high atmosphere – contributes to almost a quarter of the average person’s annual emissions." Alas, his suggested alternative, taking the train, doesn't get you from London to New York; it is one of those things where people do not really have many alternatives, so it is hard to cut back. It also turns out that flying is in fact pretty fuel efficient on a passenger-mile basis.

In fact, cutting back on flying is one of the most complex and difficult choices, as we have noted before.

2. Eat less meat


This has been a TreeHugger mantra, going back to founder Graham Hill's weekday vegetarian campaign. But it also makes a difference what meat you eat; switching from beef to chicken saves tons of carbon. But again, it is not so simple; cheese and dairy have a big footprint (although people don't sit down and gobble half a pound of cheese like they do meat) and out of season vegetables are not terrific either.

More in TreeHugger: Weekday Vegetarian: Finally, A Palatable Solution by Graham Hill

3 and 4. Home heating / fix your furnace

Poorly insulated housing requires large quantities of energy to heat. If you have properly insulated the loft and filled the cavity wall, the most important action you can take is to draught-proof the house, something you can do yourself.

Sealing the house can make a difference, but it is not something that you can do yourself easily, without borrowing a thermographic camera to see where it is all leaking. And changing the furnace will not generate anywhere near the savings in fuel (a third or more) that are promised here. And really, it is hard to talk about housing these days without mentioning that the best way to save energy is to share walls, by living in either townhouses or apartments.
A list that assumes that everyone is going to live in a single family detached dwelling is not covering all the bases. It is also proven that where you live has a far bigger impact than the quality of your insulation; people who live in denser communities tend to live in smaller spaces and drive a lot less.

More: For Saving Energy, Like Real Estate, The Three Most Important Things Are Location, Location and Location

5 and 6. The distance you drive matters / fix your old car


Lloyd Alter/ a red light in Copenhagen/CC BY 2.0

Reducing the mileage of the average new car from 15,000 to 10,000 miles a year will save more than a tonne of CO2, about 15% of the average person’s footprint. If car travel is vital, think about leasing an electric vehicle when your existing car comes to the end of its life.

Again, the big change in the UK or North America is the realization that a car is a car is a car, and that using transit or getting a bike is what can really make a difference. Thinking about an electric car is great, but thinking about no car is better.

7. Convert to LEDs

An absolute no question, no brainer, they are cheap and they are good and come with great color rendering now. On the other hand, 8. Home Appliances makes no sense at all, suggesting that "There’s often a surprising premium to really efficient fridges or washing machines." There isn't that I know of.

More: I converted my home to 100% LED lighting and you should too

9. Consume less.

"Simply buying less stuff is a good route to lower emissions.... Buying fewer and better things has an important role to play." No argument from TreeHugger on this one. As Katherine notes, Purchasing green can be good, but buying less is better.

10. The CO2 impact of goods and services matters

Bananas, for example, are fine because they are shipped by sea. But organic asparagus flown in from Peru is much more of a problem.

We have been on about this for years, about how hothouse tomatoes, even if local, have a huge carbon footprint. That you have to eat seasonal and not just local.

More: Stop Eating Fossil Fuels, Start Eating Food

white house energy policy

White House /Screen capture

But the more of this list that I read, the more frustrated I become, because these steps are all so small and so meaningless in the face of the bigger threats that we face. Sami has written, long before the recent election and inauguration:

Yes, I should turn the lights off. Yes, we should all try harder. But ultimately this battle is about cultural and political change on a scale that has rarely been seen before. First and foremost that will require collective action.

We all should turn our lights off, ride our bikes and try harder. But we also have to think of those collective actions that will make a difference. This is the challenge that we face in the next few years.