Ten simple changes to help save the planet

We know that climate change is happening – but there are plenty of things individuals can do to help mitigate it. Here’s your handy guide to the most effective strategies.

In a new report published in September 2018, the world’s leading climate scientists made their starkest warning so far: our current actions are not enough for us to meet our target of 1.5C of warming. We need to do more.

It’s settled science that climate change is real, and we’re starting to see some of the ways that it affects us. It increases the likelihood of flooding in Miami and elsewhere, threatens the millions of people living along the Brahmaputra Riverin north-eastern India and disrupts the sex life of plants and animals.

So we don’t need to ask whether climate change is happening – or whether humans are causing it. Instead, we need to ask: “what can we do?”

What can you do that will have the biggest impact? Here’s our guide.

1. What is the single most important thing humanity has to do in the coming years – and what does that mean for me?

The number one goal? Limiting the use of fossil fuels such as oil, carbon and natural gas and replacing them with renewable and cleaner sources of energy, all while increasing energy efficiency. “We need to cut CO2 emissions almost in half (45%) by the end of the next decade,” says Kimberly Nicholas, associate professor of sustainability science at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS), in Sweden.

The number one goal is to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources

To mitigate climate change, the number one goal is to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources (Credit: Getty)

The road towards that transition includes daily decisions within your reach – like driving and flying less, switching to a ‘green’ energy provider and changing what you eat and buy.

Of course, it’s true that climate change won’t be solved by your buying or driving habits alone – although many experts agree these are important, and can influence others to make changes too (more on that later). Other changes are needed that can only be made on a bigger, system-wide basis – like revamping our subsidy system for the energy and food industries, which continue to reward fossil fuels, or setting new rules and incentives for sectors like farming, deforestation and waste management.

One good example of the importance of this regards refrigerants. An advocacy group of researchers, business-people and NGOs called Drawdown found that getting rid of HFCs (chemicals used in fridges and air conditioning)  was the number-one most effective policy to reduce emissions. That’s because they are up to 9,000 more warming for the atmosphere than CO2. The good news is that we have made global progress on this, and two years ago 170 countries agreed to start phasing out HFCs in 2019.

This is important because we need “unprecedented changes in all aspects of society to deal with climate change, says the IPCC report. “Everyone is going to have to be involved,” says Debra Robert, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the group tasked with the report.

2. Changing how industries are run or subsidised doesn’t sound like anything I can influence… can I?

You can. Individuals need to exercise their rights both as citizens and as consumers, Robert and other experts say, putting pressure on their governments and on companies to make the system-wide changes that are needed.

Another way, increasingly undertaken by universities, faith groups and recently even at a countrywide level, is to ‘divest’ funds out of polluting activities – such as avoiding stocks in fossil fuels, or banks that invest in high-emission industries. By getting rid of financial instruments related to the fossil fuel industry, organisations can both take climate action and reap economic benefits.

3. Other than that, what’s the best daily action I can take?

One 2017 study co-authored by Lund University’s Nicholas ranked 148 individual actions on climate change according to their impact. Going car-free was the number-one most effective action an individual could take (except not having kids – but more on that on that later). Cars are more polluting compared to other means of transportation like walking, biking or using public transport.

One ranking found that going car-free is the most effective action one person can take

One ranking found that going car-free is the most effective action one person can take (Credit: Getty)

In industrialised countries such as European nations, getting rid of your car can reduce 2.5 tonnes of CO2 – about one-fourth of the average yearly emissions (9.2 tonnes) contributed by each person in developed countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

“We should choose more efficient vehicles and, whenever possible, switch directly to electric vehicles,” says Maria Virginia Vilarino, co-author of the mitigation chapter in the IPCC’s latest report.

4. But isn’t renewable energy extremely expensive?

Actually, renewables like wind and solar are becoming increasingly cheap across the world (although final costs are subject to local circumstances). The latest report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) found that several of the most commonly used renewables, like solar, geothermal, bioenergy, hydropower and onshore wind, will be on par with or cheaper than fossil fuels by 2020. Some are already more cost-effective.

Solar energy is now the cheapest source of electricity for many households

Solar energy is now the cheapest source of electricity for many households in Latin America, Asia and Africa (Credit: Getty)

The cost of utility-scale solar panels has fallen 73% since 2010, for example, making solar energy the cheapest source of electricity for many households in Latin America, Asia and Africa.  In the UK, onshore wind and solar are competitive with gas and by 2025 will be the cheapest source of electricity generation.

