The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions

| July 13, 2017 | Leave a Comment

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Media Type: Article - Recent

Date of Publication: July 12, 2017

Year of Publication: 2017

Publisher: IOP Publishing

Author(s): Seth Wynes, Kimberly A. Nicholas

Journal: Environmental Research Letters

Volume: 12:7

Categories: , ,

There’s a gap between what the numbers indicate are the individual lifestyle choices most effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the mitigation strategies mentioned in educational and government resources. Seth Wynes and Kimberly A. Nicholas quantitatively consider the potential for a range of individual lifestyle choices and find four high-impact actions: having one fewer child, living car-free, avoiding airplane travel, and eating a plant-based diet. However, when the authors reviewed educational and government resources on climate change mitigation, they found limited mention of these particular actions.

ABSTRACT: Current anthropogenic climate change is the result of greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere, which records the aggregation of billions of individual decisions. Here we consider a broad range of individual lifestyle choices and calculate their potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries, based on 148 scenarios from 39 sources. We recommend four widely applicable high-impact (i.e. low emissions) actions with the potential to contribute to systemic change and substantially reduce annual personal emissions: having one fewer child (an average for developed countries of 58.6 tonnes CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) emission reductions per year), living car-free (2.4 tCO2e saved per year), avoiding airplane travel (1.6 tCO2e saved per roundtrip transatlantic flight) and eating a plant-based diet (0.8 tCO2e saved per year). 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). Though adolescents poised to establish lifelong patterns are an important target group for promoting high-impact actions, we find that ten high school science textbooks from Canada largely fail to mention these actions (they account for 4% of their recommended actions), instead focusing on incremental changes with much smaller potential emissions reductions. Government resources on climate change from the EU, USA, Canada, and Australia also focus recommendations on lower-impact actions. We conclude that there are opportunities to improve existing educational and communication structures to promote the most effective emission-reduction strategies and close this mitigation gap.

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  • Anne Jaffe Holmes

    As an environmental educator and climate activist, I am grateful to the authors for this analysis!
    I have been teaching about lifestyle changes that promote more sustainable living for over a decade but never developed or encountered this clarity about the relative value of various changes we can all make. I am excited to begin teaching in a new way—-These four behaviors are not “easy sells” —which I’m realizing is what we have been focusing people on). Time is running out, however, I think many people are feeling anxiety what we are doing to our world, and will be glad to know which changes they can make will have the highest benefit to our environment.
    Thank you for this analysis and article!

    • MAHB_SC

      Anne, I am so glad that you found the article interesting and potentially helpful for your teaching! Would you be interested in sharing more about your efforts to incorporate the four behaviors into your work? The MAHB has a blog series and we are trying to include more perspectives from educators. If you are interested, please let me know (erika@mahbonline.org). Have a wonderful weekend!