Changing your personal lifestyle is just a small part of fixing the climate crisis

Changing your personal lifestyle is just a small part of fixing the climate crisis
For developed countries, such as the US, there are some straightforward lifestyle changes that would reduce emissions.Elaine Thompson/AP
  • A new UN report calls for drastic, immediate cuts to heat-trapping gas emissions.
  • A small part of those cuts come from individual people biking to work or wasting less food.

Hundreds of scientists called for immediate, drastic action to cut emissions of heat-trapping gases in a major report last week.

The original goal set in the historic Paris Agreement — to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures — is quickly fading into the rearview mirror. The new report, from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, drew a road map to give the planet one last chance at 1.5 degrees.

The IPCC warned that emissions of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane must peak as soon as possible — in 2025 at the latest — then plummet to half their current levels by 2030, and drop to zero by 2050. That means drastic changes across all sectors of human life, especially a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, to renewable-energy sources, such as solar and wind power.

Conversations about cutting emissions often involve a familiar refrain: What can I do? How can I make my lifestyle more sustainable?

The truth is that just a small fraction of the IPCC's road map involves individuals changing their day-to-day behaviors. There are some lifestyle changes that may be effective if people in the developing world deployed them en masse — diet, food waste, and transportation choices. But the report emphasized that government policies and better business practices were necessary to change human behavior on a large scale.


"Lifestyle choices and behavior is certainly important. But not everything is in our control," said Edward Byers, an energy and climate researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and a lead author on the IPCC report.

You could switch your gas-guzzler for an electric vehicle tomorrow, Byers added, but you might not be able to choose whether the new car's electricity came from a solar farm or a coal-fired power plant.

'Influencers' make daily decisions with big emissions implications

For developed countries, such as the US, there are some straightforward lifestyle changes that would reduce emissions. For example, it could make a big difference if urban populations ditched their cars for biking, walking, and public transport.

But that only happens if planners and developers make cities more walkable by building homes near businesses, designing roads that are safe for bikes, and planning accessible, cheap public transit systems.

That's why Stephanie Roe, a lead author on the IPCC report and climate scientist at the World Wildlife Fund, thinks of individual action in terms of "influencers." Such people have the power to make large-scale choices as professionals — such as planning transit systems or deciding what a restaurant chain does with its extra food — which can either significantly reduce emissions or have cascading effects that influence other people's behavior.


"We assume a lot of times it needs to be these top-down decisions, either from the federal or state level, that can make these changes. But oftentimes it's actually the actions of individuals within these sectors that can make a big difference," Roe said.

"If you have somebody who builds houses for a living, for example — that developer or that builder can choose heat pumps over boilers, or they can choose induction stoves over gas stoves," she added. "Those kinds of decisions, that are not necessarily facilitated or incentivized yet by policy, are made on an individual basis."

Food waste, which releases powerful methane gas as it decomposes, is one problem whose solution may fall largely on individual consumers. The IPCC report found that in 2019, 61% of the world's food waste came from households.

Still, the report recommended the creation of education campaigns to reduce household food waste, policies to make expiration-date labels clearer, and improved packaging to extend shelf life.

"A lot of the responsibility to decarbonize lives with big businesses, industries, and governments to establish the correct incentives and regulatory frameworks," Byers said. There are "many, many things that the public can do in their everyday choices. This also requires centralized and coordinated action, and political will."