A Data-Driven Guide to Effective Personal Climate Action




Mitigating the climate crisis is top of mind for many people. But it’s such a complex issue that it can be hard to distinguish between data-backed improvements and feel-good distractions. This is your action list with lots of context along the way on why not just how so you can soon be an emissions-fighting climate superhero. If you want to get started by just running through and checking off the easy items, start here.

Our future decarbonized world is one of fabulous technology, high quality of living, and restored natural ecosystems — let’s do this!

The Short Version

This post details the most effective individual changes you can make to fight climate change in your personal life (if you want to work professionally on climate-related issues, start here). I encourage you to read it in full, but here’s a quick summary of what you absolutely need to know.

Stopping all global greenhouse gas emissions is a huge systems challenge. We need governments on our side as allies in this fight to help mobilize and finance this effort.

  • Free Your most important action is to help make government at every level work towards addressing the climate crisis, not exacerbating it, by voting for elected officials who will prioritize smart climate policy. For extra credit, join a climate action or political group and help support pro-climate candidates, and nonprofits fighting every day for saner climate policy.

Many of us own and use appliances and vehicles that directly emit carbon dioxide by burning natural gas, gasoline, and propane. These must all be replaced, and as soon as possible. Natural gas used to be considered “clean” when electricity was mostly generated from coal, but we now have a clear pathway to 100% clean electricity. To prevent dangerous levels of climate change we need to get to zero carbon dioxide emissions, which means you need to replace all burning with electricity now.

  • 18%-28%, 3,400-5,100 kg1 Investment Stop consuming gasoline by using only electric vehicles. Your next car needs to be electric. 📚 💪
  • 5.5%, 980 kg Investment Stop consuming natural gas or propane by electrifying your house: installing electric heat pump water and space heaters, laundry dryers, and an induction stove (or get your landlord to). Your next appliances need to be all-electric. Space and water heaters are not usually buzzy topics, but an extremely important part of the climate mitigation transformation. 📚 💪

Electrifying our vehicles and homes will increase overall electricity consumption, but fortunately we have a path towards 100% clean electricity through renewables and nuclear power. Help accelerate that transition however you can.

  • 10-45%, 2,000-8,000 kg Low-cost Switch to all green electricity, either by generating your own via rooftop solar or small wind 💪, or buying Renewable Energy Certificates 💪 (or get your landlord to if they pay the utility bill).  📚

If everyone did all of the above things, they would have the personal infrastructure in place to enable their lives to become zero-emissions. But the above changes only cover 45% of average American emissions—so what gives? The remaining 55% of emissions come indirectly from the goods, services, and food we buy. The only way we’ll get to a zero-carbon world is for each of those industries to adopt new technology and change their processes to be emissions-free, or be replaced with a zero-emissions alternative. That’s why your first action is voting to make sure that policies and incentives are put in place to accelerate the overall transition.

All the above actions are required to get to a zero-carbon world. But getting to zero-carbon is not the only goal; because carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere, we care about the total amount emitted, too. We have a fixed carbon budget, and want to contribute as little to it as possible to buy as much time as possible to get to net zero.

So while industry transforms to be carbon-free, temporarily decreasing consumption of high-emissions goods mitigates the harm currently being done. But remember that decreasing consumption and increasing efficiency is never a substitute for making the infrastructural changes needed to actually hit zero. The below actions can be helpful in aggregate, but are not as strictly required. Never do these as a substitute for any of the required actions. Hopefully you’re able to do them all.

  • 1-100+%, 200-20,000 kg per flight Cost-saving Reduce air travel. Each flight emits more greenhouse gases than most people’s entire life for a year. 📚 💪
  • 5.6%, 1,000kg Cost-saving Reduce food waste. We throw away 40% of the food we buy. 📚 💪
  • 3.3%, 600kg Cost-saving Reduce your consumption of beef and lamb. Beef produces 10x the greenhouse gas as chicken. 📚 💪
  • Cost-saving Vocally reduce your consumption of goods and services that currently rely on emissions-outputting infrastructure. 📚 💪
  • Low-cost Since all emissions can’t yet be individually avoided, offset your remaining emissions📚 💪

What you’ll hear again and again throughout the post is that climate is a huge systems challenge, which means that we need as many people, businesses, and governments on board to make changes like the above. You can have even more impact by getting your workplace to make similar changes, and spread the word about what you’re doing and why.

Now that you have the basics, let’s dive in!

Summary graphic of all actions

You can find a printing-friendly version here, full color version here, and a PDF of both versions here.

Background

We need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 45% this decade (oh hello there 2020s!) and get to net-zero-greenhouse gas emissions globally by about 2050 to limit global warming to 1.5°C to minimize widespread environmental damage and human distress. Any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air. We don’t yet have carbon sequestration methods at the scale that would be required. And even if we did, it’s usually far cheaper to reduce emissions in the first place than remove them from the atmosphere later on. In addition, there are some technology shifts that may not be achievable in the 2050-timeframe, so we’ll need to reserve any sequestration capacity to make up for those. So where we have zero-emissions solutions, we need to adopt them in full. I’m going to treat the ‘net zero’ goal as an actual zero goal—given the above, for what we’re talking about, they’re not that different.

The zero goal is incredibly important here for understanding the challenges at hand — as Saul Griffith said, “You can’t ‘efficiency’ your way to zero; that requires transformation.” Much of what’s needed is systemic industrial change — changing how electricity is generated, how our planes are fueled, and how we make materials.

Climate change is not each of our individual faults (governments and oil and gas companies have known that climate change was happening from carbon dioxide emissions long before many of us were born), but we do collectively have power to play a part in fixing it.

A lot of the technology needed to transform our economy to be zero-emissions exists today, but is slow in being adopted. Each of us can help change that.

The actual miracle is that solar and wind are now the cheapest energy sources, electric cars are better cars than those we already have, electric radiant heating is better than our existing heating systems, and the internet was a practice run and blueprint for the electricity network of the future.

Our future decarbonized world is one of fabulous technology, high quality of living, and restored natural ecosystems — let’s do this!

Distribution of emissions

Before diving in to specific actions, it’s useful to have a sense for where greenhouse gas emissions are coming from today. This will focus on data for the average American2 (and this post is littered with US-specific links), but overall trends and themes here apply to most people in the developed world.

