Sunday, 17 November 2019

What is the best way to reduce your carbon footprint?

In a 2017 paper in Environmental Research Letters, the authors compare popular advice around reducing individual contributions to climate change, with an evaluation of the impacts, measured in annual expected tonnes of greenhouse gas averted. They concluded that advice tends to focus on recycling and energy efficiency, whereas dietary change and flying less is more neglected by the public but higher impact. They conclude:

...there are opportunities to improve existing educational and communication structures to promote the most effective emission-reduction strategies and close this mitigation gap. 

A comparison of the impact of different popular choices is shown in the chart below. The bars represent the impact of the choice, measured in tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions (CO2-equiv GHGs) averted per year. Click the image below to see it full size.

The supplementary data from the paper above is available here.

In 2018, the charity evaluator Founders Pledge reviewed potential opportunities for philanthropists to help improve progress on climate change. They concluded that:

We have two recommendations for donors interested in climate change: the Coalition for Rainforest Nations and the Clean Air Task Force. Both organisations have an exceptional track record and we are confident that their future work will have a large impact on greenhouse gas emissions.... [for these top charities] we think it is likely that a donation to them would produce benefits on the order of $1 per tonne of CO2e. Equivalently, a $100 donation would avert around 100 tonnes of CO2e.

Assuming that £1 = $1.29, this means that a regular donation of £10 per month to a high-impact charity could avert around 155 tonnes of carbon emissions. The chart below compares the actions listed above, with estimated impacts from around 0.1 to 2.5 tonnes of CO2-equiv GHGs, with the estimated impact of donations to the highest impact charities (~155 tonnes per year). Click the image below to see it full size.


More information, and links to set up recurring donations to the Coalition for Rainforest Nations or the Clean Air Task Force are here and here. This analysis does not include the knock-on social impact of choices such as a setting a norm within a group of friends of flying less, or motivating others to eat less meat. If these effects are large (and enduring) enough, they could become substantial.

Individuals interested in maximising their social impact should be highly considerate of the views and norms of others, and so might still want to endorse positive but low-impact norms in order to improve social cohesion and influence.

These values are estimates and further technical discussion is available in both the original Wynes and Nicholas 2017 paper, and the Founders Pledge article. Even if the values change by an order of magnitude (decrease by 10x), they would still outweigh the marginal effects of individual consumption choices.

Also, there may be yet higher potential opportunities for donors looking for high-impact careers in climate change, such as through clean energy innovation here, or with adaptation research organisations such as ALLFED here. High-impact careers could be found through supporting research institutions such as the Grantham Institute at Imperial College, or the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge, among others. Further careers information for individuals interested in tackling some of the world's most pressing problems is available here.

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What is the best way to reduce your carbon footprint?

In a 2017 paper in Environmental Research Letters , the authors compare popular advice around reducing individual contributions to climate ...