What can we do about climate change?

Solar power is an important option for reducing CO2 emissions that you can exploit by choosing electricity companies that use it, installing your own panels, or encouraging governments to support. Credit: First Solar

Solar power is an important option for reducing CO2 emissions that you can exploit by choosing electricity companies that use it, installing your own panels, or encouraging governments to support. Credit: First Solar

As nations continue to argue over CO2 emissions limits at the ongoing climate talks in Mexico, you might ask: what difference can each of us make? Compared to the pledges being traded by our countries, our own efforts can seem insignificant. But they’re not – they’re the first small steps in a long journey, as the scientists I’ve been asking to explain climate change this year have highlighted.

And, as we seek to move nearer to a safe climate, one option is to alter our behaviour to reduce our individual carbon footprints. Barry Sinervo suggests we cycle instead of driving, and Jessica Blois says we could drive more fuel efficient cars and drive less, and reduce how much petrol we burn. As well as how far we travel, the distance the goods we buy travel has an impact on CO2 emissions. Consequently some of my interviewees recommend buying locally-grown food, for example, although this is not necessarily the greenest option if it involves growing food in climate-controlled buildings.

Some, like Louis Codispoti, question whether we need to buy as much as we do at all, and hence whether the energy needed to produce what we buy is well used. How we get our electricity is also important, so Walter Immerzeel recommends we try and choose suppliers that use as much renewable energy as possible. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg has put solar panels on his roof for the same reason.

Another option is to improve how efficient our electrical devices are, so that they use less power, cutting how much coal is burnt, so Kevin Trenberth also uses energy-efficient light bulbs and makes sure his other electrical goods are as efficient as possible. Insulating your house and taking other measures to reduce your power bills will also help reduce your carbon footprint, the researchers note.

However, focussing too much on either changing our behaviour or using more efficient technology could be counter-productive, Shahzeen Attari and Jens Borken-Kleefeld warn. That’s because our willpower is not always strong enough to consistently stick to behaviour changes, and people tend to use more efficient products more than less efficient ones, balancing out the potential energy saving. Consequently, it’s important both to have efficient products and to limit their use. Attari also suggested a list of actions that we can use in order to make sure we’ve taken the most effective steps to cut our energy consumption.

The political sphere that feeds into climate negotiations is not completely closed to us, however. As Joeri Rogelj recommends, we can all use our votes to try and get parties that will tackle climate change into power in all of our countries. And we can clearly get more from our politicians. Despite the confusing squabbles over percentage CO2 emission cuts currently dominating the agenda in Cancún scientists have shown that it is feasible to completely kick the carbon habit by 2030. Perhaps we should all make a resolution for 2011 to make the politicians representing our regions aware of that, and encourage them to strive for it.

  • Also, as we look forward to 2011, don’t forget to vote in the Simple Climate end of year poll!

2 Responses to “What can we do about climate change?”

  1. Richard Pauli Says:

    I think you may be underestimating the enormity of the change required. Economic demands should not constrain the speed of attacking this problem. This is a science/engineering problem in our planet’s life support systems.



    • andyextance Says:

      Perhaps I should have entitled the blog post “What can individuals do about climate change”. You can probably see that’s very much the gist of the post. The links you include seem like good ways for governments to tackle it. They seem superficially quite similar to the carbon-free power generation solution suggested by Stanford professor Mark Jacobson and UC Davis professor Mark Delucchi I link to above.

      However governments are not going to do anything unless it will win them votes. That’s why I suggest we make them aware of studies that show that it’s feasible to wean ourselves off carbon, and that we’d support them in enacting them. I think the one above is especially potent, because of the high profile of the academics who wrote it. Jacobson’s testimony to the EPA gave the basis for granting the “California waiver” – the right that California has won to govern its own CO2 emissions.

      While sustainable power generation is important for the whole world, other than talking to politicians, it’s difficult to see what else we can do to make it happen as individuals. Any suggestions?

      And I agree that these energy plans would be an enormous change – which is why this blog entry details smaller changes that people might be able to achieve. They could be more effective than you give credit for. My admittedly basic calculations at the following link show that by 2020 average CO2 emissions per person globally must fall to 5.8 tonnes per person per year.


      In 2001 the average in the US was 28.6 tonnes per person per year. Not sure how reliable you think they are, but the following article shows a number of CO2 calculators say that between me and my partner, our household emissions are below 3 tonnes per year.


      We do this largely by adopting the measures detailed here, and in the list that Attari mentions. Getting everyone in the world to adopt these measures is still a big challenge – but it’s definitely one worth aiming for.

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