Some actions for reducing your own personal carbon footprint may have a higher impact and be more effective to help address climate change, than some other actions which are considered moderate or lower impact.
In this guide, we reference a study that identifies these high, moderate and low impact actions.
We also include a list of others actions that may help lower an individual’s carbon footprint.
Summary – Most Effective Ways To Reduce Personal Carbon Footprint
Before investigating ways to reduce your carbon footprint, you may want to know first what a sustainable carbon footprint might be to aim for.
Some of the high impact ways to reduce carbon for individuals listed below from a specific study include:
– Number of children
Each extra person in the world introduces a new set of emissions
But, whether or not this increases total emissions can depend on the lifestyle and consumption choices of each individual, and the country they live in
(An increasing population, or having more children doesn’t always lead to higher emissions – read more about this in the guide below)
– How much you use your personal car compared to walking, riding or catching mass transport (like public transport)
Use of personal vehicles can increase the per person carbon footprint
– Number and length of plane trips
Taking less plane trips a year can reduce carbon emissions
– Use more cleaner, lower carbon energy
If your house currently runs on coal or gas power, switching to solar or another cleaner renewable energy technology usually helps reduce emissions
– Consider how you drive
A fuel efficient car, in some cases an electric car, or simply reducing the amount of braking and accelerating you do can all reduce emissions
– Consider what your food diet looks like
It’s also worth noting that the highest offending carbon footprint meats tend to be beef, lamb, and pork, with chicken usually having a smaller carbon footprint
– Overall consumption rate
Be aware of the carbon footprint of the product you use on a daily basis … be aware of your total consumption, your consumption rate (how often or how fast you consume), and how efficient you are with the things you use and consume (how much use or value you get out of them, how long you use or keep them for, and so on)
Another interesting note from the information below is that divorced families may have larger carbon footprint – splitting up their footprint across two or more households, instead of sharing in the potential increased efficiency of one home.
Additional pets in the household also increase the carbon footprint – they emit gas, and their diet (especially if meat based) has a footprint too.
High Impact, Moderate Impact, & Low Impact Actions For Reducing Carbon Dioxide Emission Footprint
There’s been research done into what the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint are, and the approximate CO2e (kg of carbon dioxide equivalent) reduced per year by implementing these different actions.
What was found was that there’s a clear difference between ‘high impact’, ‘moderate impact’ and ‘low impact’ actions.
Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas (iopscience.iop.org, and phys.org) outline high impact, moderate impact and low impact ways to reduce carbon dioxide in terms of approximate CO2e reduced per year (in kg):
High Impact Actions
Have one fewer child – 23, 700 up to 117, 700 CO2e reduced per year (kg)
Live car free – 1000 up to 5300
Avoid one long range flight per year – 700 up to 2800
Purchase green energy – less than 100, up to 2500
Reduce effects of driving – 1190
Eat a plant based diet – 300 up to 1600
Moderate Impact Actions
Better home heating/cooling efficiency – 180
Install solar panels/renewable energy
Use public transportation, ride a bike, or walk
Buy energy efficient products
Conserve energy – 210
Reduce food waste – 370
Eat less meat – 230
Reduce consumption in general (of products)
Reuse – 5
Recycle – 210
Eat local – 0 up to 360
Low Impact Actions
Eliminate unnecessary travel
Plant a tree – 6 up to 60
Purchase carbon offsets
Reduce lawn mowing
Keep backyard chickens
Buy Eco labelled products
Calculate your home’s carbon footprint
Influence employer’s actions
Influence school’s actions
Is Having Less Children Really The Best Way To Reduce An Individual’s Carbon Footprint?
Population growth in general might result in increased emissions, but it’s only one of several key factors that might increase overall emissions from a population of people.
Other key factors can include:
Rate of economic growth and industrialization
Consumption rate and total consumption (at least at the city level – it’s been suggested reducing consumption is a better strategy than simply using more renewable energy and electric vehicles)
The energy mix of a country – is coal primarily used? Natural gas tends to be cleaner than coal, and renewables and other energy sources cleaner than fossil fuels
How low carbon energy sources for electricity generation and power (heating, cooling, lighting, etc.) are, and efficiency of electricity/power generation
How low carbon energy sources for transport are, the total number of vehicles (mainly cars and trucks) being used, and how efficient transport methods are per passenger (e.g. mass transit vs personal vehicles)
[The above points about energy can also refer to carbon intensity of certain energy sources and the activities they are used in]
So, having children and a family is not necessarily a bad thing for an individual’s carbon footprint if per capita emissions of those individuals is lower (which can be based on the above factors, and other factors).
There’s several solutions they’ve implemented to do this.
Other Ways Individuals Might Help With Climate Change & Lower Their Carbon Footprint
Realistically, it comes down to consumption rate, home size and design, choice of energy provider for a home (for electricity, choice of food and drink diet, transportation choices, and other lifestyle choices.
Various studies indicate that family planning (number of kids and marriage/divorce), transport, energy/electricity, home size and efficiency, food/diet choice, and waste management (reduce, reuse, recycle, etc) are the areas which individuals can focus on to see the highest levels of reductions.
