Taking Personal Responsibility for Climate Change

World Greenhouse Gas Emissions by SectorThis weekend, I went to a gathering of 50 people interested in advocating for clean energy in the United States. I rode my bike there. At least a dozen people commented on what a “good girl” I was for doing so.

We poured ourselves coffee and tea into paper cups. We ate our potluck lunch on paper plates with plastic forks. We grabbed our bottles of water. We wiped our mouths with paper napkins and we grabbed our packets of printed materials to talk about how we could help push the federal government into making clean energy a reality, starting with identifying ‘green’ businesses to be our allies in this campaign.

I mean no disrespect to the good people that gave their time on a Saturday afternoon to talk about the importance of renewable energy. Nor to the folks that put together these house meetings. The idea of bringing people together around clean energy is a good one and long over due. But the experience did get me thinking about climate change and personal responsibility. It has become very easy to say that we need sweeping institutional change since my changing of my light bulbs won’t have much of an impact. But if we look at global greenhouse gas emissions by sector, is that true?

It is hard to find consistent information on emissions percentages by sector so let’s use the World Resources Institute data to see what percent of greenhouse gas emissions are within our personal control:

13.5% of greenhouse gas emissions are transportation related, the majority of those are emissions on roads (9.9%). So, to cut those emissions, we have some personal choices we can make:

  • Choose a fuel efficient car
  • Choose an alternative mode of transportation like bicycle, walking or public transportation
  • Choose goods that are not shipped from overseas or out of state
  • Travel less

24.6% of emissions are from electricity and heat. Of those, 9.9% are residential buildings, 6.3% are oil and gas extraction, refining and processing and 1.4% is coal mining. So, cutting some of those emissions is possible on a personal level:

  • Weatherize your home
  • Use a programmable thermostat
  • Turn down the heat and wear a sweater
  • Turn off the air conditioning and open the windows
  • Unplug unused appliances
  • Use energy efficient appliances
  • Use energy efficient lighting
  • Use alternative energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal
  • Purchase renewable energy credits to help fund more renewable energy sources
  • Turn off lights when not in use
  • Use solar outdoor lights
  • Use cold water wash
  • Line dry your clothes
  • Run appliances like dishwashers in energy-saver mode
  • Go manual instead of electric
  • Keep your refrigerator full and use glass containers for storage. A full refrigerator stays colder as do glass containers

For the 10.4 % of emissions that are industry related and the 5.4% that are related to commercial buildings, we can also have an impact:

  • Choose to spend your money with businesses and industries that are fuel efficient and investing in renewable energy and LEED certified buildings, producing products sustainably and reducing use of packaging.
  • Encourage local businesses to become more fuel efficient. Carrot Mob has a great ‘reverse boycott’ model for doing this; ask businesses to invest in efficiency and for those that are willing, reward them by organizing a large group to come and shop there on a set day at a set time.
  • Ask your city council and county board of supervisors to set minimum LEED standards for new buildings.

Land use changes like deforestation account for 18.2% of emissions. That may seem out of our control if we don’t live in a forested area, but it’s not:

  • Stop buying paper products made from virgin wood; choose toilet paper, paper towels, tissues, napkins and paper made from 100% post-consumer waste and without chlorine.
  • Use cloth instead of paper for napkins and towels
  • Eat less meat. Forests are being clear cut to raise cattle or their feed. If you choose to eat meat, find local sources of grass fed beef.
  • Avoid products that contain palm oil
  • If you choose to drink coffee and eat chocolate, find sources of sustainably grown beans
  • Use reusable bags instead of paper
  • Always print double-sided on paper made from recycled materials
    Stop junk mail. This insidious industry destroys around 100 million trees a year. Use services like Catalogue Choice, Green Dimes and others let you opt out of all kinds of junk, including credit card offers.

Agricultural emissions are 13.5% of global totals. 6% of that is soil management using petroleum and nitrogen based fertilizers and pesticides, 5.1% is livestock and manure, and 1.5% is rice cultivation. For the most part, we can control what we eat:

  • Eat less animal products. Consider Mark Bittman’s suggestion and make 2 out of 3 meals a day plant-based.
  • Buy produce grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides
  • Plant your own organic garden as a source of fresh produce
  • Buy rice that is sustainably cultivated
  • Avoid products made with high fructose corn syrup, canola oil or soy unless they are organic
  • Avoid foods like boxed cereal that take more energy to create and package than they produce

3.6% of emissions come from waste. Here, too, we can have an impact:

  • Buy fewer packaged goods
  • Buy less in general
  • Buy from the bulk bins
  • Buy reusable instead of disposable
  • Recycle
  • Compost. Organic matter in landfills is a source of methane. Organic matter in your compost bin is a source of plant food.
  • Ask your city council to ban plastic bags
  • Use reusable bags for all of your shopping
  • If you live in a country with potable water that comes out of the faucet, STOP BUYING BOTTLED WATER!

Yes, we need institutional change. We need to have government investment in clean, renewable energy sources and regulations that set higher CAFE and efficiency standards. We need to stop the development of new coal-fired power plants and oil exploration. Federal, state and local governments need to incentivize individual and corporate efficiency like weatherization, plug-in hybrids and efficiency retrofitting.