Average greenhouse gas emissions per person in the US is about 18 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. Globally, the average is 5 metric tons per person.

Breakdown of Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Average American

On average, Americans have about 580 kg of air travel emissions, and growing. That’s about one round trip from Los Angeles to Seattle in economy class. Many people travel much more than that, with a large impact on their overall personal emissions. 12% of Americans make more than six round trip flights per year and are responsible for two-thirds of all U.S. commercial aviation carbon emissions (on average 3 tons each). So note that your personal distribution may vary wildly from this — you can estimate (and then offset) your own emissions through Project Wren3 or do a more detailed household estimate through the CoolClimate calculator. For per-flight emissions calculations, you can use atmosfair or Compensaid.

Average emissions by flying habits

Categorizing emissions

While it’s a helpful starting point to see where greenhouse gas emissions come from, I think it’s even more illuminating to categorize by who owns the machine or process that directly emits greenhouse gases, since this suggests very different strategies for approaching mitigating emissions.

  • Personal Infrastructure: The emitting process or mechanism is one that individual people personally run or own. The emissions in this category come from burning gasoline (cars), and natural gas and propane (gas water heaters, gas space heaters, and gas cooking). Large numbers of individuals and businesses will need to buy new all-electric vehicles and appliances to cut these emissions.
  • Upstream Emissions: The emitting process or mechanism is one that individuals do not personally run or own, but rather these emissions come from the manufacturing or providing of goods and services the individual purchases. You can’t buy the thing (or an immediate alternative) and not have the procuring of the good or service emit greenhouse gas. The emissions in this category come from food, goods, and services. Large numbers of businesses will need to update industrial processes to cut these emissions.
  • Mixed Emissions: The emitting process could be owned by individuals, or provided as a service. The only item included in this category is electricity: it’s often provided by utilities, but can be generated directly via rooftop solar or small wind.

These categories are not hard and fast — maybe you fly a gas-guzzling private jet (ugh) or use carshares instead of owning your own vehicle (great!) — but are a good average representation of ownership patterns. Whatever your greenhouse-gas-emitting personal infrastructure may be, you need to transform it.

Breakdown of Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Average American by mitigation action

Looking at it this way, what we see is that our personal infrastructure accounts for about 33% of today’s emissions, and that we could generate or buy renewable electricity to account for another 11%. For 55% of today’s emissions, our levers of control and influence are different — we can decide whether or not, or how much, to buy these products, and try to influence industries, but cannot possibly get these emissions to zero individually.

So what to do? Let’s break this down:

How the following actions are presented

Most action sections are broken down into commitment levels. Basic steps help a ton, are low budget (or even cost-saving!), and easy. Advanced and Optimal steps require bigger investments and make the infrastructural changes that are necessary to move to a zero-carbon world. Many of these same actions can be applied to the businesses, organizations, schools, and religious (or other) communities you’re a part of — implementing these actions there as well will broaden your impact!

For many of the following suggested actions, the estimated percentage of an average American’s emissions, and the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) that could be cut with this item is shown in a green label (example: 3.3%, 600 kg) to help demonstrate the magnitude of these changes. These are very rough estimates, you can use the Cool Climate calculator to get a better estimate of your personal footprint and distribution. We’re focused here on the actions that will most move the needle — yes, you can also reuse a straw for the rest of your life, but the total impact there is simply much much lower than other things you can be doing. The sections are ordered by impact and how required they are to get to a zero-carbon world.

Some actions are also labeled with their cost, for example Cost-saving and Free and Low Cost. Many of the larger infrastructural shifts absolutely required to get to a zero-carbon economy are Investments, but many of them payback, and there are rebate programs and financing options available to help.

Make the system fight for us, not against us

Before we get to individual categories, we need to address the environment in which we’re trying to tackle any of them. Getting the government to act on climate in the right direction is hands-down the most impactful area for us all to commit to. If we each individually make changes in our own lives, but still operate within a system that encourages and rewards policies and companies emitting greenhouse gases, we’ll be in for an impossibly steep uphill battle. We’ll have fewer and weaker levers to impact Upstream Emissions, and depend solely on natural adoption curves in a fossil-fuel-subsidized world for Personal Infrastructure.

The climate change fight is huge, global, transformative, interdisciplinary, and expensive. We need every government and business in the world working in the same direction for the climate, not against it. Estimates for how expensive it will be globally to make our economy carbon neutral are in the tens of trillions — yet that will still be cost-saving as compared to the costs otherwise to human life, health, and business. That kind of money and industrial transformation doesn’t just show up on its own — we need government support to shift the economy to be carbon-neutral. From removing fossil fuel subsidies to investing more in cleantech research and development to putting energy efficiency standards in place to spur continued innovation, big progress can start being made now on Upstream Emissions (and needs to be made now) if those in power prioritize it. The government can also offer rebate programs and incentives for individuals and businesses to decarbonize existing infrastructure, and require that new infrastructure be zero-emissions through building codes and energy-efficiency standards to push the transition of Personal Infrastructure. Once climate is a priority for the government at every level, we can make much more rapid progress across all necessary areas. As all of these policies bring down the costs and other barriers to clean technology, they also encourage and enable adoption in other countries as well.

Therefore, the 2020 election is arguably the most important elections of our lifetimes and that of future generations. We have 10 years to get it together on climate change, and the elected officials we choose now will be in office for roughly half that time (or more!).

And this is true beyond just national elections. Local and state policies not only can have large beneficial impacts on emission reductions, but also provide the case studies for these policies to show that they’re palatable and effective before being adopted on a wider scale4.

Unfortunately, and to make matters worse, climate change is in no way fair — while developed countries, big oil and gas companies, and heavy consumers have the largest negative impact on carbon emissions, climate change disproportionately impacts already-marginalized communities locally and globally, including people of color, indigenous communities, and people living in poverty, and is one of the biggest social justice issues of our time.

Vote

Basic 👏 Free

Register to vote and vote in every election for which you’re eligible — local, state and federal.

If you’re eligible to vote in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, there are a number of resources available to compare candidates’ climate policies.

Talk about climate change

Basic 👏 Free

Two-thirds of Americans are interested in climate change, but only a fifth of Americans have people they know talk to them about it. Talk about it. Use those conversations to help nudge others into action.

