October 27, 2021

The powerful role of household actions in solving climate change

by Chad Frischmann and Crystal Chissell

insights-top-20-household-climate-actions.jpg

Photo © iStockphoto.com | miodrag ignjatovic

Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects. – The Dalai Lama

Everyone can play a role in solving climate change. There are real actions we all can take, starting today, to get us on a pathway to real system change that benefits humanity and the planet. The magnitude of the challenge we are collectively facing requires action from all levels—from our governments, businesses and institutions, communities, and every one of us in our personal lives and homes. So where do we start?

According to the most recent global surveys by Yale University on international public opinion on climate change, the majority or vast majority in all 31 surveyed countries say that they:

  • think climate change is happening
  • are “very” or “somewhat” worried about it
  • think it will harm them personally either “a great deal” or a “moderate amount”
  • need at least a little more information about it 

High-income countries in North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region are home to a minority of the world’s population but have contributed the most climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions. Appropriately, citizens in those countries are more concerned than ever about their personal impact on climate change and are willing to change how they live and work, according to a September 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center. One challenge is that most of us are understandably unsure which actions are most impactful in solving climate change. Even individuals who believe they understand which actions are most impactful are often incorrect. As you join the climate action that is already underway, it’s important to understand which of your personal actions can have an impact. Fortunately, there is a science-backed, data-driven list of solutions that can guide you.

Drawdown Solutions, the solutions research arm of Project Drawdown, has led years of data collection and analysis by scholars around the world to identify and characterize more than 90 currently available technologies and practices that have a direct impact on greenhouse gases, are scientifically validated, and are economically viable. Results of this work were initially published in the New York Times best-selling book Drawdown and have influenced university curricula, city climate plans, commitments by businesses, community action, philanthropic strategy, and more. The foundation of Project Drawdown’s analysis is extensive and complex mathematical modeling that uses data from thousands of scientific sources to predict the potential of identified climate solutions to reach drawdown—the point when atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases begin to decline. This analysis and modeling tell us the impact these solutions have on the atmosphere, their bottom-line financial implications, their global applicability, and what beneficial co-benefits they offer to society and the environment.

Indeed, the Drawdown Solutions analysis reveals that individual and household actions have the potential to produce roughly 25–30 percent of the total emissions reductions needed to avoid dangerous climate change (>1.5°C rise). That is a lot higher than most people realize. It’s because we as individuals and households are a part of a broader economic system currently reliant on fossil fuels, from the food we buy, to the electricity we use, to the buildings we live in. While the vast majority of global emissions (70–75 percent) can be reduced directly by the decisions of those who run businesses, utilities, buildings, and governments, our choices as consumers, energy users, tenants, and voters have direct impact in their own right and can affect those decisions by sending signals across the system. So rather than being laden with blame and guilt, we should be owning our power to make change.

From the more than 90 specific, definitive, science-backed solutions Project Drawdown has identified, we have distilled a list of 20 high-impact climate actions that individuals and households in high-income countries can take and that together could reduce up to 25 percent of future greenhouse gases:

Click here to expand and download this graphic.

The science shows that change is needed throughout the system, and these individual actions play an essential role in the transition we need to solve the climate crisis. Indeed, the “code red” issued by the world’s top climate scientists this year (IPCC Sixth Assessment Report) shows that time is so short to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, this is an “all solutions on deck” moment for humanity. That means we need a massive surge of bottom-up momentum from individuals taking action together; forward-thinking, top-down decisions from policymakers to usher in the transition; and a middle-out transformation led by businesses, communities, and institutions.

The bottom line is that climate solutions reduce excess greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere. All of us can take some action that contributes to this effort, and many of us will be able to take direct action on one or more of the solutions on the list. But indirect action that accelerates these solutions can also have a huge impact and contribute to making climate solutions accessible for more people. For example:

  • If you are able to install solar panels on your home, you will inspire your neighbors to do the same and will put your local electricity provider on notice that citizens want to get their power from renewable sources instead of fossil fuels.
  • Eating a plant-rich diet and cutting your meat consumption signals to your grocery store and food producers that consumers want less high-emitting meat and dairy production, and more healthy plants.
  • Reducing the amount of food you waste ultimately leads to reduced need to cut down forests for land to grow that wasted food, while helping to feed the world’s population.
  • Using composting services in your city or asking city government for composting services can reduce the amount of methane produced by food rotting in landfills and provide valuable fertilizer for regenerative farms.
  • Using, and asking for, better public transportation and walking and biking infrastructure where you live can make it easier for you and your neighbors to reduce emissions from driving cars.

Helping solve climate change is a collective act, and each of us has a set of levers for changing the systems around us. It’s not always easy, but everyone can make a difference. Our power grows when we work together with others. We are not just individuals, we are neighbors, friends, co-workers, employees, owners, investors, board members, officials, and representatives. Our personal contributions will be more powerful when we learn which solutions have the most impact and join with others in our communities to push for those from government, corporations, and other institutions.

Netflix's "Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet” and nonprofit Count Us In have partnered with Project Drawdown, ENGIE Impact, and Rare to collaborate on a new platform for individuals to identify the solutions that resonate most in their lives and calculate the positive impacts those choices make. This platform aims to align itself to the Drawdown Solutions model, and will continue to harmonize the underlying calculations.

Join this global movement and take a step now:

  • Cut food waste – Buy only the food you know you’ll eat
  • Eat more veggies – Replace some of your meat with healthy protein-rich plants
  • Switch to clean energy – Upgrade to renewable energy in your home
  • Insulate your home – Improve your home’s window and wall insulation
  • Save with LED lights – Switch to energy-efficient LED light bulbs
  • Heat & cool smarter – Install heat pumps or smart thermostats
  • Get solar – Invest in solar panels and solar hot water
  • Drive electric or hybrid – Make your next car an electric or hybrid vehicle
  • Get around greener – Share a ride with others or travel by bike, public transit, or foot
  • Fly less – Stay local, make a video call, or find another way to travel
  • Reduce & recycle – Avoid single-use plastic and recycle right

It’s important to note a few things:

  • Not all possible solutions that exist in the world are presented here. We select climate solutions that have direct impact on the atmosphere; are scientifically validated, economically viable, and globally applicable; and have many additional co-benefits that solve for other things.
  • This list focuses on solutions people in high-income countries (a minority in terms of population) can directly implement, since they are responsible for at least 90 percent of excess global emissions (see this study in The Lancet and this by World Resources Institute with Climate Analytics).
  • There are many other solutions that have smaller, but still important, impact at different scales or locations. And there are many future solutions in the pipeline that may also eventually help. What is important is to find the real solutions that resonate most with you and implement them today.
  • Additional actions will be added to this list as the model becomes able to slice and dice the global data in newly subtle ways (e.g. green tariffs, leisure flight reduction, and alternative meat).

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