Previous posts in this series:
(1) The exceedingly small but fully real effects of my greenhouse gas emissions
(2) A threshold phenomenon?
(3) Unilateral duties to reduce greenhouse gases or promotional duties?
My argument thus far can be summarized as follows: the greenhouse gases emitted by individuals have a small but fully real effect in that they increase the exposure of vulnerable people to the risk of serious suffering from climate change harms, now and in the future. These individual emissions are sufficient to do so and also necessarily have this effect. From this follows that individuals have a unilateral duty to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases that they can reasonably avoid. Promotional duties are very much necessary as well, but cannot substitute this unilateral duty to reduce emissions.
In this post, I will give an indication of how individuals can reduce emissions that are clearly avoidable on the individual level. We cannot expect people to reduce emissions that are unavoidable on the individual level, since these are necessary to meet their basic rights, but I will argue that households and individuals emit much more greenhouse gases than is often believed, especially in the developed world. A significant share of these emissions can be avoided, including a share of those resulting from residential energy use, personal transportation and the consumption of meat and dairy products (1)
The sectoral allocation of emissions
Individuals and households have a much larger share in the emission of greenhouse gases than is often believed. There is a tendency among policymakers to allocate the energy use and carbon emissions from households to other economic sectors. (2) For example, many analyses allocate emissions from household electricity use to electricity generation, and emissions from personal transportation to the transportation sector, leaving only a small residential or individual share of total emissions. This framing encourages policymakers to focus on industrial sources, generators of electricity and manufacturers of cars , but disregards the substantial opportunity for emission reduction through behavioural changes. (3)
When greenhouse gas emissions from residential energy use and personal transportation are rather allocated to the household sector, the size of the latters’ contribution becomes clear, namely roughly one-third of energy use and carbon emissions. This share increases further when greenhouse gases related to the consumption of meat and dairy products are taken into account, rather than being attributed to agriculture and industry.
Residential energy use
To a certain extent, residential energy use is clearly unavoidable because it provides services (such as heating) necessary for survival and basic comfort. However, a substantial part of the global consumption elite’s energy consumption and related emission of greenhouse gases is wasteful and clearly avoidable.
Sidestepping some expensive actions (including installing a more efficient heating unit, placing high-efficiency windows, installing a more efficient water heater and upgrading attic insulation), many actions to reduce energy consumption and emissions are immediately available and have a low or no cost. For example:
- Curb space conditioning: reduce heating as well as air conditioning
- Replace inefficient light bulbs
- Use only warm (or cold) water to wash clothes
- Decrease thermostat setting on water heaters
- Switch from bathing to showering (and take shorter showers)
- Reduce standby power electricity use
- Line dry clothes
These immediate actions can potentially save 10-15% of household energy consumption and roughly the same amount of emissions. (4)
The most efficient way to reduce emissions from personal transportation is probably buying a new (fuel efficient or electric) car. However, most people cannot simply switch to a new car or cannot yet afford the most efficient cars. Luckily, there are more feasible actions that can reduce emissions right now.
First, there are many alternatives to driving a car: carpooling, telecommuting, walking, cycling or using public transportation. These do not always present viable alternatives, but even when one owns a car because he or she needs it for certain activities, one should in each particular case reflect whether there is an alternative, rather than automatically getting in one’s car.
Even when there is no alternative (5), there are measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Routine car maintenance is essential: getting frequent tune-ups (including air filter and oil changes) and maintaining correct tire pressures would decrease fuel consumption, thus not only reducing emissions, but also saving money.
On the road, some substantial savings can be achieved by changing driving behaviour and habits:
- Avoid unnecessary idling
- Reduce highway speed to 90 km/h
- Minimise the need to brake by anticipating traffic conditions
- Shift timely (for manual transmission cars)
- Avoid rapid starts and stops
- Combine errands in fewer trips
Eco-driving alone could improve average fuel use by 10% or more. Together, adequate car maintenance and changes in driving behaviour can avoid 18% of household emissions. (6)
Consumption of meat and dairy products
Policymakers and even environmental organisations (7) often tend to ignore the unpopular fact that meat and dairy consumption is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates the total greenhouse gas emissions from livestock supply chains to be 14.5 per cent of all human-induced emissions, but this is most likely a conservative estimate. (8) On average, a meat diet results in two and a half times as many greenhouse gas emissions than an average vegan diet. (9) In addition to these emissions, meat and dairy products also consume a lot of water and increase health risks (especially cardiovascular diseases and various cancers). (10)
It should be clear that in societies where access to a nutritionally varied selection of foods is limited, and where there are serious problems of mal- and under-nutrition, keeping a goat, a pig, or a few chickens can make a critical difference to the adequacy of people’s diet. These people cannot be expected to surrender their consumption of animal products needed to meet their basic rights. In contrast, however, the meat intake of the global elites can be characterised as overconsumption and over-nutrition. For these people, adequately nutritional plant foods are sufficiently available, and dietary changes are thus perfectly feasible. A transition to a low-meat, vegetarian or vegan diet would substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions, mitigation costs and land use requirements for food production. (11)
I do make a difference
These actions can reduce an individual’s emissions by at least a third, which would amount to a reduction of total emissions by roughly 15% (under conservative assumptions about the amount of emissions related to meat and dairy consumption). In addition, individuals can reduce their greenhouse gases by reducing air travel, buying locally produced and seasonal food, buying less pre-packed goods, reducing their possession of “stuff” in general, etcetera.