Join an environmental voting group

Basic 👏 Free

Join a group like the League of Conservation Voters, or the Environmental Voter Project to learn more about the climate and environmental impacts of your voting options, and opportunities to call and mail your elected officials.

Sign up for climate action email lists

Advanced 👏👏 Free

There are various climate action email lists you can join that will keep you informed of opportunities to call and write to your lawmakers, and other ways you can help. They all highlight slightly different things, so if you feel inclined, by signing up for all of them you’ll get the most exhaustive list of opportunities to chip in.

If you have Republican lawmakers, these actions can be extra impactful. It’s important that all lawmakers know that climate is a top priority for voters so that they’re incentivized to prioritize it. There’s no fundamental reason that climate mitigation should be a partisan issue.

Invest in a cleaner future

Advanced 👏👏 Free (and hopefully a much better investment in the long-run)

Would you invest in a fossil fuel company today, knowing what you do about the transformations that have to take place to fix the climate crisis? Even if not, it’s possible that you are today through the bank you use, and index funds you invest in. Even better than just not investing in fossil fuel companies, is to proactively invest in clean energy companies. You can find information about the fossil fuel and clean energy profiles of different funds here. ESG funds look at a company’s environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) practices as well as its overall business to make an investment decision.

Fossil fuel companies, like every other type of company, depend on banks for loans to fuel their expansion. And unfortunately banks are giving them a lot of money — over $600 billion, annually. Most of this comes from the largest banks: JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi, and Bank of America top the list. You can instead keep your savings with a bank that is dedicated to advancing economic development in areas with people who earn low to moderate incomes and who are under-served by traditional financial institutions.

Become a climate activist

Optimal 👏👏👏 Free

Join a climate action group that reflects your values and is active in your area. Some are more focused on large-scale protests:

…while others are more focused on lobbying for specific policy changes:

Support climate-focused nonprofits

Optimal 👏👏👏

Learn about, and help support, nonprofits helping shape and push for improved climate policy. A helpful guide is here. Some nonprofits we’re excited to help support include:

  • Clean Air Task Force works to reduce climate and non-climate pollutants through research and analysis, public advocacy leadership, and partnership with the private sector.
  • Coalition for Rainforest Nations is an intergovernmental organization of more than 50 rainforest nations which works to promote environmental sustainability while creating opportunities for economic advancement within tropically forested developing countries.
  • Third Way Climate and Energy Program is a centrist think tank that advocates for carbon capture and sequestration, nuclear and energy innovation.
  • Carbon180 advocates for carbon capture and sequestration, and other forms of CO2 removal.

Support pro-environment candidates

Optimal 👏👏👏

Help support environmental candidates in a range of positions through platforms like Give Green.

Support adaptation efforts for frontline communities

Optimal 👏👏👏

Give to organizations helping marginalized communities adapt to climate change. Here are some examples of nonprofits engaging in climate change, and working with marginalized communities on both climate change mitigation and adaptation/resilience (this is by no means an exhaustive list). I’d encourage you to look up local environmental justice organizations, or in places or for specific communities that you care about.

  • The Climate Justice Resilience Fund (global) empowers women, youth and indigenous peoples on the front lines of climate change to create and share their own solutions for resilience.
  • The Healthy Alaska Natives Foundation, Center for Environmentally Threatened Communities (Alaska) supports rural Alaska communities experiencing infrastructure impacts resulting from flooding, erosion, and melting permafrost. Email Jen Harrington to donate.
  • The Movement Strategies Center Community Climate Solutions program (California) advances transformative resilience strategies that accelerate the emerging transition to a regenerative and interconnected world, and supports leaders and stakeholders in the movement for climate justice to build and sustain long-term resilience and regeneration of healthy communities
  • Climate Resolve (California) builds collaborations to champion equitable climate solutions, and connect communities, organizations and policymakers to address a global problem with local action.
  • The Mycelium Youth Network (California) prepares youth in the (San Francisco) East Bay Area—who are most vulnerable to and already feeling the effects of environmental racism—for climate change.
  • Front and Centered (Washington) is a statewide coalition of organizations and groups rooted in communities of color and people with lower incomes; they’re on the frontlines of economic and environmental change.
  • The UW Climate Impacts Group (Washington) supports the development of climate resilience by advancing understanding and awareness of climate risks, and working closely with public and private entities to apply this information as they act to shape society’s future.
  • The Georgetown Climate Center seeks to advance effective climate and energy policies in the United States and serves as a resource to state and local communities that are working to cut carbon pollution and prepare for climate change.

Personal Infrastructure: Electrify your Life

Personal infrastructure includes the appliances and vehicles we own that burn fuel: gasoline, natural gas, or propane. Each of these generate in-situ carbon dioxide5, so they’re directly at odds with zero-emissions goals6. The only viable path forward here is full electrification (which means switching off of dirty fuels to all-electric appliances and vehicles). This means that every person will have to make the below changes sometime in the next decade — doing so now helps to immediately reduce emissions, scale up these products and subsequently bring prices down by increasing demand, and show others than the paths to electrification exist today.

Because getting off of natural gas and gasoline means replacing appliances and vehicles, all of the items here are more expensive investments (though they do all pay back!). There are also rebates and financing options available that vary geographically bring the costs down — in some locations it’s even free! If you’re in a position to make these changes now — fantastic, please do so! In addition to reducing emissions sooner, you’ll also help these products push further into the mass market. If you can’t do it now, that’s okay too—make sure to make these changes at the next opportunity, such as when your current appliances give out and need to be replaced (and take advantage of rebates and financing available then). If you’re ever renovating, it’s a great idea to get set up for these changes then to reduce overall costs (for example by putting a 240V plug in your kitchen for whenever you’re able to get an induction stove, and in your garage for future EV charging), and ensure that whatever changes you’re making are compatible with an all-electric future.

All of these actions are much more impactful if the electricity being consumed is clean, which we’ll cover next.

Electrify (or ditch) your ride

The single largest source of average personal greenhouse gas emissions is your car, accounting for about 27%. Fortunately, in electric vehicles, we now have a direct replacement for gas-guzzlers. The trick now is to accelerate electric vehicle (EV) adoption.

Drive the highest-efficiency car you can

Basic 👏 5%, 900 kg

Not yet able to buy or lease an electric car, but driving a low mileage car? Driving the highest-efficiency gas or hybrid car you can (many more of these are available used) is a good starting point (but remember that you’ll still eventually need to go electric).

