What you can do for the climate to make a real difference

If we want to save the climate, we have to stop eating meat and fly less, right? Well, that will help, but only a little. There are other things we can do that will have much more impact.

By Maarten Boudry and Thomas Rotthier

Saving the rainforest and help fight tropical deforestation will help avoiding carbon emissions. (Photo: Mandy Choi/Unsplash)

‘But what can we as individuals do for the climate?’ is one of the most frequently asked questions to scientists and climate activists. The answers vary, but the most common include installing solar panels, properly insulating your home, buying energy-efficient appliances, flying less, and eating less meat.

Opting for low-carbon alternatives to your current lifestyle is definitely helpful, and often yields other benefits. Insulating your home is not only good for the climate, but also your wallet. Eating less (red) meat lowers your emissions, while also being cheaper, more animal-friendly, and probably healthier too.

Yet there is an inconvenient truth: individual behavioural changes have only a modest impact. Even if we all became model climate citizens tomorrow, the problem of climate change would be far from solved.

There are two reasons for this. First, the ultimate goal of the Paris Climate Agreement is to reach net zero carbon emissions on a global scale by 2050. With behavioural changes it’s possible to reduce emissions, but you’ll never get to zero. That’s because fossil fuels are everywhere: not just in diesel and kerosene, but also in plastic and paper, in steel and aluminium, in fertilisers and cement, in our homes and in agriculture.

The second reason is that we are not alone in the world. The majority of consumers in Western countries can comfortably moderate their energy consumption without sacrificing much quality of life, but energy demand in the rest of the world is set to increase sharply.

Hundreds of millions of people still live in extreme poverty. They get their scarce energy from wood and manure, both of which are highly polluting and unhealthy. In the coming decades they will finally get access to electricity. There’s nothing we can do to stop that, and it would be immoral if we did.

As a result of rising energy demand, by 2040 three-quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions will come from countries outside the West, such as China and India. China alone plans to build more than 200 new airports by 2035, and all of those planes look set to run on carbon-intensive kerosene for the foreseeable future.

These sober facts could make us feel despondent. How can we ever hope to solve such a formidable problem, when our personal efforts are just a drop in the ocean? However, there is a way in which we as individuals can make a bigger difference: by thinking along the lines of the ‘Effective Altruism’ movement.

This loose collection of philanthropists and innovators, which emerged in the late 2000s, attempts to identify the most effective ways to use charitable giving to address various world problems, such as poverty, infectious diseases, illiteracy and animal suffering. One think tank from this movement, Let’s Fund has applied these principles to the climate problem.

Investments in technological innovation have by far the greatest climate potential, according to Let’s Fund’s research. If rich countries fund and develop cheap, green technology, other countries can go on to use it, which reduces their emissions too. This is known as ‘technological spill-over’, an important and underestimated asset in the battle against climate change. Humanity will be eternally grateful to those inventors who come up with a green alternative to kerosene, a new battery that enables long-term storage (to bridge cold winters), or a small and modular nuclear reactor.

Politicians often focus on the emissions of their country or region, inspired by the idea that, ‘If everyone sweeps in front of their own door, the whole street will be clean.’ But what if we could create a new ‘broom’ with which to sweep the entire street in one go?

According to Let’s Fund, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) is one of the most effective ways to support ‘broom makers’. With its Clean Energy Innovation programme, this influential American think tank is trying to make green technology better and cheaper than fossil fuels. ITIF urges governments to drastically increase their research and development budgets and to introduce carbon taxes.

There is also the Coalition for Rainforest Nations (REDD+), an association of countries fighting tropical deforestation. Through this programme, countries receive money when they properly protect their rainforests. For every 100 euros you donate, the association removes no less than 857 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere. No organisation performs better, in terms of avoided emissions.

In principle governments should make these investments, but unfortunately we see that budgets for scientific research are mostly static and sometimes even reduced. The good news is: we don’t have to wait for dithering governments. Each of us can contribute to saving the climate by supporting the bright minds looking for a solution.

Changing your lifestyle for the sake of the climate is noble, but with well-targeted donations to effective climate funds (perhaps using some of the money you saved by insulating your house or eating a meat-free dinner twice a week), you can make an even greater impact. The Chinese proverb about planting a tree also applies to investing in climate innovation: the best time to do it was twenty years ago, the next best time is now.

(Maarten Boudry and Thomas Rotthier are both philosophers and based in Ghent, Belgium. This article was published on the website of RePlanet and is based on an earlier piece published earlier in De Standaard.