How Big of an Impact Do Lifestyle Choices Have on Climate Change?

Climate change is a huge problem. It’s one that will impact the lives of literally every person that’s alive over the coming years. It’s the changing of the climate of an entire planet.

Much of the conversation about stopping or slowing climate change has centered around things like driving less, eating less meat and using energy efficient light bulbs. But could little changes like these really make that much of a difference? What can one person truly achieve by changing their lifestyle choices?

It Depends on Who You Are

One thing’s for sure when it comes to how much impact changing your lifestyle choices can have on climate change — it’s complicated. It depends on where you live, how much money you have and the kind of choices you make. Plus, changing one of your habits won’t have much of an effect at all unless a lot of other people also change their habits.

For instance, say you only fly about once a year for vacation. Skipping that vacation or going somewhere local instead will make a difference, but it will be a small one. If you, on the other hand, fly trans-Atlantic every week for work and cut that out entirely or to once a month or by half, the difference will naturally be much bigger. If you can get your whole company to change, well, then you’re really starting to make an impact.

The difference based on where you live is also quite notable. Making your home more energy-efficient is one way to reduce your carbon footprint. That’s going to be a much large change, though, if you’re the average American than the average Bangladeshi. The typical American uses about 12,000 watts of power every year. A Bangladeshi uses 300.

Basically, the more money you have, the more your lifestyle choices can affect climate change, either for better or for worse. For those that live more carbon-intensive lifestyles, cutting down on your emissions has a large impact. For those that don’t, their time might be better spent trying to inspire broader change.

Indirect Impacts Mean More Than Direct

The impact of your lifestyle is hard to measure for another reason too. Typically indirect impacts amount to much more than direct ones.

For instance, taking shorter showers might cut down on your water use, but cutting beef from your diet could save even more water. Cows eat grain, which takes water to produce. They need a lot of grain, and the grain needs a lot of water. All in all, producing one pound of beef requires about 2,000 gallons of water.

Discovering the true impacts of the things you buy often requires a fair amount of research, and we might find carbon-cutting opportunities in unexpected places.

Which Actions Matter the Most?

Although it seems that you may not have much power when it comes to climate change, some of your lifestyle choices do make more of a difference than others. Some even make a relatively significant one. You just have to know what to focus on.

A recent study assessed 148 different actions for their effectiveness in combatting climate change. Near the top of the list were eating a plant-based diet, purchasing green energy, skipping one transatlantic flight and living without a car. Toward the bottom of the list were upgrading your light bulbs, air drying clothes and recycling.

At the very top of the list was a somewhat controversial action — having one fewer children. In their calculation of the impact of having a child, the researchers included all of the carbon impacts that child would have over their lifetime. While this would certainly make a big difference, you could argue that it’s not fair to pin all of that on the parents.

So, What Can We Do?

Although some of us have more influence than others and figuring out your carbon footprint is quite challenging, you can still make a difference. Some lifestyle changes can make a relatively significant difference, while others will have less of an impact. It’s just a matter of figuring out roughly where your biggest impacts come from, most likely travel, energy use and diet. Plus, you can take actions that improve your local environment more so than the climate as a whole, such as picking up litter or planting a tree.

Perhaps one of the most impactful things you can do is to try to influence broader social and policy change. You have power through voting and contacting your government representatives, choosing which products to buy from which companies, influencing how your employer does business and trying to impact the people around you in a positive way.

By changing your individual habits, you will make some small impacts. But when we all start to change our habits and change our way of life as a whole, we’ll really start to see some big shifts occurring.


  1. I was going to comment about the option that few talk about – to have no kids (or few).
    But you did mention it by the end!
    Since you are an electrical expert, you may appreciate this guide to calculating the CO2 footprint for home appliances:
    A lot of advice given in sloppy journalistic articles such as unplug devices when not in use, or to find an energy efficient phone, are not that helpful. They miss the point.
    “Phantom” energy drainage is a pretty small deal these days, and charging a cell phone uses a very small amount of energy compared to other things around the home. Heating and cooling is where the biggest changes can be made (in energy use at home). And, as you point out, the big ones besides that are diet, travel.. and kids!

  2. There’s a lot of multiplicity in energy savings or energy efficiency if people took efforts one at a time.

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