Buy or lease an electric vehicle

Advanced 👏👏 18%-28%, 3,400-5,100 kg1 Investment

Your next car can be both economical and fully electric. There are more EV options than ever — there are 14 new EVs coming out in 2020, and prices are coming down, now starting around $30k, with tax rebates up to $7,500. Cost: EVs start around $30,000 with up to $7,500 in federal tax rebates available, and various local programs. Some of that cost may be recouped by selling your current vehicle, if you have one. You can compare the purchase and operating costs of specific EV and gas cars here. You can get a car loan like for any other car, with the additional benefit of some banks and credit unions offering interest rate discounts for green car purchases.

Another great option is to lease an EV now and then wait to buy one as even more options come out over the next few years. That way, you reduce your emissions starting today and demonstrate demand for EVs to help the overall market shift, while setting yourself up to stay up to date with rapidly improving technology. Cost: EV leases start at $100/month.

Common questions around getting EVs are around how charging works, and how to make it convenient. If you have room to charge at home you can easily get away with plugging straight into a 110V socket and if you commute less than about 25 miles a day you can fully re-charge overnight. If you occasionally drive further you can go to a public charging station. If you can’t install an electric car charger where you live, don’t let that stop you. There are many public charging stations throughout the country, with heavy density in urban environments where people are less likely to have their own driveways or garages.

Go car free

Optimal 👏👏👏 30.5%, 5,500 kg Cost-saving

Even better, maybe you don’t need your own car at all, and can live car-free, car-sharing EVs whenever you need occasional access to a car. (available through Turo, Getaround, and GIG, among others) whenever you do need access to a car. This will also cut the emissions from car manufacturing.

Get your home off of natural gas (or propane)

Natural gas appliances depend on natural gas extraction and distribution which leads to methane leaks (especially harmful since methane has 34x the global warming potential per ton as CO2), and then the burning of natural gas outputs carbon dioxide into your home and neighborhood. The biggest consumers of natural gas are space heating, water heating, cooking, clothes dryers, and gas fireplaces (usually in that order). Propane is less common in homes, but the same concepts apply.

American household natural gas and propane usage by end-use

All of this needs to move onto electricity. This required infrastructure shift is being increasingly recognized by cities, which are starting to require that new construction be all-electric, and not include natural gas hookups. Some cities are even considering banning natural gas to existing homes in the short-term. This transition is coming, and you can get ahead of it.

If you rent, ask your landlord to make these changes (here are some email templates to get you started).

Electrify your space heating

Optimal 👏👏👏 4.5%, 800 kg Investment

Replace your gas space heaters with air source heat pumps: a high-efficiency, all-electric solution for heating and cooling your home. In addition, they’re much safer than traditional space heaters (which cause a third of all house fires). Cost: $3,500-$20,000. Rebate programs are increasingly available7, as are financing programs8.

Also make sure that your house is well-insulated to keep your electricity bills in check. Smart thermostats like Google Nest can also help you manage your set temperatures most effectively to minimize power consumption while maximizing comfort.

Install an electric heat pump water heater

Optimal 👏👏👏 2%, 375 kg Investment

Efficiently heat your water electrically with a heat pump water heater9 or solar water heaters. These are also sometimes called “hybrid electric water heaters” and “hybrid water heaters.” Cost: starting around $1,000 (compared to $300 for less efficient models) with an estimated payback of less than three years. Rebate programs are increasingly available10, as are financing programs8.

Cook on Induction

Optimal 👏👏👏 0.3%, 55 kg Investment

Induction ranges are being lauded as the best way to cook, are safer, faster, hotter than gas, more controllable, easier to clean, and all-electric! They’re widely available, and gaining adoption in the US. The reason they’re not more widely adopted? Many people aren’t aware of them yet, but now you are! Cost: starting at $1,000, may also require electrical work to get a 240V plug into your kitchen. There are also rebates available in some locations11.

Get an electric clothes dryer

Optimal 👏👏👏 0.2%, 40 kg Investment

Replace your gas clothes dryer with an electric one. Cost: starting around $400.

Electrify your pool and hot tub heating

Optimal 👏👏👏 0.3%-1.8%, 60-325 kg Investment

If you have a pool or hot tub, heat them with an electric heat-pump or solar water heater, instead of gas. Cost: solar pool heaters cost $3,500-$8,000 then very little to operate, electric heat pump for pools cost $3,500-$4,500 including installation, and then $100-$200/mo to operate (less than the $200-400 for a gas heater). Electric hot tub heaters cost $100-$300 and are usually less expensive to operate than gas.

Replace your gas-burning fireplace

Optimal 👏👏👏 Investment

If you have a gas fireplace or fire pit, you can replace it with a biofuel version. Cost: starting around $200.

Mixed Emissions: Green the Grid

We need to move to a 100% clean electricity supply, and use that clean electricity to power our lives rather than burning gasoline, natural gas, or propane (covered above). Each state’s mix of energy sources and associated emissions vary wildly based on the local availability and economics of renewables, and state policy embracing them. West Virginia is still 97% powered by coal, while Washington is 71% hydroelectric and over 80% carbon-neutral.

Electricity has traditionally been predominantly owned by utilities, but with clean, safe, and low-maintenance options now available with rooftop solar and small wind turbines, more people are opting into generating their own electricity.

There are two overarching paths here: you can install your own electricity-generating infrastructure and soon be on 100% clean energy, and you can help support the greening of the power provided by utilities. These aren’t exclusive — in the case that you’re able to generate only a portion of your own power, you’ll want to ensure that the power you continue buying off of the grid to supplement is carbon-free. Installing your own 100% renewable generation is preferable when possible, but both are great options.

Leapfrog to personal clean electricity

By directly installing your own renewable electricity-generated infrastructure today, you can immediately increase the overall renewable capacity on the grid, and make the infrastructural shift required to support your and your household’s electricity consumption. This is even more powerful if you’ve electrified your home, as the electricity you generate cleanly will also cover your house and water heating, cooking, and driving energy needs. In an ideal world, you’d first electrify, and then size your solar or wind installation to your new electricity consumption patterns.