Some critics argue that these prices disregard the price of integrating renewables on the electricity system – but recent evidence suggests these costs are ‘modest’ and manageable for the grid.

5. Could I make a difference by changing my diet?

That’s a big one, too. In fact, after fossil fuels, the food industry – and in particular the meat and dairy sector – is one of the most important contributors to climate change. If cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China and the US.

If cattle were their own nation, they’d be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases

If cattle were their own nation, they’d be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases (Credit: Getty)

The meat industry contributes to global warming in three major ways. Firstly, cows’ burping from processing food releases lots of methane, a greenhouse gas. Secondly, we feed them with other potential sources of food, like maize and soy, which makes for a very inefficient process. And finally, they also require lots of water, fertilisers that can release greenhouse gases, and plenty of land – some of which come from cleared forests, another source of carbon emissions.

By reducing your consumption of animal protein by half, you can cut your diet’s carbon footprint by more than 40%

You don’t have to go vegetarian or vegan to make a difference: cut down gradually and become a ‘flexitarian’. By reducing your consumption of animal protein by half, you can cut your diet’s carbon footprint by more than 40%. A larger-scale approach could be something like banning meat across an organisation, as office-sharing company WeWork did in 2018.

This explainer of sustainable diets by the World Resources Institute (WIR) and its longer associated reportprovides more answers to questions about food and carbon emissions.

6. How harmful are my flying habits?

Planes run on fossil fuels, and we haven’t figured out a scaleable alternative. Although some early efforts to use solar panels to fly around the world have had success, we are still decades away from commercial flights running on solar energy.

A normal transatlantic round-trip flight can release around 1.6 tonnes of CO2 – almost as much as the average yearly emissions of one person in India.

A normal transatlantic round-trip flight can release around 1.6 tonnes of CO2, according to Nicholas’s study – almost as much as the average yearly emissions of one person in India. This also highlights the inequality of climate change: while everyone will be affected, only a minority of humans fly and even fewer people take planes often.

There are groups of scientists and members of the public who have decided to give up flying or who fly less. Virtual meetings, holidaying in local destinations or using trains instead of planes all are ways to cut down.

Wondering how much your travel contributes to climate change? Measure your carbon emissions in this calculator by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.

7. Should I be shopping differently?

Most likely. That’s because everything we buy has a carbon footprint, either in the way it is produced or in how it is transported.

For instance, the clothing sector represents around 3% of the world’s global production emissions of CO2, mostly because of the use of energy to produce attire. The hectic pace of fast fashion contributes to this figure as clothes are discarded or fall apart after short periods.

The clothing sector makes up about 3% of the world’s CO2 emissions

The clothing sector makes up about 3% of the world’s CO2 emissions (Credit: Getty)

International transport, including maritime and air shipping, also has an impact. Groceries shipped from Chile and Australia to Europe, or the other way around, have more ‘food miles’ and usually a higher footprint than local produce. But this is not always the case, as some countries grow out-of-season crops in energy-intensive greenhouses – so the best approach is to eat food that is both locally grown and seasonal. Even so, eating vegetarian still beats only purchasing local.

8. Should I think about how many children I have (or don’t have)?

Nicholas’s study concluded that having fewer children is the best way to reduce your contribution to climate change, with almost 60 tonnes of CO2 avoided per year. But this result has been contentious – and it leads to other questions.

One is whether you are responsible for children’s climate emissions, and the other is where are these babies born.

If you are responsible for your kids’ emissions, are your parents responsible for yours? And if you are not, how should we consider the fact that more people will likely have more carbon emissions? We also could ask whether having offspring is a human right beyond questioning. And we could ask if having children is necessarily a bad thing for solving climate change: our challenges may mean we will need more problem-solvers in future generations, not fewer.

Those are hard, philosophical questions – and we’re not going to try to answer them here.

Children lead to more CO2 emissions – but they may also be future problem-solvers

Children lead to more CO2 emissions – but they may also be future environmentally-minded problem-solvers (Credit: Getty)

What we do know is that no two people have the same emissions. Although the average human releases around 5 tonnes of CO2 per year, each country has very different circumstances: developed nations like the US and South Korea have higher national averages (16.5 tonnes and 11.5 tonnes per person, respectively) than developing countries like Pakistan and Philippines (around 1 tonne each). Even within national borders, richer people have higher emissions than people with less access to goods and services. So if you choose to take this question into account, you have to remember that it’s not just about how many children you have – it’s where (and who) you are.

9. But if I eat less meat or take fewer flights, that’s just me – how much of a difference can that really make?

Actually, it’s not just you. Social scientists have found that when one person makes a sustainability-oriented decision, other people do too.

