Worried About the Planet? Avoid That Extra Kid

CC BY 2.0. Thorsten Mangner

Forget light bulbs and cloth bags. The actions that will mitigate climate change most effectively are the ones nobody's talking about.

Enough with the cloth bags, LED light bulbs, and recycling bins! It’s time for some straight-talk on which actions really make a difference when it comes to mitigating climate change. Canadian researchers have delved into this question, compiling a list of the most commonly suggested “green” behavior changes, as found in high school science textbooks and government documents.

After measuring the CO2-equivalent emission reductions that each of these changes would bring, the researchers made an interesting discovery – that the most effective actions are not the ones being promoted publicly. In fact, the most effective actions are hardly mentioned at all.

If you want to reduce your carbon footprint, there are four key “high-impact” actions to take, according to the Canadian study just published in Environmental News Letters:

#1 – Do not have an additional child (58.6 tonnes CO2-equiv. emission reductions per year)
#2 – Live car-free (2.4 tonnes CO2)
#3 – Avoid one round-trip transatlantic flight (1.6 tonnes)
#4 – Eat a plant-based diet (0.8 tonnes)

These differ significantly from the popular advice for “greening” one’s lifestyle, which fall squarely into the “low-impact” category:

Replace typical car with hybrid (0.52 tonnes)
- Wash clothes in cold water (0.25 tonnes)
- Recycle (0.21 tonnes)
- Upgrade light bulbs (0.10 tonnes)

The researchers found that public discourse on reducing one’s carbon footprint overwhelmingly focuses on low-impact behaviors. Worse yet, mention of the high-impact behaviors is virtually non-existent. Out of 216 mentions of green behaviors in textbooks, only eight (4 percent) spoke to high-impact behaviors. From the study:

“No textbook suggested having fewer children as a way to reduce emissions, and only two out of ten mentioned avoiding air travel. Eating a plant-based diet was presented in the form of moderate-impact actions such as eating less meat, even though a completely plant-based diet can be 2 to 4.7 times more effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions than decreased meat intake.
“Similarly, methods for reducing one's impact while driving were mentioned almost 30 times, with only six mentions of a car-free lifestyle. Instead, the recommendation category mentioned in the most textbooks was recycling (7 of ten textbooks) and the recommendation category with the most individual actions mentioned was energy conservation (32 mentions).”

The following graphic illustrates the number of mentions in Canadian high school text books:

climate actions

© Wynes & Nicolas

Certainly the high-impact actions touch on very sensitive topics, which is why many people might be reluctant to talk about them. These actions also tend to generate the most money for industry, which could be a reason for wanting to suppress discussion. But political unpopularity should not “justify a focus on moderate or low-impact actions at the expense of high-impact actions,” especially when the fate of our survival on Earth is at stake.

With younger generations already showing enthusiasm for curbing emissions by adopting drastic lifestyle changes (i.e. car-free living, veganism, etc.) that were previously unheard of in their parents’ generation, there is hope that these high-impact actions will appear less extreme as the years go by, and be willingly embraced by young people.

“Our recommended high-impact actions are more effective than many more commonly discussed options (e.g. eating a plant-based diet saves eight times more emissions than upgrading light bulbs). More significantly, a US family who chooses to have one fewer child would provide the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teenagers who choose to adopt comprehensive recycling for the rest of their lives.”

It’s hard to feel good about recycling when you realize it’s barely a drop in the bucket, but simultaneously, it’s empowering to think that keeping a family small or adopting vegetarianism can matter so much. What's it going to be for you?