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Climate change: 9 ways you can make a difference

Small changes can make a big difference if taken up by enough people.

Protester holding a sign. Activist group Earth Strike NYC

Protesters in New York in September.

Erik McGregor

Earth just sweltered through its hottest five-year period on record. The Amazon is on fire, as is parts of California. Glaciers in Iceland are melting. The seemingly never-ending newsreel of climate catastrophes can leave us feeling powerless. And while it's unfortunately true that we need government assistance in making the societal-level changes that are necessary, we as individuals are not powerless. 

We can each make a difference. You may think your personal lifestyle changes won't help climate change, but remember that little changes can make a big difference if  taken up by enough people. 

We saw this on Sept. 20, when hundreds of thousands of people around the world took off from school and work to protest tepid government action on climate change. But personal action can go beyond protesting. There's voting, of course, but that's maybe once a year, or only every two or four. You don't need to wait that long to help -- there are lifestyle actions you can take every day. 

Tell me again, what's causing climate change?

The very, very short version of climate change is this: Earth's climate changes on its own, but thanks to the industrial and agricultural revolutions, humans are spurring it along. 

The carbon burned from coal creates carbon dioxide, which leads to heat being trapped in Earth's atmosphere. Agriculture contributes to this in several ways. Methane, produced en masse by livestock, has a similar effect on the atmosphere to that of carbon dioxide, while forests (which absorb CO2) are destroyed to clear land for crops, and huge amounts of water and electricity are used to produce fruits and vegetables and ship them to places they're out of season. 

"Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0 degree celsius of global warming above pre-industrial levels," says a 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "Global warming is likely to reach 1.5 degrees celsius between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate."

That 1.5-degree rise in temperature will be enough to have disastrous effects. Ecosystems, be they wetland, terrestrial or oceanic, are at risk, as are many animal and plant species, according to the IPCC. That's why the goal is to reduce emissions and stave off that temperature rise for as long as possible. 

The bad news

Below you'll see a list of ways we, as individuals, can make a difference. But we'll need help getting the world to a green revolution. That can be done by people, communities and the market, but it'll be made much more possible with the help of governments. In this regard, the global climate change scorecard is mixed. 

Unfortunately, Western governments alone haven't given cause for optimism. US President Donald Trump often talks about the beauty and purity of coal. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison went a step further by bringing an actual lump of coal into Parliament. Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, is outwardly hostile to environmentalists and wants to open up more of the Amazon for business

The lion's share of carbon dioxide production comes out of Asia, not the West. Asia accounts for 75% of the world's coal consumption, with China alone eating up 50%. Coal is a go-to for governments, like those in Asia, because it's relatively cheap and often profitable. Vietnam, for instance, ditched a move to nuclear energy in 2016 because coal is cheaper. Over in India, the government uses coal freights to subsidize the country's otherwise unsustainable railway system.  (Here's a full list of the countries, including the US, that produce the highest volume of carbon dioxide emissions.)

So, yes. Tackling climate change is going to be... tough.

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The good news

It's not all doom and gloom.

China is trying to limit its coal use. Beijing's last coal power plant closed down in 2017. (The city now relies more on natural gas, which is a pollutant but not as bad a pollutant.) And China has sought to limit the building of new coal plants in other provinces, looking instead to solar and wind energy. 

Is China moving away from coal fast enough? No. Though it wants to curb coal use, China is still erecting hundreds of new plants. But the country's investment in renewables means it understands there's a problem, which is half the battle.

It's not just China: Demand for solar and wind power is rising around the world. This isn't necessarily because governments, businesses and people want to be green. It's because solar and wind power are getting cheaper and cheaper. The cost of solar panels dropped 76%, and wind turbines 34%, between 2009 and 2017, according to the International Monetary Fund

That's thanks in large part to the growing number of people around the world wanting to do their part to help preserve the planet. A YouGov survey of 20,000 people across 23 countries found a global average of 60% of respondents saying plastic-free oceans should be a priority in coming years. Over 50% of those surveyed in western Europe also championed sustainable infrastructure and carbon-free travel as goals to be achieved. 

We can also thank entrepreneurs like Elon Musk for companies like Tesla. He's sold the principle that green cars can be exotic, and has created a demand for a mass-market solar-powered car. If there's demand, there will eventually be supply, be it from Tesla or someone else. It's a reminder that new private-sector innovation can kick start movement in the climate change arena. Similarly, one of Bill Gates' major philanthropic projects is creating safer and more efficient nuclear energy

Finally, yes, the Amazon is burning. But Europe over the past quarter century has been leveling up its forestation game. The area covered by forests and woodlands within the continent grew by 90,000 square kilometers between 1990 and 2015, according to the World Economic Forum. That's about the equivalent of Portugal, which occupies 92,000 square kilometers. 

With that said, here are some small (to big) ways you personally can help make the world greener.

1. More laptop, less desktop

Here's an easy one. If you have both a desktop and a laptop, try to use the laptop whenever possible. The generation of electricity, especially if powered by coal, is bad for the environment, and laptops are almost always more efficient than desktops. (Electricity from natural gas is also dirty, but estimated to be around 50% cleaner than coal.) The exact fraction varies depending on the processor, display and other factors, but laptops often use about a third as much electricity as desktops. 

Take Apple, for example. By its own measure, an idling 13-inch MacBook Pro uses up to 3.25 watts, while an idling 21.5-inch iMac uses up to 27.8 watts. In other words, the MacBook Pro is about 7x more efficient. So if you're in the market for a desktop, consider buying a laptop instead. 

