4 steps for climate change
The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions. A study recommends four widely applicable high-impact (i.e. low emissions) actions with the potential to contribute to systemic change and substantially reduce annual personal emissions: 1. having one fewer child, 2. living car-free, 3. avoiding airplane travel and 4. eating a plant-based diet. These actions have much greater potential to reduce emissions than commonly promoted strategies like comprehensive recycling (four times less effective than a plant-based diet) or changing household lightbulbs (eight times less).
The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions
Seth Wynes and Kimberly A Nicholas
Environmental Research Letters, Volume 12, Number 7
Used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 licence.
Interviewer: Hi, I’m here with Seth Wynes, a PhD student at the University of British Columbia. He’s
interested in studying how an individual can mitigate the problem of climate change. So Seth, how did
you get onto this topic?
Seth Wynes: So I was a high school science teacher and I’ve had a lot of conversations with students
about climate change and I’ve heard a lot of misconceptions from those students but I’ve also seen a lot
of curiosity as to what students can do to contribute to solving this problem.
Interviewer: So what can an individual do?
Seth: So to answer that question we looked at 39 different sources, mostly using a life cycle assessment
approach. So what that means is we wanted the biggest possible picture for the consequences of a
single action. And then we tried to make all of those actions fit into a framework of what one individual
does over the course of one year so that we could compare them. So in order to compare eating meat to
driving a car we’d find the average number of kilometers driven by a vehicle in a certain country in a
year and also the average occupancy of the car so that everything could be looked at in a fair way.
Interviewer: So what did you find?
Seth: So we found four actions that were high-impact across multiple studies and multilpe regions. The
first of these was eating a plant-based diet. The next action was living car free and then avoiding air
travel and finally, having one fewer child. These actions are really important because we need to get
emissions per capita down to 2 tonnes per year by 2050 and for some of these actions we don’t have
easy technological fixes.
Interviewer: So what are we teaching high school students then?
Seth: To answer that question we looked at ten high school science textbooks and out of all the
recommendations that were made in those textbooks, only 4% addressed those high-impact actions
that we talked about. Now, instead there was a lot of focus on low-impact or moderate-impact actions;
things like conserving electricity. That might be turning off lightbulbs when you leave a room or
unplugging devices when you’re not using them. Another thing that we found was that suggestions
might be phrased in the form of compromises. So rather than saying “live car free” a textbook might say,
“make sure that your car has properly inflated tires to reduce gasoline usage”. For us this represents a
missed opportunity on engaging students and showing them the seriousness of climate change. So in
addition to textbooks we also looked at government documents that made recommendations to citizens
about what they can do. And we found a very similar pattern as what was seen in the textbooks. These
documents were from Canada, the United States, Australia and the European Union. Now out of those
documents only Australia mentioned living car free, and none of the documents mentioned or
promoted having a plant-based lifestyle and that’s despite a lot of co-benefits that go with those
lifestyle changes. For instance a plant-based diet is associated with reduced diabetes (type II), reduced
cancer, preserving biodiversity – these are important things. And so we created our own resources to
promote these actions (text on screen: http://www.kimnicholas.com/responding-to-climate-
change.html), we’ve tested them in classrooms and they’re now available publically online.