What if we, as Americans, were going to join in as individuals in order to help the U.S. meet its emissions goals? What would we do differently? Two researchers at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle, recently set out to answer those questions. (Here is the abstract of their report.) Their conclusion: The largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions is making things (industry, clocking in at 29 percent of greenhouse gas emissions). After that, there’s moving people and things around (transportation, 27 percent), then the energy we use at home (17 percent) followed by the energy used by non-industrial businesses (17 percent) and the energy used in agriculture (10 percent).
1. Buy the most fuel-efficient car you can afford, then drive it as little as possible
2. Drive your fuel-efficient car until it’s so old that it turns into dust — actually, use everything you own for so long that it turns into dust
That goes for cars, clothes, shoes, remodeling your kitchen, and so on and so forth. There is no law requiring you to buy a new cellphone every two years, and though that’s what we do in the U.S., in other countries people keep them much longer.
3. Drive your fuel-efficient car like it is a leaf on the breeze
4. Fly coach
Or, well, don’t fly at all.
5. Fly nonstop
Planes use a disproportionate amount of fuel during takeoff, so minimizing the number of takeoffs is relatively easy (if more expensive). If you need to take a connecting flight, choose the option that gives you the least number of miles traveled.
6. Turn down the thermostat
Right. And put on a sweater. While people who use air conditioning inspire all those summer energy conservation think pieces, according to Sivak and Schoettle’s stats, it’s heating the air and water around us to a temperature that we like that is the greater problem.
7. Eat low on the food chain
Sivak and Schoettle cite stats (published in Climatic Change in 2014) suggesting that the average vegetarian diet produces 32 percent lower emissions than the average omnivore diet. Are there ways around this? Sivak and Schoettle don’t get into this, but yeah, it gets complicated. Some processed vegetarian food has a pretty hefty carbon footprint, and if you live somewhere with an abundant white-tailed deer or squirrel population, you’ve got some low-carbon meat nearby. Still, this is about averages, not your Hunger Games lifestyle.
Sivak and Schoettle also suggest that we all try reducing our collective caloric input by 1 percent
As Sivak and Schoettle put it: “This study did not exhaustively examine all possible actions that an individual can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The emphasis was on selected actions that do not require substantial effort and time, do not require much in the way of changing one’s lifestyle, and are relatively easy to quantify in terms of their effects. Examples of actions not considered are increasing home insulation (takes both substantial effort and time), eliminating the use of drive-through banks and restaurants, and thus eliminating the associated idling (requires a change, albeit small, in one’s lifestyle), and buying locally sourced products (effects are not easy to generalize because they vary from product to product).”
Let’s take this study at face value. What can a hypothetical person do to cut emissions easily, when they are not trying very hard to do anything? The answer to that question is, by far and away, this one: Buy a more fuel-efficient car.
But here’s the thing. The only reason we have fuel-efficient cars to buy is because of political pressure, rather than individual choice — the first Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards were created by Congress in 1975. The newest CAFE standards, which are intended to get the average mpg up to 54.5 mpg by 2025, were the result of hard bargaining — and an auto industry that had been weakened by the recession. At the time that the standards were finalized in 2005, only two cars (the Chevy Volt and a thing called a Ford Focus BEV FWD) met that standard — even the much-hyped Toyota Prius didn’t qualify. Now there are a handful that get nearly double that — but the average mpg of cars sold actually fell slightly between 2014 and 2015, probably because of lower gas prices.
Meanwhile, for way too long, the low-income people with long commutes who would have the most practical incentive to drive a fuel-efficient car have been locked out of the market for one, even as the current housing status quo pushes them farther out into the suburbs. Individual choice only goes so far: Sometimes you need the whammy of regulation to change the available options before you can get to the point where you have a choice.
On paper, it’s totally possible for the U.S. to transition to lower carbon emissions and still have a strong economy. But looking at the numbers alone leaves out the huge political and social obstacles — angry oil barons, stick-in-the-mud utilities, car companies that would rather roll out old models than develop new tech — that have to be overcome to make that happen. You can’t buy fuel-efficient vehicles until companies are under pressure to actually make them — and to make them affordable. You can’t reduce the amount of time you spend driving unless your city or suburb actually has the infrastructure (sidewalks, transit, zoning that allows jobs and housing and shopping to coexist) that makes such changes possible.
Climate change is not something that we can conserve our way out of individually or easily. As Maggie Koerth-Baker put it in her excellent book Before the Lights Go Out, if we Americans were going to conserve our collective way out of climate change, we would have to reduce our emissions to less than one ton per person. While one ton seems like a big number, getting to it is much harder than it sounds:
One ton of greenhouse gas emissions buys a year’s worth of heat for one average home in the United States … That’s not including electricity, clothes, food, or transportation. Do you travel a lot for business? Maybe you could spend your one ton of emissions on airline flights instead. On that yearly budget, you can afford to fly 10 thousand miles in coach. Of course, again, that leaves you with no food to eat, no clothes to wear, and no house to come home to.
Getting to less than a ton per person — in the U.S., anyway — would involve a level of change that hasn’t been seen since WWII. Back then, tires, automobiles, typewriters, bicycles, gasoline, sugar, coffee, meat, cheese, butter, firewood, and coal were all rationed. Factories stopped making consumer products and concentrated on the war effort.
The national speed limit was set to 35 mph to conserve fuel. All forms of automobile racing were banned. Driving for “sightseeing” was banned. Special courts were set up to deal with those who broke the law — people who were found to be driving “for pleasure” had their gasoline rations taken away.
I’m not suggesting we go full WWII on climate change. (For one thing: We had more trains then. For another thing: We could get a lot done with just a Cold War approach.) What I am saying is that, yes, we can change our individual ways — and we should. But with a problem as big as climate change, we shouldn’t pretend that we can go it alone.