We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe. Here's what we can do right now.

I'm sure you’ve heard over the last week about the report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which says urgent and unprecedented changes are needed to keep the target global warming rate to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

As cited in this article, the report states that if we can keep global warming to 1.5C by 2030 (up from 1C currently), the proportion of the world's population exposed to water stress could be 50% lower than at 2C. Food scarcity would be less of a problem and hundreds of millions fewer people would be at risk of climate-related poverty. It would also lessen the number of extreme heat days and resulting forest fires in the northern hemisphere, and result in fewer extreme weather events such as those we're already seeing.

"But the greatest difference would be to nature. Insects, which are vital for pollination of crops, and plants are almost twice as likely to lose half their habitat at 2C compared with 1.5C. Corals would be 99% lost at the higher of the two temperatures, but more than 10% have a chance of surviving if the lower target is reached."

Scary stuff.

9 practical ways individuals can help limit climate change

But what can we, as individuals do? Lots, actually.

It may seem like governments are the key players when it comes to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, and to some extent, that's certainly true. But while they grapple with the policy and economics of carbon pricing and resource-shifting, we can do a lot to help the planet ourselves - through the way we consume and live.

The market for fossil fuels and for mass agriculture - the two biggest factors behind rising greenhouse gas emissions - is driven by us as consumers.

First, take a look at the breakdown of greenhouse gas emissions by sector. This information is cited from an article by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Source:  IPCC (2014)  based on global emissions from 2010.

Source: IPCC (2014) based on global emissions from 2010.

  • 25% of emissions come from electricity and heat production, that is, the burning of coal, natural gas, and oil for electricity and heat.

  • 24% from agriculture, forestry, and other land use is a close second, with greenhouse gas emissions from this sector coming mostly from the cultivation of crops and livestock, along with mass deforestation for these purposes. This occurs because farmers are using an increasing amount of space (alongside massive amounts of chemical fertilizers) to grow crops to feed livestock to supply the world’s growing demand for meat. If left in tact, those trees that are cut down to grown soy and corn for animals would be able to absorb CO2 and mitigate man-made emissions. Learn more about just how much mass agriculture is harming us in this article about a study published this week that argues that a sustainable food system that doesn’t ravage the environment is going to require dramatic reforms, including a radical change in dietary habits.

  • 21% of greenhouse gas emissions come from industry which uses fossil fuels burned on site at facilities for energy, along with emissions from chemical, metallurgical, and mineral transformation processes not associated with energy consumption and emissions from waste management activities.

  • 14% is the amount the transportation sector emits by using fossil fuels burned for road, rail, air, and marine transportation. Almost all (95%) of the world's transportation energy comes from petroleum-based fuels, largely gasoline and diesel.

  • 6% of emissions come from buildings from onsite energy generation for cooking and heating other than electricity.

  • Finally, the 10% of emissions from other energy refers to all emissions from the energy sector not directly associated with electricity or heat production, such as fuel extraction, refining and processing.

OK, so now that we understand exactly what’s causing greenhouse gas emissions, we can do our part to reduce that number. If each of us - as individuals and homeowners - can implement even some of the suggestions below, we’ll be doing our part.

9 practical and easy ways you can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions right now

1. Eat for a Healthier Planet.

The authors of this report conclude that that global efforts to keep climate change at an acceptable level simply won’t be successful without a huge reduction in meat consumption. We can certainly shift our food habits, if not to vegetarian completely, then at least to less meat weekly.

  • have more meatless Mondays (and Wednesdays and Fridays)

  • don’t waste food

  • buy organic and local food whenever possible

Get more info on how eating less meat will reduce Earth’s heat and what measures we can take to limit damage from agriculture.

2. Consume less.

One thing we can easily do is stop buying throw-away items. So many things - from phones to clothing to toys to furniture - have become cheaply made and trendy so that we want it and can afford it but then buy the newest version a year or two later (or even only months later). This has to stop. We should invest in quality items for our homes and our lifestyles that will last. Better yet, we can look for ways to reuse things we already own, or purchase vintage or used items that still stand the test of time. I wrote previously about how to reuse and repurpose when decorating your home. There are lots of ways to avoid consuming new materials and still have a beautiful and functional home.

3. Waste less.

A very easy thing to do for our planet (and pocketbooks) is to be mindful of ways we can waste less every single day.

  • Learn to mend and make do: find a good shoe repair and clothing alterations shop, and go online for YouTube instructions on fixing things at home.

  • Waste less food by buying only what you need and perhaps even growing your own when possible.

  • Purchase food and even toiletries and household items from bulk stores to avoid plastic packaging.

  • Bring your reusable bags when shopping.

4. Use energy wisely.

  • Change to energy-efficient light bulbs.

  • Use power bars for computers, TVs and other electronics and turn them off (unplug them) when you’re not using them.

  • Wash clothes in cold or warm (not hot) water.

  • Invest in Energy Star efficient appliances.

  • Install a programmable thermostat and turn heat down at night and when you’re not home.

  • Hang clothes to dry when possible.

  • Only run your dishwasher when it’s full.

  • Install low-flow shower heads and faucets to save hot water.

5. Insulate your home well.

Effective insulation will prevent heat from escaping in winter and keep it from coming in during summer, resulting in less energy needed to heat and cool your home. If you’re building a new home, make sure to spend your money on the best insulation for an air-tight home. For existing homes, get a qualified professional to see where there may be voids and fill in or add extra insulation to walls and attics. Check your windows and doors as well and seal them up with caulking or invest in new energy-rated ones. Here are more ways to make your home energy-efficient.

6. Travel wisely.

  • Walk or bike to work and shops if you can.

  • Use public transport when available.

  • Ride share.

  • Buy an electric or hybrid car.

  • Explore work-from-home options, even for a couple days a week.

  • Plan your shopping needs so you don’t need extra trips to the store.

  • Fly less. Aircraft emissions are produced at cruising altitudes high in the atmosphere, and scientific studies have shown that these high-altitude emissions have a more harmful climate impact because they trigger a series of chemical reactions and atmospheric effects that have a net warming effect. The IPCC, for example, has estimated that the climate impact of aircraft is two to four times greater than the effect of their carbon dioxide emissions alone. Read more.

  • Use technology to connect for meetings and conferences online instead of flying across the country.

  • Enjoy ‘staycations’. Explore your own backyard and your own region more. Learn to find joy in where you are.

7. Make an energy switch.

While it may not be possible at the moment, start saving for solar panels and new energy-efficient technology and systems for your home. The costs will be coming down for consumers, and you’ll want to be ready to make that switch as soon as you can.

8. Speak with your money.

Consumers drive the market, so we must put our money where our mouths are.

  • Buy local.

  • Buy organic.

  • Stop buying plastic.

  • Stop buying chemical-laden products.

  • Divest any portfolio investments or pension funds of fossil fuel stocks and switch your money to supporting renewables.

9. Speak up.

Let’s start talking about this. It’s not an issue we can keep sweeping under the rug and letting politicians deal with.

  • Talk with friends about it at your next gathering.

  • Get together with friends or neighbors when making purchases that need to be shipped, so you can make a bigger order together and save on shipping travel.

  • Reach out to your elected representatives and express your concern for this issue as a priority.

  • Use your voice to vote for candidates who put the environment first.

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