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Car-free living better for combatting climate change than home improvements, says study

But one choice that’s not talked about much outranks them all

Eliminating car ownership is one of the most impactful ways a person can address climate change.
Shared-Use Mobility Center

Quick: What’s the best thing you can personally do to fight climate change? Convert your house to solar, or switch to low-energy appliances? The answer is neither. Both of those solutions pale in comparison to getting rid of your car or eliminating meat from your diet, according to a new study. Yet most climate action messaging focuses heavily on energy consumption.

In a study published in Environmental Research Letters, Seth Wynes and Kimberly A. Nicholas looked at 39 scientific and government reports with recommendations for reducing carbon footprints that originated from the European Union, U.S., Canada, and Australia. The scientists then correlated how the most heavily promoted recommendations compared with real-world impact—and saw a huge disparity.

Living car-free, avoiding airplane travel (especially overseas flights), and switching to a plant-based diet were three top solutions that weren’t heavily marketed as low-emissions solutions, yet carried the greatest impact. “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),” notes the study.

But the most effective way to address climate change—and one that is already getting plenty of pushback online and in stories about the study—is something that’s hardly ever talked about: Having one fewer child is the best possible individual climate action a person can take, by far. Better family planning is all but absent from the discussion about climate change, the study argues.

These results closely mirror the findings in Paul Hawken’s new book Drawdown, which is an excellent read for those who want a deeper dive into the topic. Hawken, an environmental business leader, took a similar approach to Wynes and Nicholas, working with several scientists to “map, measure, and model” the impact of 100 solutions to climate change.

High on Hawken’s list are both family planning (7th) as well as educating girls (6th), noting that as girls become educated they not only have fewer children, they also become better stewards of the natural environment, especially in developing nations. He also notes lack of access to contraception as a huge problem for women in many parts of the world. In fact, that’s where the greatest impact could be made, as fertility rates in many wealthy countries, including the U.S., have already reached an all-time low. (Although the U.S., as a nation, is still the biggest carbon polluter in history.)

The study authors suggest that climate messaging should promote four key actions—having one fewer child, living car-free, avoiding airplane travel, and eating a plant-based diet—with schools, governments, and advocacy organizations adjusting their approach as part of a public health campaign.

“While past research has focused on incremental behavioral changes that require minimal effort on the part of individuals, we propose to empower individuals to focus on changing the behaviors that are most effective at reducing their personal emissions,” write Wynes and Nicholas. “Many of these changes can be seen as desirable choices that promote a slower and healthier lifestyle.”

One type of campaign that might be effective in the U.S. is showing how easily one high-impact action can cancel out another. For example, just one trans-Atlantic flight could undo a year’s worth of conscientious vegetarian eating or car-free living (depending on where you live).

As more cities are pledging climate action and a concerted effort is underway to measure U.S. emissions, being able to calculate the tradeoffs of everyday decisions can help people who want to change their behavior (or decide what local policy actions to support). Of course, many of these behaviors can be easily adjusted simply by living closer together—another sentiment that’s perhaps unpopular to promote in the U.S.