On July 12, Lund University published a study in the Environmental Research Letters that points out a missed opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions beneath the levels needed to prevent 2°C of climate warming. The study finds that education and government recommendations miss the four most effective individual actions that can be taken to reduce emissions.

The climate change we experience today is a result of greenhouse gas accumulating in the atmosphere, which is influenced by two billion individual decisions. That’s why the researchers, Seth Wynes and Kimberly A Nicholas, have listed down four actions that are undergone by each human being, which substantially decrease an individual’s carbon footprint. These are: adopting a more plant-based diet, avoiding travel by plane, reducing if not eliminating reliance on cars, and having fewer children.

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Credit: Seth Wynes/Kimberly Nicholas, Environmental Research Letters, 2017.

Based on 149 scenarios, out of ten individual countries around the world and from 39 sources, the researchers identified 12 effective individual actions, but chose to stress on the four most effective mentioned above. They found that relying on a plant-based diet would save up to 0.8 tons of carbon dioxide per year. Meanwhile avoiding air aviation would save 1.6 tons of carbon dioxide per year, living without a car would save 2.4 tons, and having one fewer child would save 58.6 tons.

After examining textbooks and public campaigns run by organizations and government, the researchers found that those texts highlight actions that are far less effective than these. “Our results show that education and government documents do not focus on high-impact actions for reducing emissions,” the study’s conclusion reads. This creates a mitigation gap between official recommendations and individuals willing to align their behavior with climate targets, it elaborates.

Surprisingly, these individual actions have much greater potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than strategies aggressively adopted and promoted by governments and environmental organizations such as comprehensive recycling, which is four times less effective than the least effective decision out of the four – adopting a plant-based diet. Even changing household lightbulbs into the energy-saving ones is eight times less effective than adopting a plant-based diet.

However, it is no surprise that Wynes and Nicholas are putting their bets on the world’s youth to help combat climate change. They say that working with youth can act as a catalyst to change the behaviour of households. “They still have the freedom to make large behavioural choices that will structure the rest of their lives,” the researchers write, adding that they must grow used to a lifestyle that is able to stop at the amount of emissions necessary to meet the 2 °C climate target by 2050, as it is mentioned in the Paris Agreement.