There are additional benefits as well: your investment in installing electricity generation will payback, rather than paying out of pocket for renewable energy certificates (covered in the next section). If you also install a home battery, you’ll continue having power if there are ever utility power shutoffs, such as those in California when there is high wildfire risk. Your system will also be re-using already developed land, which is preferable over installing solar plants that take up dedicated space.

Generate your own renewable power

Optimal 👏👏👏 10-45%, 2,000-8,000 kg12 Investment

Install solar panels on your roof covering as much of your usage as possible. Cost: average installs are $10,000-$20,000 with payback periods around 8 years. Solar rebate programs are increasingly available, as are financing programs.

You can also consider installing a small wind turbine. Owners of small wind systems can receive an uncapped federal investment tax credit for 30% of total installed costs, and states have varying incentives (the California Energy Commission’s (CEC) Self-Generation Incentive Program offers rebates for wind systems at $1.19 per watt, up to 3 MW). Historically wind generators were more often used in rural areas, but new vertical-axis wind turbine (VAWT) designs are quieter, take up less space, and can use wind coming from any direction, making them a better fit for urban landscapes (check out these vertical- and horizontal-axis turbines installed in San Francisco). Cost: installs are $10,000-$70,000, averaging $30,000 with payback periods around 8 years.

Rent or unable to install solar or wind on your property for any reason? Contribute to the Arcadia Community Solar project to invest in local solar projects. Cost: scales in increments of $100, with direct monthly energy bill savings based on how much you invest. Payback period around 8 years. For complete offset, probably runs in the $10,000-20,000 range for a household.

Buy additional renewable energy from the grid

Basic 👏 Cost-saving or Low-cost

Make sure that you’re also signed up for a renewable power program through your utility or Arcadia Power (more details below) for any power you still pull from the grid Cost: cost-saving, or up to ~$15/month.

Accelerate the transition to public clean electricity

There will always be households and businesses that can’t provide their own renewable electricity due to space and weather constraints. To decarbonize the economy, there’s no way around having utility-provided power also become zero-emissions. You can directly financially support the transition, and modify your electricity usage to ease the introduction of more renewables.

Buy renewable energy

Basic 👏 10-45%, 2,000-8,000 kg12 Cost-saving or Low-cost

If you pay a power bill, you can switch your electricity consumption to green power. This is easy, low-cost, and helps support the long-term infrastructure changes that need to happen. The way this actually works under the covers, is that you’re buying Renewable Energy Certificates (“RECs”) equal to the amount of dirty electricity you’re consuming. The RECs help to financially support new renewable energy projects.

Your electricity bill will likely go up slightly to buy pay for these RECs. Many utilities offer their own programs for both residential and commercial (searching for “[your city name] renewable power program” can help find these, and I’m compiling a list of these here), or sign up through Arcadia Power to handle residential usage for you. Depending on where you live, Arcadia may also be able to find cheaper energy for you and decrease your bills. Cost: cost-saving, or up to ~$15/month.

If you rent and the landlord pays the bill, ask them to make these changes (here are some email templates to get you started).

Use variable electric loads

Advanced 👏👏 0.6%, 100 kg13 Cost-saving or free

Use variable electric loads (those that you don’t care exactly when they run, like water heating and clothes dryers) when the carbon intensity of power being generated is lowest, generally during daylight hours when solar is producing.14 If you live in California, You can sign up for OhmConnect to be alerted of hours when power is particularly dirty or clean to modulate your consumption. You can even connect OhmConnect to your Nest thermostat and smart plugs to automatically do this for you.

In addition, you may want to decrease your electricity consumption while the grid isn’t yet clean.

Decrease load on a dirty system

Energy efficiency and decreasing energy usage is helpful while the industry decarbonizes. Because carbon-free electricity will be the clean energy source of the future, replacing processes that currently directly use natural gas, gasoline and propane among other fuels, electricity demand will net increase throughout the decarbonizing transition.

62%, or about 4 billion MWh, of electricity in the US today is carbon-emitting (coal and natural gas) — we need all that to be replaced with clean energy and have clean energy fuel the tripling of overall electricity supply necessary to support electrification. That’s a tall order, and decreasing unnecessary electricity consumption during the transition can help new clean power construction projects to keep up, and decrease usage of natural gas and oil electricity plants in the meantime.

Here’s how electricity is used in homes today, to help you understand where the biggest levers are:

American household electricity usage by end-use

Reduce electricity usage

Basic 👏 2%, 540 kg Cost-saving

Find opportunities for reducing your electricity usage. Some of the largest levers are 1%, 200 kg reducing your heating and cooling energy (getting a smart thermostat like Nest helps make this easy), 0.6%, 100 kg installing LED bulbs everywhere possible, and 0.4%, 70 kg cutting clothes dryer loads by line-drying. Cost: cost-saving, or up to a few hundred dollar investment that will payback in lower bills.

Insulate your house

Advanced 👏👏 1.7%, 300 kg Investment

Make sure that you have good insulation so all that the energy going into heating and cooling your house isn’t all just heading directly outside! Cost: <$100 for small DIY fixes, up to over $10,000 for full-home spray foam insulation.

  • If you’re renting, you can still make improvements like putting plastic on your windows or extra towels in door cracks or seams, and ask your landlord to make bigger changes.

Upstream Emissions: What we can do while industry decarbonizes

Once all currently-greenhouse-gas-emitting Upstream Emissions get transformed into their greener, cleaner, better selves, and we have safeguards in place around preventing new emissions, we won’t have to worry about emissions from our consumption, but we are categorically not there yet. Until then, each of our decisions supports these systems (or doesn’t), helps to set social norms, and can have a direct impact on reducing emissions.

The above sections addressed the roughly 45% of personal emissions from appliances and vehicles that we often own. The remaining 55% of emissions are from the goods, services, and food we buy. These indirect emissions are driven by our consumption patterns and decisions, so consuming less, and consuming more smartly, is advantageous while the food, goods, and services we use all continue to emit greenhouse gases.

Breakdown of Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Average American, filtered to _Upstream Emissions_ sources

We don’t individually directly control how those goods, services and food are produced, so we can’t individually go and replace their industrial processes to ensure that each and every one is zero-emissions. And we can’t get to zero-emissions in these industries just by decreasing our demand a tad.

