This List Ranks Individual Climate Solutions Based on Their Potential for Emissions Reductions

It can be easy for climate-conscious individuals to get lost down rabbit holes regarding which actions really move the needle.

A pair of hands throwing out compostable food waste into a larger bin of waste.
Julija Erofeeva / Getty Images

It can be easy for climate-conscious individuals to get lost down rabbit holes regarding which actions really move the needle in terms of reducing personal carbon emissions. As such, I’ve always been impressed with the work of Project Drawdown to rank climate solutions based on their potential for significant emissions reductions. Until now, however, those rankings have focused primarily on a society-wide scale, meaning that many measures—climate-friendly refrigerants, for example—are hard to influence, except through civic engagement and traditional campaigning.

Now, Project Drawdown has weighed into that old systems change versus behavior change territory and they’ve done so by ranking a simple list of individual behaviors—or "household measures" as they call them—that have both the potential to directly reduce emissions and also send ripples of influence out into the systems that shape our world. The result is a list of high-impact actions that households in wealthy countries can take, which collectively could reduce global emissions by as much as 25%. (The list also informs a new collaboration with Netflix that is aimed at motivating viewers to act.)

Here’s what the list looks like in practice: 

Graphics o the 20 high-impact climate actions for households and individuals

Project Drawdown

Of course, few of us can do everything on this list. Indeed, a person who is riding mass transit and living car-free can’t, and doesn’t need to, do all that much about electric or hybrid cars. But the chances are that most of us can select a few items from this list—perhaps one from each bucket—and go all-in on both pursuing it in our own lives, and helping others to do the same. 

In this sense, the Drawdown folks have landed in much the same place as I did in my book on climate hypocrisy. Namely, we need to think about our footprints less as a marker of individual virtue or purity, and more as a metric for which actions are significant enough to bring about wider social change. The task is less about behavior change and more about boycotts or strategic mass mobilizations that excerpt influence on decision-makers. 

Here’s how the Drawdown folks describe that task: 

Helping solve climate change is a collective act, and each of us has a set of levers for changing the systems around us. It’s not always easy, but everyone can make a difference. Our power grows when we work together with others. We are not just individuals, we are neighbors, friends, co-workers, employees, owners, investors, board members, officials, and representatives. Our personal contributions will be more powerful when we learn which solutions have the most impact and join with others in our communities to push for those from government, corporations, and other institutions.

I’m delighted to see this thinking catching on. For too long, too often, action on climate has been falsely portrayed as a quest for herculean sacrifices in a system that encourages the opposite. The result has been a picture of the average "environmentalist" as being dour, preachy, or out-of-touch—a hard sell to those around us. 

Yet the fact is that a growing percentage of the population is deeply and rightly concerned about the emergency we are facing and they are looking for ways to get involved. They might not be ready to commit to veganism or give up the car entirely, but that should not matter. Instead, we should celebrate the potential in each and every one of us, regardless of our current footprint or habits, to make changes that shift society in the right direction. Crucially, this type of framing also avoids the trap of diffusing responsibility too broadly, as the Drawdown folks suggest: 

While the vast majority of global emissions (70–75 percent) can be reduced directly by the decisions of those who run businesses, utilities, buildings, and governments, our choices as consumers, energy users, tenants, and voters have a direct impact on their own right and can affect those decisions by sending signals across the system. So rather than being laden with blame and guilt, we should be owning our power to make change.

So no, those of us who live lives of relative fossil-fueled comfort can’t simply evade responsibility by claiming 100 companies are to blame for everything. But we also don’t need to carry the weight of this highly unjust world on our individual shoulders. Instead, we can look at the numbers, identify the points where we have strategic leverage, and then pull on those levers hard.