Many of these actions and those mentioned above are already widely known, but much less implemented. One reason for this is that people do not perceive their individual greenhouse gases to make a difference, and they therefore believe that their unilateral actions to reduce these emissions do not really make a difference either.
In this series of posts, I have argued that these assumptions about one’s contribution to climate change harms are mistaken. Although climate change is complex, requiring collective action, the role of individuals should not be underestimated. In the words of Dale Jamieson (12):
Biking instead of driving or choosing the veggieburger rather than the hamburger may seem like small choices, and it may seem that such small choices by such little people barely matter. But ironically, they may be the only thing that matters. For large changes are caused and constituted by small choices.
The effects of individual emissions might be exceedingly small, they are also fully real in that they increase the exposure of vulnerable people to the risk of serious suffering from climate change harms, now and in the future. Individuals therefore have a unilateral duty to (at least) reduce their avoidable emissions, which can partly be fulfilled by taking the actions regarding residential energy use, personal transportation and meat and dairy consumption suggested in this post.
(1) For a useful and comprehensive account about the choices individuals can make to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, also see The Union of Concerned Scientists, Cooler Smarter. Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living (Washington DC: Island Press, 2012) and http://www.coolersmarter.org.
(2) Michael Vandenbergh et al., ‘Implementing the Behavioural Wedge: Designing and Adopting Effective Carbon Emissions Reduction Programs’, Environmental Law Reporter 40 (2010), pp. 10547-54.
(3) Since measures to promote or regulate behaviour are unpopular and perceived as interference in individual’s private life, policymakers have an interest in the framing of greenhouse gas emissions that diverts attention away from individual behavioural changes.
(4) My argument and suggested actions in this section are based on Thomas Dietz, ‘Household Actions Can Provide a Behavioral Wedge to Rapidly Reduce U.S. Carbon Emissions’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106 (2009), pp. 18452-6; Gerald Gardner and Paul Stern, ‘The Short List: The Most Effective Actions U.S. Households Can Take to Curb Climate Change’, Environment 50 (2008), pp. 12-25; and IPCC, Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Working Group III Contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014). http://ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg3/ipcc_wg3_ar5_full.pdf, pp. 686-7, esp. table 9.2.
(5) Car drives can be unavoidable in meeting one’s basic needs. Moreover, while avoidable in the strictest sense, car drives can sometimes be indispensable (for example, to bring one’s children safely to school). Such activities are open for discussion, but I am convinced that, for example, an able-bodied person’s car drive to the bakery down the street or driving for pleasure are instances of greenhouse gas emitting activities that are clearly avoidable on the individual level.
(6) The information and suggested actions in this paragraph are based on Dietz, ‘Household Actions’; Gardner and Stern, ‘The Short List’; IEA, Technology Roadmap. Fuel Economy of Road Vehicles (Paris: OECD/IEA, 2012), http://www.iea.org/publications/fueleconomy_2012_final_web.pdf; and IPCC, Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change, pp. 616-18.
(7) On the environmental impact of meat and dairy consumption and the point that even environmental organisations tend to avoid this sensitive issue, see the instructive 2014 documentary Cowspiracy. http://www.cowspiracy.com
(8) Pierre Gerber et al., Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock – A Global Assessment of Emissions and Mitigation Opportunities (Rome: FAO, 2013). http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3437e/i3437e.pdf, p. 15. Other analyses show figures as high as 51 per cent for the total contribution of livestock and by-products to annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. See Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, ‘Livestock and Climate Change: What if the Key Actors in Climate Change are … Cows, Pigs, and Chickens?’, World Watch Magazine 22 (2009), pp. 10-19, at p. 11. These differing results are partly due to methodological differences, but it should be clear that meat and dairy consumption is a major source of greenhouse gases.
(9) Peter Scarborough et al., ‘Dietary Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Meat-Eaters, Fish-Eaters, Vegetarians and Vegans in the UK’, Climate change 125 (2014), pp. 179-92, at 186.
(10) Anthony McMichael et al., ‘Food, livestock production, energy, climate change, and health’, The Lancet 370 (2007), pp. 1253-63.
(11) Tara Garnett, ‘Livestock-Related Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Impacts and Options for Policy Makers’, Environmental Science & Policy 12 (2009), 491-503; McMichael et al., ‘Food, livestock production, energy, climate change, and health’. Scarborough et al., ‘Dietary Greenhouse Gas Emissions’; Elke Stehfest et al., ‘Climate Benefits of Changing Diet’, Climate Change 95 (2009), pp. 83-102.
(12) Dale Jamieson, ‘The Moral and Political Challenges of Climate Change’, in S. Moser and L. Dilling (eds.), Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change & Facilitating Social Change (Cambridge: University Press, 2006), pp. 475-82, at pp. 481-2.