And yet each of these industries does need to transform to be zero-emissions. There are three ways in which industry can be influenced:

  • Policy and regulation: Industry has to comply with relevant policies and regulations. For most individuals, the best way to have influence here is by making the system fight for us, not against us (section above).
  • Technology and supply-side shifts: Industry adapts to take advantage of new technology, which is at times hastened by policy and regulation, and demand-side market forces. There isn’t much personal individual action to be done here directly, but for those who want to work on the climate transition professionally, the way to influence this is to help research, develop, finance, and scale the technology needed to provide industry with cost-effective, zero-emissions technologies that they can adopt.
  • Demand-side market forces: What, and how much, consumers buy affects overall production, and the distribution of production across products and industries. By reducing consumption of categories of goods entirely, production can be scaled down. By choosing greener versions of the same products, an economic signal is sent that consumers are only interested in zero-emissions products, encouraging more businesses to provide them.

The remainder of this section will focus on demand-side changes for food, goods and services to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

There are few more important points here before we dive in. First, the solution to climate change will be large-scale, industrial structural change. There’s no other way to hit zero emissions. We won’t get there by each individually trimming our consumption. Therefore, decreases in personal consumption must not come at the cost of applying political and social pressure, or electrifying each of our Personal Infrastructure. And the impact of consumption choices are individually small.

So why talk about decreasing consumption at all? A few reasons:

  • You can make an immediate impact. When your consumption is directly tied to emissions (for example when you decide to take a trip in a non-electric car vs. taking public transportation), you can reduce greenhouse gas emissions today.
  • You can make a bigger difference collectively. You cutting one round trip flight per year on its own has a small (though non-zero) impact if you’re the only one doing so — (assuming you’re not flying private — please don’t fly private) no plane will be taken out of the sky. But get enough people to all trim their flying schedules, and a flight can be removed from airline schedules, leading to ~7-10x the personal impact.15
  • You put your skin in the game. Making personal sacrifices can highlight the costs of carbon-emitting industry and inspire you to apply more political and social pressure to solve the myriad problems facing us.
  • You can help support environmentally-responsible products and businesses. By decreasing your demand for environmentally-abusive products and business practices, and replacing that with demand for carbon-neutral products as they become available, you help financially support businesses doing the right thing, and shift the incentive structure in which businesses are making decisions.

These all point to the need for collective action to make an impact here. So however you decide to reduce your consumption, talk about it, spread the word, and invite others along in your journey. And still remember to vote and electrify your life.

Choose cleaner transportation services, and reduce long-haul travel

All transportation modes need to be decarbonized — beyond our personal vehicles, that includes buses, trains, planes, and cars owned by businesses. While cars, buses and trains will likely all go electric, short-haul flights will use electricity and hydrogen, and long-haul flights will likely need to use hydrogen or biofuels long-term (and they can make operational changes before then help increase efficiency). We’re not there yet — in the meantime you can accelerate the transition to the technologies that are available, decrease usage of fuel-burning options, and offset remaining emissions.

Flying has an outsize impact on many people’s overall emissions, which is why it gets so much attention.

Average emissions by flying habits

Reduce or clean up air travel

Basic 👏 1-100+%, 200-20,000 kg per flight16 Cost-saving

Reduce or clean up air travel whenever possible — a single flight can easily emit as much carbon as many people in the world use in an entire year. To reduce travel, take a vacation in your state, or telecon instead of flying for business. Cutting (or reducing the distance of) even a single trip can have as big of an immediate, direct impact as most other items on this list.

Air travel emissions come from the fuel that is burned — you can now instead buy sustainable fuel to reduce those emissions. While it’s expensive, it’s the only way to directly cut air travel emissions while still flying. Cost: for offsets — $90 (SFO <> LAX, economy) - $2,550 (SFO <> Singapore, first-class).

Drive gas cars less

Basic 👏 5.5%, 1,000kg18 Free or low-cost

Opt for public transportation, walking, biking (leg-powered or electric), and electric scootering whenever feasible in place of gas-consuming vehicles.

  • Politically support policies that electrify public transportation and rail lines, and make walking, biking and scooters safer and more convenient options.

Rent electric vehicles

Basic 👏 1.4%, 250 kg19

Whenever you rent a car, try getting an electric vehicle (ideally) or hybrid (second-best) — carsharing apps such as Turo, Getaround, and GIG (SF Bay Area+Sacramento for now) offer EVs, as do some traditional car rental companies. Cost: depending on service, either same-cost, or $50-100/day more (if you’re now cruising in a Tesla).

If you’re a member of a car rental company that doesn’t offer electric vehicles, let them hear from you that this needs to change. Shift your business to those that do.

Ask people to fly less

Optimal 👏👏👏 1-100+%, 200-20,000 kg per round trip16 Cost-saving

When applicable, use your influence to reduce the need for large groups to travel. Planning a wedding with guests coming from two coasts? Maybe have a party on each one. Organizing a company offsite or conference? Help make sure that it’s at a local destination, and setup shared transport there (ideally an electric bus!). Cost: usually majorly cost-saving.

Eat clean and green

Meat, and specifically beef and lamb, have outsized climate impacts due to the methane they produce and land they use. You can continue eating a nutritious and delicious variety of foods while decreasing the carbon footprint of your diet.

Reduce food waste

Basic 👏 5.6%, 1,000kg Cost-saving

A mind-boggling third of all food produced is wasted or spoiled globally, and Americans throw away up to 40% of the food they buy. You can find tips to get started here.

Eat less beef and lamb

Basic 👏 3.3%, 600kg Cost-saving

Just by eating chicken instead of beef you can cut a quarter of your overall food emissions. When you are craving a burger, sausage or meatloaf, try Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat — both are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing! Companies like Memphis Meat are working on lab-grown meat, but this isn’t yet on the market.

Cows today produce 37% of methane stemming from human activity. To help address this, companies like Mootral3 are developing new animal feedstocks to reduce emissions, and there’s ongoing research into using seaweed as a supplement for the same purpose. As these feed supplements come to market, for whatever meat and dairy consumption you continue, try to buy from farms using them to decrease their methane emissions.

Reduce animal product consumption

Basic 👏 0.6%, 100 kg per day of the week Cost-saving

Reduce your animal product consumption, even if only a few days per week. Try out vegetarian meat alternatives like Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat if you want something just like meat, or the wide-variety of plant-based protein options.

