4 easy things you can do to help save the planet

Even the laziest among us can cut carbon emissions.

Lorenza Centi
Originally Published: 

43 billion

The amount of carbon dioxide, in tons, that humans emit into the atmosphere each year

Global Carbon Project

It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of the climate crisis.

When humanity at large dumps billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere annually, why should I sort my recycling? When some Americans still don’t believe climate change is happening, or that people are causing it, why should I change my light bulbs?

It’s true that, even if we replaced every plastic bag on the planet with a reusable tote tomorrow, we’d still be in a hot mess. We need massive, collective action to mitigate the worst effects of climate change; some people even consider the focus on individual action a distraction from the true scale of the problem.

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But personal behavior does have an effect on the environment.

A 2018 report by Rare, a nonprofit that uses behavioral science and design thinking to solve environmental problems, found that nearly two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions are linked to human consumption.

Changing these consumption patterns has massive potential for reducing emissions.


Take biking for instance. If you didn’t bike but then you started to bike recreationally, or you started to bike to work, suddenly you might find yourself in support of policies about bike safety, bike lanes, things that make the world around you align with your values.

Rare researched a master list of actions that would go the furthest toward cutting emissions if taken up by enough Americans (some popular ideas, like increasing recycling or composting, rank surprisingly low).

The bad news: Making a sizable dent in carbon emissions requires a lot of us to act. The good news: Some of the highest-impact changes aren’t that difficult.


Here are a few that you may find surprisingly easy to pull off:

Order a veggie burger. Or even chicken.

As Bill Gates famously reminded us, if cows were a country, they would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gasses. Not only because their farts release methane, a gas with a greenhouse effect 20 times more potent than that of CO2, but also because the land they require is often cleared through mass deforestation.

That said, while eating more plant-based proteins (like beans or tofu) and cutting back on the highest-impact meats (like beef and lamb) is important, you don’t need to go vegan to significantly curb your diet-related carbon emissions. It can be as easy as reducing your beef consumption by the equivalent of one hamburger per week.


331 kg

The amount of CO2 you can keep from entering the atmosphere by swapping beef for beans once a week for a year. Even diehard carnivores can do better. Replacing one five-ounce steak per week with a less environmentally-unfriendly meat, like chicken or pork, can cut your carbon emissions by 260-270 kg per year.

The Washington Post

Consider carbon offsets.

Carbon offsets theoretically allow you to “negate” personal emissions by funding projects that pull carbon from the atmosphere or keep it from entering it in the first place. Organizations like Cool Effect help you calculate your carbon footprint and choose projects that resonate with you, like buying a clean cookstove for a family in Honduras or protecting a peat swamp in Indonesia.

That said, carbon offsets aren’t the magic bullet companies often claim them to be. With minimal oversight, experts have have questioned how offsets are calculated, if the companies selling them are actually doing what they say, and if the benefits are overstated.

Aslam Iqbal/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

And carbon offsets aren’t a free pass to pollute.

Just as refusing, reducing, and reusing is more important than recycling, cutting back on your consumption before buying offsets is key, Schauer says.

It doesn’t make sense to live a lifestyle that just simply doesn’t care about emissions, is inefficient, drives a dirty car, and then just hopes to offset later.

Fly one less time.

If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that most meetings could have been a calls. If you can carry that knowledge into your post-pandemic life and reduce unnecessary business travel by one trip per year, you could drastically cut your emissions and save your company some money, without depriving yourself of a vacation.

A round trip flight from JFK to LAX emits on average just over 565 kg of CO2 per economy class passenger. The carbon footprints of first class and business class seats, which are heavier and take up more space, are even larger.


Train travel is your best bet for reducing emissions; and in many cases (particularly short trips), driving beats flying when it comes to minimizing your carbon footprint.

According to Rare’s report, cutting 140 million business flights between now and 2050 could keep anywhere from two to 17 gigatons of CO2 out of the atmosphere.

But the lowest-emitting option — staying home — is also the easiest.


Elected officials matter when it comes to addressing climate change. As president, Donald Trump consistently rolled back environmental protections. He made it easier for companies to dump toxic coal ash, lifted bans on fossil fuel exploration in coastal waters and a wildlife refuge, and withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement, among other things.

If he had been re-elected, it’s safe to say the U.S. wouldn’t have re-entered that agreement, and we certainly wouldn’t have committed to halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Looking further back, if Richard Nixon hadn’t been president, we might not have the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, or the Environmental Protection Agency (surprisingly green guy, Nixon).


And it’s not just about the Oval Office.

Voting in candidates who will act on climate change in Congress and at the state and local levels can help prevent the kind of deregulation we saw from Trump — which was mostly accomplished via executive order because Congress hadn’t enshrined many Obama-era environmental protections in law.

To pass the Green New Deal, the most ambitious congressional proposal for tackling climate change, we must elect enough candidates who support it.

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The bottom line:

These individual behaviors may only reduce global carbon emissions by a tiny amount — but when it comes to your role in the climate emergency, you simply can’t view your actions in a vacuum. The influence your behavior has on the people around you is just as important as the behavior itself, Schauer says. Solar power, for instance, can be contagious; when one house on the block installs solar panels, others often follow.

“The best predictor” of whether or not someone will change their behavior, Schauer says, “is actually whether others around you are doing something, and whether you think that they think it's important.”


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