Not so hard, right? See! It's the little things. 

Laptops are more energy-efficient than desktops.

Sarah Tew/CNET

2. Drive less

Cars are a major emitter of carbon dioxide. In the US, cars and trucks account for almost one-fifth of emissions, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Living a green life on hard mode would mean selling your car and using public transport (or walking or biking) to commute everywhere. If you can do that, or already do that, you are a true MVP. But this isn't realistic for many people, especially those who don't live in big cities. Plus, many people really love their cars. That's fine.

So the realistic solution here isn't to not drive at all, it's to drive less. Can you commit to only using your car during the week? Or only on the weekend? Because that would help. This is also easier than ever thanks to new last-mile transport rental services, from companies like scooter maker Lime, which are available in many cities.

"[A] disruptive innovation in my view is small electric bikes, scooters and skateboards," said Peter Newman, professor of sustainability at Curtin University in Australia, "which are remarkably extending our reach at the start and end of train lines so we can live without a car. They are cheap and easy to use.

"Changing from car dependence for every trip is a major step forward in cleaning up our climate."

3. Take cold showers

Cold showers are absolutely wild. They do lots of good stuff for your body: They can increase your blood flow, boost your immune system and even spike your metabolism. That last one happens because your body has to use energy to warm itself up, burning calories in the process. 

That's fabulous for you, and showering with cold water is good for the environment, too. It takes electricity to warm up water -- depending on the efficiency of your heating system, it can use a lot of electricity -- which, as noted above, often means more carbon dioxide in the air. 

Traffic jam

More buses, fewer cars.

Mamunur Rashid/NurPhoto

4. Eat less beef

Food is a tough one. On one hand, forests are often cut down for agricultural purposes. On the other hand, we need to eat. And there are more of us every day. So... what do? Eat less beef, that's what do!

If you can commit to not eating any meat, that would be even better. But it's unrealistic to demand that of people. So a quick and easy way you can help is to eat less red meat. Farmers need around 28 times the land to produce beef over pork or chicken, and 11 times the water, according to a 2014 study. As a result, beef is five times more damaging to the climate than white meat, and 11 times more than wheat, rice and potatoes. 

"I would definitely include eating less meat, especially beef, lamb and processed meats like salami," said Colin Butler of Australia National University's Climate Change Institute.

Baby steps are fine. You don't have to never eat red meat again, just be conscious of it. It would be better for the world if 80% of people reduced their meat consumption by 50% than if 5% of the world reduced their meat consumption by 100%.

But again, if you want to play this on hard mode, going vegetarian makes a huge difference. 

5. Plant a tree

In July, Science magazine published optimistic research saying climate change could be neutralized for around 20 years if we planted enough trees on all the unused land around the world. Since then, though, other scientists and experts have said that planting trees alone won't fix the problem

So while we sadly can't plant all of our problems away, planting a tree will still help. A tree can be expected to absorb around 28 pounds of carbon dioxide a year and around a metric ton during a 40-year lifespan. Every pound counts! If you've got nowhere to plant a tree, maybe swap Google for Ecosia.org, a search engine that plants a tree for every 45 searches you run.

6. Buy local, seasonal food

Eating fruits and vegetables is good for you, but consumption of out-of-season fruits and veggies can also be bad for the environment, even if not as damaging as red meat. Big supermarkets stock the same produce all year round but, as you know, fruit and vegetables are seasonal. There are two main ways sellers get around this: Import food from overseas, or pay local farmers who use huge amounts of water and electricity to grow them out of season.

You can mitigate both of these contributors by finding out, with a quick Google search, what food is seasonal in your country or region. For instance, in Sydney, where I live, it's spring right now, which means pineapples, mandarins, asparagus and (much) more are very hot right now. 

The annoying part can be finding a grocery store that you're sure buys its produce from local farmers. But once you do this recon, you'll end up with more environmentally friendly produce. 

gettyimages-1165549038

Stop... apple time. 

Felix Kästle/Picture Alliance

7. Eat your leftovers

Throwing away your food means wasting the carbon dioxide used to produce it. Not only that, but discarded food ends up in landfills where, due to it decomposing without the presence of oxygen, it causes emissions of methane into the atmosphere. 

Waste less food and you'll buy less food, which is helpful for both Mother Nature and your wallet. 

8. Fly less

Airplanes eat up huge amounts of gasoline, with international flights often easily burning well over 10,000 gallons of fuel, and being responsible for around 5% climate change, according to a recent report from the Institute of Atmospheric Physics. But this is a harder sacrifice to make, since there are often no real alternatives to flight. For that reason it's estimated that aviation emissions will account for over 20% of all carbon emissions by 2050 as other sources dwindle.

"People should fly less," Climate Change Institute's Butler notes. "Some customs, such as holding a wedding overseas and expecting all guests to fly to it, are incredibly wasteful."

9. Look into renewable energy

We've put this last because this is the biggest sacrifice on the list, at least financially. Wind and solar energy are cheap and getting cheaper, but setting up the infrastructure required to funnel energy from the sun to your PlayStation can be expensive. The size, shape and age of your roof can also be restrictive factors.

Depending on where you live, you'll probably end up shelling out between $10,000 and $15,000 to set up solar panels. But you'll be a winner over time, since you'll save more and more money each year. Here's a guide for what you can expect to spend (in the US). 

The latest in climate change: Doom, gloom and some hope

Originally published Oct. 9, 2019, and updated regularly with new information and stories.