Go vegetarian or vegan

Optimal 👏👏👏 6%, 1,000 kg Cost-saving

Go vegetarian or vegan to further reduce livestock emissions. (This also inhibits your mTOR protein kinase, likely increasing your healthy life span by triggering autophagy.)

Make more climate-friendly consumption choices

Decreasing unnecessary consumption helps to decrease emissions from manufacturing, as well as energy used to transport the goods. The overall message here is to buy less stuff, less new stuff, and minimize shipping emissions. Here are a few ways to get started:

  • Try to be as zero-waste in your life as possible, and leverage your role in your workplace to do the same.
  • Buy less stuff. Wait a day between thinking of something you might want, and actually buying it. See if there’s something you can reuse or borrow before buying something.
  • Buy less new stuff. When you do need to buy something, check if there’s a used version available.
  • Reduce shipping emissions. Reduce Amazon shipping emissions by using Amazon Day and have all of your stuff delivered once every week (or better yet, walk or bike to your neighborhood stores and help support your local economy). Try to bundle deliveries, or reduce the need for deliveries at all if you’ll be nearby a place that offers what you need. Buy local goods rather than those shipped from overseas. More suggestions on when to shop online vs. in-store, and how to optimize both.
  • When you do need something, buy for quality and longevity.
  • Choose compostable items when possible (especially in places with municipal compost programs). Note: “Biodegradable” does not equal “compostable.”
  • Support a circular economy. If you have items sitting unused in your house, consider reselling or donating them or letting a friend borrow them so that someone else can get use from them rather than them needing to buy more.

Offset your remaining carbon footprint

Even with all of the steps above, until all industry goes carbon-neutral, we’ll continue indirectly emitting carbon through the goods we buy, the infrastructure we use (cement directly emits carbon dioxide when poured, in addition to the carbon emitted through other parts of the process like transportation), and the food we eat. While it’s always preferable to avoid emitting greenhouse gases in the first place, our next best option is to offset our remaining footprint.

Offset remaining emissions

Basic 👏 Low-cost

Calculate your remaining emissions, and then pay to offset that amount (or even better, overshoot by 20% as a bit of insurance.) Cost: ~$20/month/person, but will depend on your personal footprint, how much you decide to offset, and which projects you choose.

  • To calculate your emissions, Project Wren has an easy to use calculator, or if you want a more detailed household carbon calculator, try the Cool Climate calculator.
  • To offset your emissions, you can create a recurring monthly offset subscription through Project Wren, or through a reputable third-party standards body like Gold Standard (they don’t yet support subscriptions, so you’ll need to either offset an estimated lifetime amount, or offset a year and then setup a reminder to do this annually).20
  • While they are categorically not carbon offsets, you may also want to consider donating a recurring monthly equivalent amount to a reputable nonprofit working on climate policy. Clean Air Task Force, for example, is working on passing policy to systematically reduce climate change, and their historical estimated effective cost of cutting emissions has been $1/ton CO2e.
  • When evaluating where to buy offsets, always be sure they are verified by a reputable third party (VCR, Gold Standard, CDM, etc.).

Increase offsets for every flight

Basic 👏 Low-cost

Increase your offsets for every flight you take.

Plant trees on your land

Advanced 👏👏 Up to 1.1%, 200kg per tree

Have a backyard or other land? Plant highly-carbon-sequestering trees, just make sure that they’re also native to your region and will be low maintenance so that you’re not increasing emissions with fertilizers.

Help your workplace, organization, school, and communities decarbonize for broader impact

Depending on where you work, the emissions profile of the company and your level of influence can vary, but the categories and ideas above can serve as a rough guide to starting to push for more sustainable policies. Ditto the organizations you’re a part of, the schools your family attends, and religious communities you’re integral to (I’ll refer to all of these are “organization” below for simplicity). Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Form a group with your peers to jointly push for sustainable practices.
  • Encourage your organization to ensure that employees are given time off to vote.
  • Encourage your organization to start measuring, decreasing, and offsetting their emissions.
  • Push for an internal price of carbon.
  • Encourage your organization to start publicly reporting their carbon emissions and talking about what steps its taking towards sustainability.
  • Think about how you can make your role and department more sustainable. See thoughts on this for developer relations from Matthew Revell and Bear Douglas.
  • Ask how your organization gets its power. Can solar or wind be installed? Buy only renewables?
  • Ask how your organization buildings are heated and cooled, and how water is heated. Can it be switched to electric?
  • If food is provided by your organization, can beef and lamb options be reduced?
  • When new organization locations are chosen, is proximity to public transportation a key deciding factor? If shuttle buses are provided for employees, are they electric? Are EV charge points offered in your organization’s or nearby parking garages?
  • Reduce business travel as much as possible.
  • If your organization is in fields related to housing (construction, materials, architects, etc.), buildings, food, transportation, is your organization using its leverage to encourage individuals and other businesses to make less greenhouse-gas-intensive decisions like those outlined here?
  • If your organization is related to manufacturing and/or industrial processes (steel, chemicals, cement, aluminum, pulp and paper, etc.), is your organization directly (R+D, suppliers) or indirectly (purchasing their products, encouraging adoption) supporting the transition to carbon-neutral manufacturing processes?

Wanting to change jobs or careers to more directly working on helping the climate? You can find jobs related to helping the climate, and there are many climate-related innovation gaps needing thinkers and doers.

Start a Revolution

While we each individually need to take action, the real power comes from many people doing the same: using the power of their vote to ensure that climate is a priority for our elected officials, showing demand for new zero-emissions products and helping them scale, and reducing our emissions today and in the future. The climate is a big problem that will require action from all of us, individually and collectively. If it’s important to you (and hopefully it is), vote, organize, and talk about it.

Help others take action by letting them know how — email this list to at least 5 people with a note on which actions you’re taking and why you personally care to address climate change. Tweet out what you’re doing to encourage more people to do the same. We are all very much in this together, and it will take all of us together.

How’d it go?

Everything on this list is something that needs to gain much more widespread adoption and support to mitigate the climate crisis. So how did it go doing these things? Any friction or roadblocks you face along the way are well-worth fixing for the billions that will hopefully follow in your footsteps, so I’d love to hear about any!

I’d also love to continue improving this list, so if I missed anything, got anything wrong, aren’t sharing a useful resource, or anything else, I’m all ears! I’d particularly love to hear about any new companies spinning up to help in any of these areas.