The EPA is currently working on a report to inventory emissions sources and sinks in the U.S. Hopefully, this is to assess how the EPA can best regulate and reduce emissions. And while this is happening, there is much we can each do, as individuals, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Image Credit: The Evergreen State College

  1. Jill @ The Barefoot Badger

    Thanks for the post reminding us that there is still plenty we can do even as larger international agreements slowly lumber along. Individuals in the United States emit an average 19.9 tons of CO2 each year…the highest of the top 33 emitting countries.

    Surely we can each work to reduce that?

  2. Bobby B.

    “It has become very easy to say that we need sweeping institutional change since my changing of my light bulbs won’t have much of an impact.”

    Whoa! Hold on a minute! I thought that the compact flourescent light (CFL) was one of the most important solutions to the climate change (previously “global warming”) problem. It was so much the solution that the same environmental groups that harp on the dangers of the mercury that naturally occurs in fish completely discounted the hazards associated with the mercury that makes CFL’s work. I still cannot get these two equations (Fish + Mercury = Dangerous : CFL + Mercury = Safe)to balance. It was so much the solution that it was included in an energy bill that was ramroded through Congress and signed into law by President Bush (environmentalism’s greatest arch enemy). In 2012, a mere three years, the purchase of Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb will be illegal. I wonder if there will be a black market for incandescents like there is for dishwashing detergent in Washington state:


  3. Maya Forstater


    I agree with your movivations, and using the ‘big picture’ data to focus on identifying the lifestyle changes that matter.

    But…the big ‘but’ is how much do these 50 lifestyle changes add up to – if we colored them in as bands on the diagram on top how wide would they be? Is it enough to matter? Which ones matter most?

    David MacKay has done some of this number crunching in his excellent book Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air http://www.withouthotair.com/. For example he says that leaving your mobile phone charger plugged in, uses one quarter of one percent of your home’s electricity.

    He argues that “The mantra “Little changes can make a big difference” is bunkum, when applied to climate change and power. It may be true that “many people doing a little adds up to a lot,” if all those littles” are somehow focused into a single “lot” – for example, if one million people donate £10 to one accident-victim, then the victim receives £10 million. That’s a lot. But power is a very different thing. We all use power. So to achieve a “big difference” in total power consumption, you need almost everyone to make a “big” difference to their own power consumption. So, what’s required are big changes in demand and in supply. ”

    My guess is that the lifestyle choices that matter most are things like (1)number of children (2) size of house (3) transport (4) energy efficency of heating, lighting and major appliances and (5)meat.

    Most of these kinds of ’50 things to do’ lists never address 1 or 2 and instead mix in 3 or 4 significant changes with lots of totems like reusable shopping bags, mobile phone chargers and so on…

    Finally, I am bemused by some of the suggestions. If boxed cereal is out of bounds, presumably so too is lettuce and celery, even organic since it uses more energy to produce than you get from it (actually I think this is true for almost all meals)? Why do glass bottles stay colder in the fridge (isn’t everything in the fridge the same temperature??)

  4. roberto

    The idea behind the article IMHO is that, while it is true that changes made by goverments have the power to be drastic and extremely more effective than all the little things one can do, it is also true that we (as individuals) have no power to make government change, but can and should do all this little things ourselves (arguing about details (lettuce, cereals and lights can be done at the same time) because we “cannot” change the world but we can change ourselves (and that will change the world eventually).

    Before you jump, let me add that need not be either or, we can pressure governments, whilst Reducing, reusing, recycling etc… whilst discarding some things thought as green who are no longer and perfecting those that are green but can be greener.

    Every small step counts.

    Thanks for the great article.

  5. John

    Great article. I think it’s always wise to remind people that even though they may be taking many steps to green their lifestyle and home, there are still many more things that can be done to reduce their environmental footprint.

    And maybe this article will serve to motivate those who think that institutional or governmental change is impossible. Thanks again for reminding us that small steps make a big difference and that we should vote with our choices and dollars.

  6. mina van horssen

    Having no children or 1 would really help. The reduction of the human population is a big ,if not the biggest, issue in global warming. We in the affluent countries have had our “fun”, lets see if we can look after the others.
    Don’t forget that we are family, it should be no problem to take care of our family. The children born to anyone are everyones.
    This problem requires a step out side economy, politics and greed, or all of these mixed up.
    Personal responsibility is not just a question of changing the light bulbs to energy efficient, of turning of appliances, not of toeing the line( “Get a Prius, organically grown Cotton!, organically grown anything), it means looking at everything you do your life,. the amount of children, what you actualy eat, did you grow it could you grow it. Where do you live and how far is it to work and how do you get there and why do live so far away from work.
    As a matter “why” is huge, it grows as we look at the choices we made and how to change them.
    ” Living sustainably”, it is not the easiest way. But it is the compassionate way. What we take and have taken others will never have.

    Marie Antoinette said famously “Let them eat cake” She was a wasteful vain person in the face of starvation and misery(Evidently incarceration changed her and that is good)
    Well most of us in the wealthy countries are behaving like Marie Antoinette

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