It wasn't that long ago, we were told by mainstream media, that changing our light bulbs was the #1 action we should take to reduce our carbon footprint. We know now that although lightbulbs matter, they are not the biggest area impacting our carbon footprint. So what really is the most important action, that we could start taking right now, that would make the biggest impact on our carbon footprint? Is it eating less meat? Is it taking public transportation? Is it living off the grid? And if we knew what it was, could we do it? And better yet, would we do it?
Depending on what data you look at and how you interpret the data, the answer can be very complex. For example, according to a report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 percent – than transport. However, if you only look at CO2 and not methane, that figure would vary. Additionally, according to World Resource Institute, Animal-based foods in the American diet accounted for about 85 percent of food-related greenhouse gas emissions in 2009 and about 90 percent of all agricultural land use, according to the study. That is powerful information, and if you put those statistics, on their own, out into the media, people might assume that livestock is the largest contributor to climate change. But is it?
Additionally, some actions, like having less children, are more abstract and based on future projections. One recent study, published July 2017 in Environmental Research Letters, set out to compare various actions like "living a car-free life" and "eating a plant-based diet"and said that by far the biggest ultimate impact is "having one fewer child". However, this figure is calculated based on many future assumptions, such as number of descendants and lifespan.
So how then, do we know that actions to take when the data is so difficult to interpret? To simplify, I want to focus on actions we could start taking right now, that would have the most impact here in the U.S. Interestingly, there is a U.S. EPA report called "Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Materials and Land Management Practices," that has been around for almost a decade, but has somehow evaded the attention of mainstream media and as a result, has not been at the forefront of our minds when it comes to climate action. This 2009 report, describes the link between the materials we consume and climate change. It revealed something fascinating: "The way we produce, consume and dispose of our products and our food accounts for 42% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions." (U.S. EPA, 2009)
The means that in the U.S., the "stuff" that we buy and consume accounts for the largest piece of the climate change pie.
When I first learned about the size of our carbon footprint of our "stuff," I was shocked. The truth is, our habit of "stuff" is more impactful on the climate than how we cool and light our homes (25%) or the cars we drive (24%). This is hugely important information. So why isn't this common knowledge?
One of the reasons this is not widely known, is that traditionally GHG emissions were looked at from a sector-based perspective with power (34%), transportation (28%), industry (19%) and agriculture (8%) accounting for the the most GHG emissions, and therefore got the most attention. Since materials or "stuff" isn't considered a sector, rather it overlaps with many different sectors, we were missing the bigger picture.
It wasn't until GHG emissions were looked at from a systems-based perspective, that we were better able to understand GHG from a materials management point of view. Materials management is defined by the EPA as "how we manage material resources as they flow through the economy, from extraction of materials and food, production, transport, provision of services, reuse of materials and, if necessary, disposal.” From this perspective, and the chart below, you can see that goods account for 29% of GHG emissions and food accounts for 13%, for a combined total of 42% in the category of "materials management". And even without accounting for food (including meat), "goods" is still the largest stand alone category, from a systems-based perspective.
This information in no way discounts other important climate actions. Our choice of transportation, of course matters. Who we vote for, matters immensely. Using less energy in our homes, matters. Switching to renewable energy, matters too.
However, many of these things are unavailable to every single person or are not available changes to necessarily start making right now. Not everyone can buy an electric vehicle today or lives somewhere that public transportation is readily available. Not everyone can afford to put solar panels on their roof. And not everyone has a roof on which to put them. When the media focuses on these climate actions, it allows people to put off doing something about climate change or deflect responsibility onto government or corporations.
If we are serious about climate change, we have to look first to our relationship with "stuff" and to stop buying so much of it. It's that simple. This one lifestyle change is available to every single person, regardless of income. It not only saves money, but depending on how much less stuff you buy, it would drastically reduce your carbon footprint and send signals to corporations to change their wasteful ways as well.
Right now we are in a very unsustainable, linear economy. We extract resources from the earth to keep up with the demand of our consumer lifestyle and they get used and then end up in a landfill. This way of life that cannot go on forever, we will simply run out of raw materials. The economy of the future, a circular economy, is where goods are created from other used goods, and this cycle is repeated endlessly, so that raw materials can be used over and over again.
If we made one switch. If we stopped purchasing so many new and single-use items, this one difference would change the way society works, move us from a linear economy to a circular economy and would have the single greatest impact on our carbon footprint.
The less "stuff" lifestyle would include things like:
-BUYING LESS STUFF (not falling victim to the fashion industry, social media and mainstream media telling us that we need more and we need new and we need it often).
-When we do buy stuff, minimize or eliminate the purchasing of new items, and instead buy second hand whenever possible
-Purchasing food with less packaging
-Refusing (saying "no thank you") to freebie single-use items like straws, condiment packets, kids toys, etc.
-Renting, repairing and borrowing instead of buying
-Buying gifts that are experiences rather than "things"
-Bringing your own coffee mug, water bottle, to-go containers and bags (produce bags too)
-Reducing junk mail (signing up for one of the many junk mail reduction programs)
-Packing waste-free lunches
-When you entertain or throw a party, it is zero waste event using reusables rather than disposables
-Eating less meat (since food choices are included in "stuff" and eating less meat is the biggest food related climate action)
-And only after doing all of the above, then donate, recycle and compost whatever is leftover.
These actions essentially describe a zero waste lifestyle. Imagine if everyone embraced this type of lifestyle, rather than a materialistic, over-consuming lifestyle. Imagine the message this would send to corporations and big-box stores.
I know this will eventually happen. I can envision the day that big box retailers get the message loud and clear. I envision the day that big box retailers begin to sell new clothes made from used clothes and purses made from plastic bottles. I can envision their shelves stocked with waste-free produce and products made from 100% post-consumer content. This will happen. Its just a matter of it we will change in time to mitigate the greatest consequences of climate change.
With knowledge comes responsibility. With this one action, let's get moving toward a circular economy, conserve our natural resources and curb our carbon emissions all by simply buying less "stuff"that we never needed in the first place.