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7 ways we can help slow climate change

March 21, 2023

With time running out to avert climate disaster, the UN has called on world leaders to act now. Individual carbon footprints may be dwarfed by global fossil fuel companies, but we can still make a difference.

Cyclists enjoy a car-free road in Brussels
Image: Hatim Kaghat/dpa/BELGA/picture alliance

With the UN's top panel of scientists warning that humanity is running out of time to prevent the worst effects of climate change, many of us may now be asking if we can make a difference — and how.

On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said carbon pollution had to be slashed by two-thirds by 2035, and that the world urgently needed to end its reliance on fossil fuels.

Faced with more frequent, intensifying wildfires, cyclones and flooding linked to climate change, it's easy to feel powerless. Despite the urgent warnings, there is a belief that polluting fossil fuel companies cannot be stopped, that governments will not regulate them, that emission reduction targets will never be met.

But individually — and in the end collectively — there are many things we can do to help limit the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that supercharge global heating.

1. Ditch airplanes and petrol vehicles for buses, trains or bicycles

Transport generates around one fifth of the world's emissions, with road traffic as the worst offender.

One easy way we can cut emissions is to decarbonize our transport by giving up petrol cars for trains, bicycles, e-vehicles, and, whenever possible, walking — the ultimate zero-emission transport.

In cities, electrified transport options from e-scooters to e-buses are becoming a low-emission way to get around. A petrol car pumps out over 10 times more carbon than an electric scooter — even when factoring in manufacturing and disposal emissions.

For the roughly 10% of the world's population that has ever boarded a flight, favoring trains over planes can also have a big impact. A typical rail journey between European cities emits up to 90% less CO2 than an equivalent flight.

Sustainable mobility in the big city

2. Eat more plants instead of animals

Farming meat and dairy contributes around 15% of global GHG emissions — not to mention biodiversity loss, contamination of soils and pollution.

The IPCC has stressed that a shift to "diets high in plant protein and low in meat and dairy" had the greatest potential to lower greenhouse gases.

So becoming vegetarian — or vegan — could be the way to go for those looking to mitigate their climate impact. 

A boom in climate-friendly plant-based meats has made that choice even easier.

But so far, plants only provide 2% of protein — though that's set to rise to 11% by 2035 and could be accelerated if more of us reduce our demand for meat and dairy, according to the Boston Consulting Group

A shopkeeper wearing a hat wraps a product in a vegan butcher
Shopping at the vegan instead of meat butcher can help the climateImage: Hollie Adams/Getty Images

3. Pressure governments to take action

Schoolkids at the Fridays for Future protests have shown that it's possible to take a collective stand for the climate. Politicians might not be doing enough, but they have been forced to listen as climate concerns drive voters in elections around the world.

And sometimes the courts also listen. In April 2021, young people from Fridays for Future successfully argued in a German higher court that a lack of climate action threatened their fundamental freedoms and was unconstitutional. As a result, the court forced the government to strengthen emission reduction targets — which it did a couple of months later.

With climate ranking as the top issue of concern among a rising generation of voters, many are pressuring politicians on climate via protests, social media campaigns or by writing to local representatives.

Demanding carbon neutrality by 2030 — the goal of a citizen initiative for a climate referendum in Berlin — is a good place to start.

Greta Thunberg holds a microphone at a demo
Climate activist Greta Thunberg spoke at a Fridays for Future climate strike in Berlin in 2021, the year the movement also won in court Image: Markus Schreiber/AP/picture alliance

4. Switch to green energy providers and (when possible) install renewables

Burning fossil fuels for energy is the largest source of global GHG emissions. This makes choosing green electricity from clean, renewable sources such as wind or solar a great way to cut a key source of climate wrecking carbon.  

And consumers have already made a difference. By 2019 in the European Union, the use of renewable electricity generation had doubled from 2005, making up 34% of all electricity generation. This means that coal, the highest emitting fossil fuel, no longer supplies most of the EU's electricity.

Those living in a house or even an apartment block can also try to install clean solar power on the roof, or electric heat pumps — where possible — as a substitute for gas heating. Some communities are even getting together to run their neighborhoods almost exclusively on renewable energy.

Bright buildings covered in solar panels
Freiburg, in Germany's south, is known as the solar cityImage: Harold Cunningham/Getty Images


5. Turn off the lights, turn down the heating

Something as simple as turning the heating down can save a lot of energy. That's why the German government, faced with an energy crisis due to the nation's reliance on Russian gas, limited indoor heating temperatures to 19 degrees Celsius (66 degrees Fahrenheit) this winter in public buildings.

Shutting down computers at night and eliminating "vampire" power by unplugging idle electronics is another climate change busting action that can be achieved today. Even easier is to simply turn off the lights when leaving the room.

Using highly energy-efficient appliances — induction instead of gas stoves, for example — is another step forward. Better still, demand that your government switch off the night lights at monuments and buildings, a policy recently implemented in Berlin.

6. Waste less food

Meanwhile, around one-third of food grown globally is thrown away. This food loss and waste is a massive carbon emitter when the production, transportation and handling of food is calculated — food that ends up in landfills also generates methane, a highly potent GHG over the short term. 

In the US, annual food loss and waste creates 170 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent GHG emissions, and that's excluding landfill emissions. It's equivalent to the annual emissions of 42 coal-fired power plants.

So if we can't eat everything in the fridge, at least compost the rest — to fertilize the garden or for biogas.

Meanwhile, pressure supermarkets to stop throwing away extra food, instead offering it to food banks or charities. Or ask restaurants to offer "doggy bags" for uneaten food — both measures are included in a food waste law recently passed in Spain.    

Global food losses and food waste in a chart

7. Plant trees

Trees are vital carbon sinks, yet deforestation continues at alarming rates — logging of the Amazon forest, for example, rose by 20% in 2021. 

More than ever, planting trees is one of the best thing we can do as individuals to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere.

While cleaning the air, increasing biodiversity and maintaining healthy soils, trees also save energy — especially in cities where more plants on the street keep things cooler and reduce the need for air conditioning. In the winter, trees can shelter homes from the wind, helping to reduce heating costs by up to 25%.

Edited by: Jennifer Collins

This article was updated on March 21, 2023 following the publication of the latest report from the IPCC.

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.
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