Here are four examples:

Social scientists believe this occurs because we constantly evaluate what our peers are doing and we adjust our beliefs and actions accordingly. When people see their neighbours taking environmental action, like conserving energy, they infer that people like them also value sustainability and feel more compelled to act.

10. What if I just can’t avoid that flight, or cut down on driving?

If you simply can’t make every change that’s needed, consider offsetting your emissions with a trusted green project – not a ‘get out of jail free card’, but another resource in your toolbox to compensate that unavoidable flight or car trip. The UN Climate Convention keeps a portfolio of dozens of projects around the world you can contribute to. To find out how many emissions you need to ‘buy’ back, you can use its handy carbon footprint calculator.

Whether you are a coffee farmer in Colombia or a homeowner in California, climate change will have an impact on your life. But the opposite is also true: your actions will influence the planet for the coming decades – for better or for worse.


Diego Arguedas Ortiz is a science and climate change reporter for BBC Future.

5 Women on Deciding Not to Have Children Because of Climate Change

Empty Cot


Climate change is real, and it will start damaging the planet in irreversible ways very, very soon. An October 2018 report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed that we have 12 years to keep the globe’s average temperature at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels; even half a degree higher would greatly increase the risks for drought, poverty, and extreme weather.

David Roberts


The new IPCC report is out. The top line is familiar: we can still limit climate change to non-catastrophic levels if we act quickly. But underneath that, what counts as “quickly” has grown ever more ludicrous. https://www.vox.com/2018/10/5/17934174/climate-change-global-warming-un-ipcc-report-1-5-degrees 

A major new climate report slams the door on wishful thinking

The IPCC says that even the most optimistic scenario for climate change is dire.


David Roberts


Basically, stopping warming at 1.5C would involve an immediate, coordinated crash program of re-industrialization, involving every major country in the world. It would be like the US mobilizing for WWII, only across the globe, sustained for the rest of the century.

If you’ve heard about the report, chances are it caused you to do one of two things: 1. Internally freak out about our impending doom and become so overwhelmed that you decided to not think about it and leave the unprecedented changes up to those in laboratories and the White House. 2. Internally freak out about our impending doom and then wonder what you can do to help.

For many women, that goes beyond recycling, switching to an electric car, or avoiding fast fashion. It also extends to the choices we make about family. According to a 2017 study, the number one thing people in industrialized countries can do to limit climate change is have fewer children; not having a baby could save as much carbon per year as 73 people going vegetarian. However, Kimberly Nicholas, who co-authored the report, told ELLE that the report wasn’t meant to make people feel guilty for having children. “If I had a burning hole in my heart to have a child and I knew that it would also be the biggest contribution to climate change that I would make, I think that I would do it anyway,” she said. Nicholas also said she believes lowering your own energy consumption is more important than deciding not to have children: “It’s not so much about whether you choose to have a child. It’s about what kind of lifestyle you choose to raise that child in.”

But still, other women are choosing not to have biological children for the sake of the planet. Below, five women sound off on their reasoning.

Maria, 32

“If my hypothetical children were to ask me one day, ‘Why did you bring me onto the planet knowing what a dire situation it was in?’ there’s no reasonable answer I could give to justify my actions. There’s not much I can do as an individual to stop climate change, but I can do my part to not leave a future generation to suffer through global catastrophe.

I’ve never really wanted kids, but the recent announcement from scientists that we (humanity) have 12 years to stem the tide of catastrophic climate change validates and solidifies my decision.

It sounds defeatist, but when we have a White House administrations that’s unwilling to admit climate change is a problem, and the U.S., along with China, India, and Russia, producing astronomical amounts of greenhouse emissions, individual effort is a drop in the bucket without policy change.”

Sarah, 29

“Up until I was in my mid-twenties I had always viewed having kids not so much as something I really wanted, but something that was inevitable. It seemed like a natural path everyone around me took, and I assumed that at some point it would appeal to me. I’ve been with my partner for six years, and my biological clock never kicked in. Ultimately, we both agree that the environmental stakes are too high for something we feel ambivalent about at best.


Besides being vegetarian, I also try to make energy conscious choices when I can, like riding my bike to work instead of driving. My job at the Center for Biological Diversity is to help people make the connection between unsustainable population growth and its effects on endangered species and their habitat. As our population grows, we’re increasingly beating out wildlife for resources and space and none of the eco-conscious choices we make will matter if our population keeps growing at the current rate.

