Why individual choices do matter for climate action

Dr Helena Wright
5 min readOct 11, 2019

The high-profile decision by Greta Thunberg to travel to New York by boat for the UN Climate Action Summit highlights a stark reality. Our individual decisions, such as flying or eating meat, do make a collective difference in terms of climate impact.

Recently, some scientists have argued that climate action should primarily be about systemic change, rather than individual lifestyle change. Climate scientist Michael Mann recently argued “we need systemic changes that will reduce everyone’s carbon footprint, whether or not they care”.

It has also been argued by Mary Heglar that in the US, industries have historically sponsored adverts that focused on individuals responsibility for pollution as a tactic to deflect attention away from policy changes.

However, individual behaviour change and systemic structural changes can be seen as two sides of the same coin when it comes to climate action. For example, many governments have plans for airport expansion, but such plans are incompatible with climate targets although they are based on expected growth in aviation — which is formed of the choices of millions of citizens.

Whilst individually the choice to eat one beef burger does not cause much emissions, these choices add up. Meat demand is growing in some parts of the world, including China, which has consequences collectively and globally. In fact, projected rises in meat and dairy demand makes the 2 degree climate target impossible. If meat and dairy demand continues to increase, it could make up 100% of the entire global carbon budget for a 1.5 degree temperature rise by 2060 (see below).

Figure: Increased growth in meat demand makes the 2 degree climate target impossible (Source: Heinrich Boell & IATP)

Low-carbon lifestyles: Nudging behaviour

In the energy sector, moving to ‘net zero’ emissions is probably possible without interfering too much with people’s lives. An average person doesn’t care where their electricity comes from, as long as it powers their home. However, policy changes in other sectors like food or transport might be more visible.

For example, by 2050, in a net zero world, an average person will probably have to eat less meat (unless perhaps…

Dr Helena Wright

“Now is not the time for speaking politely“. Trying to solve the climate crisis. Working on #sustainablefinance #greenfinance #climatechange #fossilfree