Four Lifestyle Choices Seen as Most Effective in Reducing Greenhouse Gases

Researchers from Lund University have identified the four most effective actions that individuals can take to reduce their carbon footprint.

Jul. 31, 2017
By Isabel Putinja

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A study by Lund University researchers in the jour­nal Environmental Research Letters has iden­ti­fied four of the most effec­tive actions indi­vid­u­als can take to reduce green­house gas emis­sions.

We rec­og­nize these are deeply per­sonal choices. But we can’t ignore the cli­mate effect our lifestyle actu­ally has.- Kimberly Nicholas, Lund University

The authors of the study, Kimberly Nicholas and Seth Wynes, exam­ined 39 peer-reviewed papers, car­bon cal­cu­la­tors and gov­ern­ment reports, and ana­lyzed a range of indi­vid­ual lifestyle choices and their poten­tial impact on the reduc­tion of green­house gas emis­sions. The find­ings revealed that four lifestyle choices have a higher impact than oth­ers. These include: eat­ing a plant-based diet, avoid­ing air travel, liv­ing car-free, and hav­ing smaller fam­i­lies.

Each of these four actions was deter­mined to be high impact because each reduces green­house gas emis­sions by at least 0.8 tons of CO2-equiv­a­lent per year per indi­vid­ual. The study also iden­ti­fied these actions to be best in class” com­pared to oth­ers because they have the poten­tial to con­tribute to sys­temic change: for exam­ple, if more peo­ple lived car-free, there would be less of a need to build roads and park­ing lots. The researchers applied a life-cycle analy­sis to the actions to assess the emis­sions released from cra­dle-to-grave, tak­ing into account fac­tors like pro­duc­tion, trans­porta­tion, stor­age, pack­ag­ing, etc.

There are so many fac­tors that affect the cli­mate impact of per­sonal choices, but bring­ing all these stud­ies side-by-side gives us con­fi­dence we’ve iden­ti­fied actions that make a big dif­fer­ence,” said Wynes in Science Daily. Those of us who want to step for­ward on cli­mate need to know how our actions can have the great­est pos­si­ble impact. This research is about help­ing peo­ple make more informed choices.”

An impor­tant part of the study also included exam­in­ing the actions and inter­ven­tions rec­om­mended to reduce an indi­vid­u­al’s car­bon foot­print in gov­ern­ment reports in the EU, USA, Canada and Australia, as well as 10 Canadian high school text­books.


High school text­books were exam­ined because the researchers iden­ti­fied ado­les­cents as an impor­tant tar­get group due to their poten­tial to adopt life-long habits and influ­ence behav­ior in the house­holds they live in. Five text­books rec­om­mended liv­ing car-free, only two sug­gested avoid­ing air travel, and none advo­cated eat­ing a plant-based diet or hav­ing one child less.

As for the advice pub­lished in gov­ern­ment reports, these were judged to be insuf­fi­cient to tackle the Paris Agreement goal of keep­ing the global aver­age tem­per­a­ture increase under 2° C.

Oft-cited rec­om­men­da­tions included replac­ing stan­dard light bulbs with energy-effi­cient ones, recy­cling and buy­ing energy-effi­cient prod­ucts but these prac­tices only result in a low to mod­er­ate impact. The study con­cluded that gov­ern­ment rec­om­men­da­tions tend to focus on incre­men­tal changes with a much smaller poten­tial to reduce emis­sions,” and none of the reports exam­ined men­tion any of the four high-impact actions iden­ti­fied by the study.

The study has deter­mined that eat­ing a plant-based diet (defined as entirely meat-free) is four times more effec­tive than recy­cling while chang­ing house­hold light bulbs to energy-sav­ing ones is eight times less effec­tive.

The study points out that a reduc­tion of 2.1 tons of CO2 per per­son per year is required to meet the Paris agree­men­t’s 2° C cli­mate tar­get by 2050. Here are a few exam­ples of the amount of CO2 saved per action:

  • Replacing light bulbs: less than 0.2 tons saved per indi­vid­ual per year
  • Eating plant-based: 0.8 tons saved per indi­vid­ual per year
  • Avoiding air travel: 1.6 tons saved per round-trip transat­lantic flight
  • Living car free: 2.4 tons per indi­vid­ual per year
  • Having one child less: an aver­age for devel­oped coun­tries of 58.6 tons per year

We rec­og­nize these are deeply per­sonal choices. But we can’t ignore the cli­mate effect our lifestyle actu­ally has,” said Nicholas in Science Daily. Personally, I’ve found it really pos­i­tive to make many of these changes. It’s espe­cially impor­tant for young peo­ple estab­lish­ing life­long pat­terns to be aware which choices have the biggest impact. We hope this infor­ma­tion sparks dis­cus­sion and empow­ers indi­vid­u­als.”

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