Population needs to become a bigger part of the environmental conversation, and we use our Endangered Species Condoms as a way to start that conversation and educate people about how safe sex can save the planet.

Many people don’t know that having one less child saves nearly 60 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. This is more than the emission savings from more commonly advertised ‘green’ actions like recycling, eating a plant-based diet, and living car-free combined. Educating people about this could help them rethink their family planning choices and what kind of world they want to leave their kids if they decide to have them.”

Asya Shein, 39, CEO of Fusicology

“I grew up in Toronto, and Canada was always quite progressive in discussing pollution [and] environmental issues like animal extinction.

When I was younger I thought I might want kids, but now that it seems like climate change is coming stronger and faster than previously assumed. I just don’t feel like it’s right to bring people who could have a much more difficult life onto this already very stressed-out planet.

Jenn, 30

“My fourth grade teacher was and is a climate change activist and she drilled the importance of respecting the earth into us pretty early. So I always had that sense of environmental responsibility, but I’d say the real thrust of it hit me over the last few years.

I’ve always waffled about whether or not to have kids. I’ll go through phases where I’m convinced I want them and then phases when I’m convinced I don’t. I never really considered adopting until I started thinking seriously about climate change, but now when I think about having kids it makes more sense to me to adopt, because it’s like a win-win: Better for the environment by not contributing to overpopulation, and it helps a kid in need.

I do the usual [to combat climate change]: I’m a vegetarian, and I recycle and attend protests, etc. But honestly I’m doing what most of us with very little power to change things beyond an individual level are doing: the bare minimum.”

Tiffany, 27

“I think I started to understand climate change after I graduated from college. I stopped eating meat for a while and even when I started eating meat again, I drastically cut back my consumption. I recycled everything that was recyclable and stopped drinking bottled water.

Growing up, I had always envisioned a family and having children, but as I have gotten older my views have changed. I believe that climate change is going to have a strong negative impact on future generations, and they are inheriting a bad situation.

Climate change is also going to have a huge impact on food production and the world is already becoming over-populated—another reason why I do not want to have children.

If [the effects of climate change] were really a priority, we would see change being made like no more coal and more solar power and renewable resources.”

Vegans Should Care About Overpopulation


Yesterday a commenter here suggested that vegans (animal rightsists) don’t care about the problem of overpopulation. That may seem true for some, but it’s certainly not my experience. Those animal-rightsists that I know who are adamantly opposed to human overpopulation are so in part because they have seen animals suffering from their overpopulation.

A friend who is unwaveringly against human overpopulation remarked, “I don’t understand why people want to have babies in this day and age.” I’ve often pondered that. I went to bed last night ruminating on the question. I don’t know that I found the answer, but ironically I read about that same subject in a book about a woman (Diane Downs) who loved having babies, but then paradoxically shot her three kids.

The book goes on to depict her motive for having kids—as she put it, she was “lonely.” Normally, I would advise someone who is lonely to get a dog or cat, but I would hate to see the animal be shot or otherwise mistreated. Oh, sure, there was more to it than just being lonely. In this case, she wanted someone to have control (authority) over.  These reasons only scratch the surface and of course don’t apply to everyone.

Here’s a list a vegan friend put together of why she chose not to have kids…

For me it was:

  • No different than animal overpopulation. If I don’t feel that I can ethically breed my cat, why is it any better for ME to contribute to an overburdened planet? I mean, come on…are my genes really that special?
  • If I want a child that badly, why wouldn’t I adopt one of the countless hurting children looking for a home?
  • Choosing not to be consumed for two decades by parenting allows me instead to be a productive activist, fully, my entire life.
  • I’ve spared my never-to-be-born child the horrors of a world that is quickly becoming uninhabitable (because of human overpopulation, warfare, environmental degradation, etc.).
  • Cost effective! [If a person can barely afford to feed themselves, what business do they have bringing another human into this world?]
  • Finally, there’s no guarantee that a child I raised would embrace my vegan pacifist values. How would I feel if my child became a school bully or butcher or political warmonger or turkey sandwich eater? Devastating

So, why would a male want to procreate in such an overcrowded world? Maybe it’s the desire to have a “mini me” to do your bidding or to go on after you’re gone, thus creating a sense of immortality. But a person would have to really have a lot of faith in the future in order to buy into that.

Over 7 Billion Served

Bison calves are normally born in the spring or early summer. For the first few months of their lives they’re coat is an orange color, turning progressively darker through the warm DSC_0060summertime, until by late August they are as dark as their parents and the other adult and sub-adult members of their herd.