Thank you to Ian Storm Taylor, Nick Reavill, Jenny Cooper, Michele Pratusevich, Robin Deits, Martin Collignon, Landon Brand21, Hampus Jakobsson, Dave Coen, and Peter Reinhardt for providing valuable feedback that improved this post! This post has evolved a lot along the way, and all mistakes are my own.

Footnotes

  1. Range depends on whether you’re charging your car with average electricity off of the grid, or clean electricity. An improvement of 13,476 miles/year x 381 g CO2e/mile = 5,123 kg over gas cars for EVs on clean electricity, and 13,476 miles/year x (381 - 129) g CO2e/mile = 3,400 kg over gas cars for EVs on average electricity.  2

  2. I’m using numbers from the Cool Climate Calculator for an “average” household of an “average” household size of 3, and then dividing all of the numbers by 3 to estimate the categories per-capita. Some categories of emissions (say, food) scale smoothly this way, others (say electricity for fridges, which don’t usually scale with the number of people in a household) won’t, but I believe are close enough to get these points across. I highly encourage you to run your own household’s numbers through the calculator to estimate your own impact, as they vary geographically (e.g. how clean is your state’s electricity), and with home construction, appliance, and lifestyle differences. 

  3. Disclosure: My husband and I are small investors in both Project Wren and Mootral.  2

  4. Here’s just a small sampling:

  5. You can see that burning each of these fuels directly produces carbon dioxide:

    • Gasoline (C8H18): 2 C8H18 + 25 O2 → 16 H2O + 2 CO2
    • Natural gas (CH4): CH4 + 2 O2 → CO2 + 2 H2O
    • Propane (C3H8): C3H8 + 5 O2 → 3 CO2 + 4 H2O

  6. The exception here would be if we had carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), such as direct-air capture (DAC) or bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration (BECCS) economically at massive scale, which doesn’t currently exist. Even if we implement carbon capture at centralized electricity-producing plants that use coal or natural gas to make our electricity supply zero-emissions, because the gas burned in our homes and roads is distributed, the same economics don’t apply (and don’t yet even work out at centralized plants). We have great alternatives to gasoline for our cars and natural gas for heating our homes, so let’s use those, and hold our optimistic CCS card for industries that are a lot harder to decarbonize (long-haul planes). 

  7. Try searching for “air source heat pump rebates [your city name]” and “air source heat pump rebates [your state name]”, and checking with your utility. Here are a few I found (certainly not exhaustive):

  8. There are various financing options available depending on where you live, and the type of project you’re taking on.

     2

  9. Water Heaters Only installs electric heat pump water heaters in most urban areas in California, Hassler installs in SF East Bay, and Fast Water Heaters will start installing electric heat pumps on the West Coast in the next few months (as on Jan 2020 — they’re currently going through training). If you have a water radiant heat system, you’re more likely to be successful talking to a radiant system specialist (such as California Plumbing and Radiant Heating in the SF Bay Area) than a water heater specialist. You can find more contractors through BayREN. If you live in Hudson Valley, NY, you can install geothermal via Dandelion Energy

  10. Try searching for “electric heat pump water heater rebates [your city name]” and “electric heat pump water heater rebates [your state name]”, and checking with your utility. Here are a few I found (certainly not exhaustive):

  11. Induction stove rebates are on the bleeding edge, and still pretty rare. Try searching for “induction stove rebates [your city name]” and “induction stove rebates [your state name]”, and checking with your utility. Here are a few I found:

  12. Depending how much you’ve electrified (replaced natural gas and gasoline consumption).  2

  13. The carbon intensity of power in California is about 45% lower between 9am and 3pm. This will vary greatly by region and the current energy mix. This is estimating that about 5% of your electricity load can be moved to those times. The bigger impact here is collectively helping to reduce the need for large storage and peaker plants at all. 

  14. One of the challenges of a decarbonized grid is that renewables can’t be turned on and off to match electricity demand. When demand exceeds supply, dirty “peaker plants” are turned on to make up the difference. Large-scale power storage in batteries, dams, and molten salt can be used to time-shift supply. But we can also time-shift some demand — this is called “load flexibility” and could cut 15% off of our peak electricity needs and save billions of dollars. 

  15. The multiple is between the decreased emissions per capita of having an empty seat vs. not flying the plane at all is roughly: plane_weight / (capacity * personal_weight). Let’s say you and your bags weigh 250 lbs (114 kg). On an Airbus A319, it’s 166,450kg / (160 ppl * 114 kg) = 9.1. On a Boeing Dreamliner 787-9 it’s 251,000kg / (290 ppl * 114 kg) = 7.6

  16. An economy SFO-LAX round trip emits about 200 kg CO2e. An economy SFO-JFK round trip emits about 2,000 kg CO2e. A business SFO-Singapore round trip emits about 20,000 kg CO2e. Calculate for specific flights here 2 3

  17. Flying coach is often listed as a way to decrease emissions. I don’t believe that it does directly (the total weight of the aircraft will determine how much fuel it uses, and you and your bags will weigh the same amount no matter which seat you sit in), but I still it can help collectively in two ways if you’d otherwise be flying first or business. First, the most efficient flights are those that are all-coach, because more passengers can fit onto a given plane, hence fewer planes need to fly. Opting to fly coach means that you can now take and support all-coach airlines. Second, if the overall demand for business and first class seats declines, airlines will be incentivized to install more coach seats in their planes, helping to transport more passengers on fewer planes. 

  18. Assuming that you can switch to using public transit or walking/biking or for 20% of local trips. 

  19. Assuming you drive 1,000 miles per year in rented EVs that otherwise would have been gasoline car trips, and EVs emit 129 g CO2e per mile and gas cars emit 381 g CO2e / mile

  20. Project Wren and Gold Standard both take a 20% cut to support their operations. Project Wren is for-profit, and Gold Standard is non-profit. The carbon sequestration projects themselves are a mix of nonprofits and for-profits. 

  21. Landon is a co-founder of Project Wren, but his feedback on this article was unrelated to anything around how carbon offsets and Project Wren are presented. 

Update Log

  • Feb 14, 2020: Added links to Compensaid.
  • Feb 6, 2020: Added link to suggestions on reducing shopping emissions.
  • Feb 1, 2020: Added Boulder, CO incentives and NRDC detailed breakdown of Democratic presidential candidate policies.