General actions people might take into consideration to reduce their carbon footprint might include:
Choosing a certified clean energy supplier, such as a renewable energy supplier that uses solar, wind or hydroelectric, or nuclear. These tend to use less CO2 in operation than coal. But, note that there are emissions involved in the production stage, such as from solar cells, nuclear fuels, cement production etc. css.umich.edu goes into this further. Read more about the carbon emissions from different energy and electricity sources in this guide
Consider how homes can be more energy efficient, such as having insulation (to reduce heating and cooling), energy efficient design, having energy (electricity) and water efficient appliances, devices and systems, not wasting or losing electricity and water around the house (set timers, pull plugs, fix leaks)
Consider the type of heating and cooling you have at home – Space heating with wood emits the least CO2e (31.4 tons per million BTU) followed by 64.2 for natural gas, with the highest being 210.5 for electric heaters (css.umich.edu)
Various sources indicate LED lights can save 80 to 90% of energy compared to conventional incandescents
Washing clothes on cold instead of warm, using a dryer rack instead of a machine dryer for clothes, using a low flow shower head, having shorter showers
Having an energy efficient refrigerator and freezer (as they can use a lot of energy)
The size and number of homes can also matter when calculating carbon footprints
Consider that pets have a carbon footprint, and that divorced families living in separate homes may also have larger footprints
Drive less total miles, or drive a fuel efficient or cleaner energy car (like an electric vehicle running on renewables)
Take more carbon efficient forms of transport … taking public transport or carpooling where possible (which might be more efficient per passenger mile travelled), and walking and riding where possible, over inefficient forms of transport such as single person private cars. Living in well designed cities can help with this
Keep cars maintained. Something as simple as keeping tires inflated can help with fuel mileage and reduce the total fuel burnt and reduce emissions. Servicing and replacing old parts can also help
Also shorter and less plane flights in a given year might help
– Food & Beverages
Consider whether switching from eating beef to a less carbon intensive meat like chicken for example is an option
Consider whether reducing dairy products (and other animal by products), seafood and eggs, which can also be higher in emissions in the regular diet, is an option
Consider whether a vegetarian or plant based type diet which might be less carbon intensive is an option. css.umich.edu outlines that ‘Vegetables, fruits, grain products, sugars, sweeteners, oil, fats, and other food groups make up less than 20% of the average food consumption’s greenhouse gases’
Eating locally sourced can help cut down on transportation footprint
Not wasting food at home – food waste has an indirect carbon footprint
Home cook more, cook in an efficient way, don’t over consume, avoid food with a lot of unnecessary packaging (buy in bulk if possible), eat fruit and veg in season (food out of season could have been flown in)
According to css.umich.edu, organic food [might require] less energy during production but [requires more labor and is more] expensive
In terms of water, drink more tap water over bottled water if your tap water is safe to drink
You can read more about the foods with the highest carbon footprints in this guide
Reuse and recycle where possible
Consider the impact of each additional pet you bring into the family (pets emit gases, and their food diet has a footprint too)
Working at home one or more days a week can save energy on transport/commute and in other areas
Consider where you work – does your employer have some carbon efficient processes and systems in place?
Shop for products with lower carbon footprints, workout outside instead of on a treadmill or in a gym
Consider how energy intensive the activities you do in your spare time are – e.g. car racing and driving, compared to hiking
livescience.com also indicates that staying married can lower a carbon footprint IF divorced households need two houses to support separate parents
– Total Consumption Rate
Consider the impact of decreasing total consumption, and rate of consumption – of electricity, of miles travelled, of food eaten and wasted, of products and services used and purchased, of household activities, and so on
Carbon offsets might help somewhat, but it might help more to not have to offset them in the first place
Some other notes on solutions …
In terms of home types and sizes:
[The type of home matters – detached houses might use the most energy, followed by mobile homes, apartments with 2-4 units in the building, followed by apartments with 5+ units in the building]
Smaller homes use less energy
– css.umich.edu (note – css.umich.edu has data on how much CO2 these solutions and others might save)
The carbon footprint of U.S. households is about 5 times greater than the global average.
For most U.S. households the single most important action to reduce their carbon footprint is driving less or switching to a more efficient vehicle.
The most common way to reduce the carbon footprint of humans is to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Refuse (refer to the waste hierarchy). This can be done in manufacturing, at household level, in transport, in heating and cooling, in food consumption, and carbon offsetting
A [study] argued that the most significant way individuals could mitigate their own carbon footprint is to have fewer children, followed by living without a vehicle, forgoing air travel and adopting a plant-based diet.
carbonfootprint.com has a good guide with solutions on technology, travel and secondary emissions, as well as numbers on reductions
In terms of food:
ourworld.unu.edu lists how the different food diet choices can impact carbon footprint reduction
Eating what you buy (and not wasting food) (25%) and reducing meat and dairy consumption (25%), together could make up half of an individual’s carbon footprint reduction.
Other actions that can lead to a reduction could involve eating seasonally, avoiding excessive packaging, cooking using less energy, and buying reduced price/soon to expire products and misshapen vegetables and fruits.
Carbon Footprint Of The Everyday Things We Use
We’ve also put together a guide that outlines the carbon footprint of some of the everyday things we use and consume.
Wider List Of Potential Solutions For Climate Change
Read More About Climate Change
If you’re interested in reading more about climate change, this guide outlines some of the basic information to consider