Winters can be harsh for a young calf in Yellowstone, which is precisely the reason bison have evolved, as a rule, to being receptive to breeding exclusively in August. The ensuing gestation period assures that newborn calves are greeted with a full summer ahead of them.

Nearly every animal species living above or below the equatorial belt has adapted to Earth’s changing seasons by only ovulating during a brief window of opportunity, thereby naturally limiting their populations.

The exception to that rule is Homo sapiens, who can impregnate one another year-round.

Our species has had it easy for so long—starting fires for warmth and skinning animals for clothes and shelter—that now human babies are brought forth continuously, 24-7. At last report, 490,000 new humans per day are born to add to the 7 billion mostly carnivorous hominids already here.

Meanwhile, whenever bison herds in Yellowstone thrive enough to reach the arbitrary number of 3,000 total “head,” the park service and the Montana Department of Livestock implement a longer “hunting” (read: walk up and blast the benign, grazing, half-tame bison) season on them, or truck them off to the slaughterhouse—those nightmarish death camps where so many of the bison’s bovine cousins meet their ghastly ends in the name of human hedonism.

And people think we need to control their population?

Text and Wildlife Photography © Jim Robertson

Text and Wildlife Photography © Jim Robertson



China Encourages More Breeding


BEIJING — China made its first major change to its “one-child policy” in nearly 30 years to grapple with a massive shift in its population toward the elderly, who cannot work and need support, say experts.

Introduced by the Communist Party in 1979, the policy was meant to help the impoverished country feed its people. China credits the policy with keeping family expenses down so parents could more easily raise their standards of living.

But China demographer He Yafu says that the policy threatens to harm stability because the segment of the Chinese population that is elderly is growing at a faster rate than previous years….

[This sounds a lot like the story of the Little Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly]


Do the Animals a Favor: Don’t Breed

Growing up in the 1960s (back when the human population was less than half of what it is today), we were allowed to talk freely about the problem of overpopulation without being labeled a misanthropist, or worse. Even Mary Tyler Moore covered the issue in an episode of her classic comedy show (before she was written off as a liberal animal lover).

But something happened over the years to effectively quell the voice of concern for the planet. I don’t know quite when it started, but I do remember when the prime minister of Japan (already an utterly overpopulated country at the time) urged his people to produce more offspring because they weren’t turning out enough ‘human resources’ to satisfy their industrialists’ and economists’ visions of unrestrained growth. What do our world leaders think we are, chattel? (Never mind, don’t answer that.)

Thankfully, some people are starting to talk about the subject again. Dave Foreman, founder of Earth First, recently wrote a book on overpopulation called Manswarm and the Killing of Wildlife. Meanwhile, comedian and author of a new feminist book, Caitlin Moran, known as the British Tina Fey (I assume because she does a great cockney Sarah Palin), wrote the following philosophical lines in a chapter called “Why You Shouldn’t Have Children:”

“JESUS! CORK UP YOUR NETHERS! IMMUNIZE YOURSELF AGAINST SPERM! Because it’s not simply that a baby puts a whole person-ful of problems into the world. It takes a useful person out of the world as well. Minimum. Often two. When you have young children, you are useless to the forces of revolution and righteousness for years. Before I had my kids I may have mooched about a lot but I was politically informed, signing petitions, and recycling everything down to watch batteries. It was compost heap here, dinner from scratch there, public transport everywhere. … I was smugly, bustingly, low-level good.

Six weeks into being poleaxed by a newborn colicky baby, however, and I would have happily shot the world’s last panda in the face if it made the baby cry for 60 seconds less. The cloth diapers … were dumped for disposables; we lived on ready meals. Nothing got recycled … Union dues and widow’s mites were cancelled — we needed the money for the disposables and the ready meals. …

Let’s face it, most women will continue to have babies, the planet isn’t going to run out of new people, so it’s of no real use to the world for you to have a child. Quite the opposite, in fact. That shouldn’t stop you having one if you want one, of course…But it’s also worth remembering it’s not of vital use to you as a woman, either. … I don’t think there’s a single lesson that motherhood has to offer that couldn’t be learned elsewhere. …

Every woman who chooses — joyfully, thoughtfully, calmly, of her own free will and desire — not to have a child does womankind a massive favor in the long term. We need more women who are allowed to prove their worth as people, rather than being assessed merely for their potential to create new people.”


Not only does having children often relegate concepts like recycling, cloth diapers or a thriving world of diverse wildlife to the back burner, but the family pet so often gets ignored as well. In a story all too common, our adopted dog Honey was one of those animals surrendered by a young couple who, as new parents, no longer had any time for her…