Does Personal Action Matter?

13 minute read

Updated on Sun Sep 12 2021

How important are the actions of one individual in a world of more than 7.7 billion people? Can our individual actions to reduce our carbon footprint really make a difference on a global scale? In this chapter, we will explore how much our personal actions matter in the global fight against climate change.

Who is to blame for emissions?

Share of emissions from energy

76% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from energy (electricity, fuels, heating, etc.), which is mostly produced by fossil fuel companies. Indeed, around 85% of our energy comes from the burning of fossil fuels.

However, energy production is driven by consumer demand as it is required to supply the goods and services that we rely on. Therefore, we also must bear some of the responsibility for emissions from energy production.

For many emissions sources, there are currently no practical alternatives. For example, there is currently no practical way to fuel aeroplanes or ships without fossil fuels. Some companies have been exploring alternatives like algae-based biofuels for many years. However, until these sustainable alternatives can be made cheaper than fossil fuels, through cheaper production methods or government subsidies, it is unlikely that they will be widely adopted by consumers.

What role can individuals play in this fight?

Our lifestyle choices can help to reduce carbon emissions, but a single person’s actions alone will not make a lot of difference. To have a significant impact, we will need technological innovation and structural changes, along with strong environmental policies.

Can personal action alone solve Climate Change?

How can we reduce our own emissions?

Let's consider a hypothetical scenario where everyone in the world chooses to take high-impact personal actions. Everyone changes to a plant based diet, takes fewer flights, lives car-free, and purchases zero-carbon energy for their home.

Total potential impact of personal action

Even with these assumptions, the total reduction is only 50%.

However, these assumptions are very unrealistic. For example:

  • The reduction of CO₂ for switching to green energy was calculated for developed nations. The figure in developing nations is likely to be lower as they currently consume less energy per person.
  • We assumed that people would stop using cars but did not look at how this would increase emissions from other types of transport.

Even then, a 50% reduction is still not enough to solve the climate crisis. To stop climate change, we need to get total emissions to zero.

While this shows that personal action alone is not enough, it doesn't mean that we shouldn’t make changes to our lifestyles!

Why should we make personal changes?

Lifestyle changes allow us to express our concerns about climate change to others. Through our actions, we can encourage others to make these changes too, triggering a ripple effect. For example, when children make an effort to help the environment, their parents are more likely to adapt their own lifestyles too.

Earthly teaching you about personal actions

It is difficult to try to convince people that they should change their habits without following such advice yourself; if you want people to take you seriously, practice what you preach!

Earthlies participating in a green local economy

What’s more, when we buy things, we are “voting with our wallets”. If we only buy sustainable products, companies are incentivised to adopt more environmentally sustainable practices to meet your demand.

Vote if you can!

Earthly casting their ballot

As 55% of voters consider climate change a “very important or extremely important” issue in the US, politicians face pressure to form policies that appeal to these voters.

As well as voting with our wallets, we can also vote with our … votes! By voting for politicians that support emissions-reducing policies, such as carbon taxation and tighter environmental regulations, we can hope to see governments taking sufficient action against the climate crisis.

Governments can then use policy to influence personal action by increasing taxes on high-emission goods, or clear labelling to show the emissions produced in making them.

Can donating to climate change charities help?

Different climate impacts from personal actions

Yes, hugely. But the impact depends on the charity. It’s important to research exactly what a charity does and how they spend their money before donating. Possible methods to do so would be to refer to independent charity watch-dogs which let you know how efficiently a charity will use your donation to fund the programs you want to support.


Personal action still has a role to play in reducing carbon emissions, but is not enough by itself. To make a noticeable difference, we will need systemic change.

Earthly thinking about all the personal actions they can take

This brings us back to the climate equation we introduced in the crash course: total emissions is the product of the population, consumption and emissions produced per services:

The Climate Equation

People in developed countries can and should reduce their overall consumption. But, as a more scalable measure, humanity will need to shift consumption to sustainable products. This means eating low-emission diets, taking low-emission transport, etc.

Reduce and shift your consumption

Another great way to help solve climate change is to choose high-impact careers that work to find solutions to our current sustainability problems, or raise awareness in others. (See our ‘Open problems’ chapters in other courses!)

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