a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Do I make a difference? (4): The agency of individuals and households

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.

© UCS 2012

© UCS 2012

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)


Personal transportation

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

© FAO 2013

© FAO 2013

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.

I am a Lecturer in Global Ethics at the Centre for the Study of Global Ethics (University of Birmingham). My current research mainly focuses on the ethics of climate change and the perspective of duty-bearers on issues of global justice. Broadly speaking, my research interests include global justice, human rights, environmental sustainability, cosmopolitanism and recognition theory.
For more info, please visit https://www.wouterpeeters.info


Do I make a difference? (3): Unilateral duties to reduce greenhouse gases or promotional duties?


Leaders and their responsibility for knowledge


  1. Thanks for another interesting post, Wouter. I have a brief reflection, which leads me to a query. You mention that “The most efficient way to reduce emissions from personal transportation is probably buying a new (fuel efficient or electric) car”. Some years ago my parents explored this option and my mum’s research returned that when one takes into account the production process, car lifespan, and disposal process, the “energy-efficient” car they were considering actually contributed more emissions than the non-energy-efficient alternatives (i.e., it was only more energy-efficient in day-to-day fuel, not all things considered). Perhaps her research was mistaken and even if it were accurate, perhaps it is only some cars that are liable to this problem and/or perhaps energy-efficient cars are now better. However, the example does, I think, point towards an important issue about the positioning of individuals to judge which actions are energy-efficient, particularly on net: can people plausibly be expected to know what will actually help, all things considered, reduce their individual emissions? What my example might suggest is that even someone acting conscientiously may have difficulty, at least in a range of cases, determining the right course of action, particularly given time and information constraints. I wonder if you find this issue important, either in terms of (a) explaining why people do not reduce their emissions (e.g., a sort of epistemic paralysis) and/or (b) thinking that emissions reductions can be best pursued via institutional changes? (I should note that the latter could include changes aimed at shaping individual action, such as meat taxes, which Rebecca considered here some time ago – http://justice-everywhere.org/old-blog/on-taxing-meat-why-not/. I mean only as an alternative to asking individuals to determine appropriate changes alone.)

    • Wouter Peeters

      Thanks Andrew! My remark about the fuel efficient or electric car might indeed have been too quick. It was merely to indicate that such issues should not should not keep them from taking the first steps (the easy actions I mention in my post). Your parents were truly admirable for taking environmental concerns into account and for taking the effort to research the best option.

      To respond to the underlying problem you rightly signal, I agree that epistemic demandingness is an important issue. I would also concede that epistemic paralysis partly explains people’s inaction regarding the reduction of emissions. However, on the other hand, as I said in my post, many of these actions are widely known – or can be easily found by investing a couple of minutes in internet research. We should also be aware of the risk that people might all too easily invoke ignorance to excuse their emissions. The question then becomes whether ignorance remains excusable. My moral viewpoint might seem a bit harsh on people, but I do believe that we can reasonably expect of most people in the developed world to anticipate the consequences of their emissions and how to reduce them (see also my response to Tom’s comments on my first post). I acknowledge that the actions to be taken might not be easy, but morality isn’t either. With respect to vulnerable and future people, it would be wrong to let current emitters off the hook too easily.

      Regarding institutional changes: indeed, it might be more efficient to pursue institutional changes to reduce emissions. However, I am somewhat more sceptic: for over 25 years, the world is negotiating for a global treaty that will fall short anyway; after six years of negotiating, the Belgian regional and federal governments still are unable to agree on an appropriate intranational distribution of burdens and benefits, even after the Volkswagen scandal, the European standards for diesel cars are abysmally low; global investment in renewable energy remains completely inadequate, although virtually all economists by now acknowledge that this is the way to go; … In the mean time, individuals and households could have reduced a substantial part of emissions by behavioural changes.

      I would very much support institutional or collective measures aimed at changing individual behaviour, such as meat taxes (and Rebecca’s post was enlightening). However, I also fear that such measures will be seen as an intolerable interference with people’s choices. They are unlikely to be taken by politicians (who would like to be re-elected), and will probably be resented by many citizens (who will try to find a way to avoid these measures).

      In sum, although you make more than valid arguments, my point would be that they do not question the importance, relevance and potential of individual actions and behavioural changes.

  2. Lisa Herzog

    Hi Wouter, thanks for this interesting post. As with the previous posts, I agree with the general line of your argument. What I’m less sure about – and would like you to ask you to clarify, as far as you think is possible – is just *how* much individuals can be required to do. Many of the points you mention are relatively easy to realize. But some might come into conflict with things are very dear to people, and that give them meaning in their lives. For example, what if I live in a small flat in a city but have always dreamed of having a cottage in the countryside? Assume that at some point in my forties or fifties I have saved the money to find a small cottage – but it means that I will need a car to get there. Or assume that it is deeply important to me to get to know different countries and different cultures, some of which I can only reach by air travel – can this be permissible? Can I “make up” for it by, say, choosing not to eat meat? I know lots of people (including myself) who think about these and similar questions, and I wonder whether you think there can *ever* be a clear answer to them, and whether we could *ever* do enough – or do we have to learn to live with a bad conscience?

    • Wouter Peeters

      Thanks Lisa for these comments. Let me first say that the goal of my series was not to work out a comprehensive account of what or how much individuals are required to do. Although it is an interesting question, I would argue that we do not need such a perfectionist account to already start with the actions I mentioned. The lack of a perfect account should neither be allowed to delay the latter, nor form an excuse for inaction.

      That being said, I fully agree with you that some requirements interfere with people’s own conceptions of the good life. “Wasting energy” is probably not a part of any such conception, but “not wasting energy” might require efforts that people are not willing to take. Meat consumption as well as your example are harder. In the third post, I briefly mentioned: “we have grown accustomed to, and take for granted, a wide range of freedoms while turning a blind eye to negative effects on other people.”

      What I mean by this is that we should take responsibility for the costs (environmental degradation and harms) resulting from our choices (for example, living in a small cottage in the countryside, eating meat or flying to another part of the world), instead of offloading these costs on society, and ultimately on vulnerable people, the environment, and future people. I believe that individuals should try to avoid or reduce these costs and harms as much as they can and that it should be a priority of society to expand the range of people’s ‘costless’ freedoms (e.g. by investing in renewable energy). In addition, I would leave some room for offsetting (that is, neutralizing your own emissions by paying someone else to avoid emissions, for example by donating money to projects that install wind mills, efficient cook stoves etcetera in the developing world). There is a polarized debate about offsetting, and I regret not having been able to include it in my last post, but I take a position somewhere in the middle: in the transition to a society that enables people to pursue their different conceptions of the good life without resulting in environmental degradation and harms, I believe that individuals and households should be allowed to offset part of their emissions. I am thinking about writing a post about offsetting somewhere in the near future, but I am not entirely sure whether it would be interesting.

      The “clear” answer you are searching for, is that the emissions of every single individual, household, corporation and institution should ultimately amount to zero. Every step in that direction (beginning with the ones I mentioned in my post) should be applauded, but at the same time, those actors should also immediately be challenged to take the next step. This would also mean that not eating meat cannot compensate for air travel (carbon offsetting might, under stringent conditions).

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