Written By: Michael P. Cavanaugh, Environmental Law Graduate Fellow

On October 8, 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report, Global Warming of 1.5 °C. The report analyzed the impacts of global warming 1.5°C and 2°C above preindustrial levels and found that the effects of global warming will be measurably worse at 2°C. However, the report also found that warming at 1.5°C will still have dire effects. The report made it clear that the traditional 2°C goal aimed for by the international community is not a magic threshold; severe and potentially irreversible change will occur at 1.5°C warming. For example, while the report predicts 99% of coral reef destruction at 2°C warming, it predicts 70-90% coral destruction at 1.5°C warming.  The report projects, with high confidence, that 1.5°C warming will occur between 2030 and 2052. Staying under the 1.5°C mark would require an unprecedented transformation of the global economy, which is feasible but politically unlikely.[1]

Transformations to the economy on a global scale are hard to imagine without some sort of top-down international agreement. However, top-down approaches are not the only way to affect change. Individuals can affect change from the bottom up through personal lifestyle choices, which have the advantage of being acted on immediately.

But what lifestyle changes should an individual make? The internet is full of suggestions on how to reduce a personal carbon footprint; for example: setting thermostats to only heat or cool an occupied house; taking public transportation; installing solar panels; traveling by airplane less; and consuming fewer beef or dairy products.[2]  Incorporating a few of these suggestions into one’s lifestyle would likely lower an individual’s carbon footprint.

Because people’s lifestyles vary, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. A vegetarian may be able to lower his carbon footprint by planning fewer trips by airplane. A person without access to public transportation may be able to install solar panels onto her home. For people to best address their personal carbon footprint, they must know what aspects of their lives produce the most carbon.

Online carbon calculators provide a good picture of where one is contributing most to climate change.[3] Once people have a better understanding of their individual carbon footprint, they can choose the best methods to address the areas of their life that contribute the most to climate change. For example, a person may not realize that his largest source of carbon is his daily commute to work. Without fully understanding one’s carbon footprint, actions that person takes (e.g., installing solar panels; consuming less beef) may not address the largest source of carbon in his life. However, with a better understanding of his carbon footprint, he can then develop ways to mitigate the carbon produced by his commute, such as taking public transportation, carpooling, or investing in a more carbon efficient vehicle.

Finally, it is important to remember that lifestyle changes are easier said than done.  Start by knowing your carbon footprint and make the feasible changes. You may then be inspired to tackle more difficult changes.

[1]http://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15/,  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/07/climate/ipcc-climate-report-2040.html?action=click&module=Top+Stories&pgtype=Homepage, http://lawlibrary.blogs.pace.edu/2018/10/08/un-ipcc-special-report-on-global-warming-of-1-5-celsius/.

[2] https://cotap.org/reduce-carbon-footprint/#air, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/07/best-way-reduce-your-carbon-footprint-one-government-isn-t-telling-you-about, http://www.globalstewards.org/reduce-carbon-footprint.htm, https://www.lifehack.org/453158/5-best-ways-to-reduce-your-carbon-footprint.

[3] https://www.carbonfootprint.com/calculator.aspx, https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/consider-your-impact/carbon-calculator/, https://www.conservation.org/act/carboncalculator/calculate-your-carbon-footprint.aspx#/.