I cover energy and climate change, and yet even I do little to reduce my own environmental footprint.
Why it matters: Because most people don't! Recent polling and research show that most of us don't act virtuously to lessen our impact on the planet, beyond turning off lights when we’re not using them — but even then, many of us do that to save money on our electricity bills.
Driving the news: Individuals are facing more societal pressure to take action on climate change as inaction on the matter persists among governments. Swedish teenager activist Greta Thunberg, who refuses to fly because of its carbon impact, embodies this trend.
- Rare, a nonprofit focused on conservation and behavioral change, recently sought to quantify the aggregate impact voluntary, individual steps to cut emissions could have.
- The group concluded that if approximately 10% of the U.S. population adopted seven behavioral changes — including reducing air travel and purchasing an electric car — it could cut total domestic emissions by 8% within the next six years.
Yes, but: That's a surprisingly big number considering just individual action, but research suggests it would be difficult to get people to take such voluntary steps.
- People are unlikely to stick with energy-conserving behavior when facing moral persuasion, according to this 2018 University of Chicago study.
- That study found that they're more likely to be persuaded by economic incentives, concluding that higher costs drive people to conserve more energy and for longer.
The intrigue: Readers ask me what I do to lower my own carbon footprint, suggesting that because I cover this topic I should stake out a higher moral ground. Spoiler alert: I don't! Like most people, I’m driven mostly by economic incentives.
- Thunberg is the exception, not the norm in our society. I thought it would be instructive to share my habits, not because they're noteworthy but because they're mainstream.
Air travel is my biggest carbon-intensive activity, so let's start here. Jet-fueled airplanes account for just 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions, but on a per-ton basis, it's one of the most carbon-intensive activities individuals can choose.
- I am probably one of the 40 million Americans identified by the New York Times as frequent fliers taking more than six roundtrip flights annually.
- I fly to conferences across the U.S. a few times every few months. Two to three times a year, I fly to see my family in Spokane, Wash. — some 2,500 miles from where I live in Washington, D.C. I also usually fly internationally a couple times a year.
- I don't buy carbon offsets, the programs that help cancel out your carbon footprint by ostensibly preventing emissions elsewhere in the world (like planting trees or supporting renewable energy).
- My main reason: I don't want to spend more money on what are already expensive flights.
Beef, responsible for roughly 6% of greenhouse gas emissions, is the single biggest food factor when it comes to climate change, according to a 2013 United Nations report.
- I eat beef, at most, a couple times a week, usually when I'm at restaurants.
- I often opt for vegetarian or other meat (chicken, primarily) because it's cheaper and healthier.
- However, when I'm home on my family’s cattle ranch in Washington state, I eat beef almost daily. Burgers. Steak. Prime rib. Pot roast. Hot dogs. Meatloaf. Cube steak. You get the point.
I really try to conserve — but to save money, not the planet.
- I make sure to turn off my lights when I'm gone, but I confess I do sometimes leave one living room light on all day if I'm home because I like the soft glow.
- I’m more concerned about my thermostat. Heating/cooling is typically your house's biggest power hog.
- In summer, my condo's high ceilings keep it cool so I don't even need my air conditioner. But in the winter those ceilings make it hard for me to stay warm with the thermostat below 70 degrees. I do it, though — wearing layers — to avoid expensive power bills.
- I recently signed up for a company called Arcadia Power that promises renewable electricity and possibly lower bills. The cost savings intrigued me the most. The renewable energy is bonus.
My carbon footprint is the smallest here, so let's end with this.
- I don't own a car, and I'm among the 18% of Americans who use public transport.
- I try to only use ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft when they would be more than twice as fast as public transport. Otherwise, I stick to the subway and bus.
- If I got a car, it would probably be electric or hybrid to hedge against high gasoline prices. Lessening my carbon footprint would be nice too.
The bottom line: Voluntary action can be helpful and inspiring. But ultimately most experts agree systemic change on a global scale — led by governments implementing economic policies — is necessary to adequately address climate change.
- So I'm not losing sleep over my flying and eating habits — and I'll only make big changes if the price tags get a lot bigger.