It really shouldn’t have come to this. As we embrace this new decade, we are faced with the daunting task of needing to halve global CO2 emissions to limit the increase in global average temperatures to the ‘safe’ level of 1.5°C above pre-industrial times. This is despite not yet managing to find a way to arrest the relentless rise in emissions — global emissions have increased by 4% since the Paris Agreement was struck in 2015.
It is tempting to point the finger at others for getting us into this mess — oil companies, governments, lobby groups, capitalism. However, this would be tantamount to admitting defeat and besides, it would do little to solve the problem. We simply do not have enough time to play the blame game. Everyone urgently needs to urgently pitch in if we’re to stop runaway climate change — it will be the fight of our lives. We may not be able to control the situation, but we can certainly change how we respond to it.
A successful — yet morally questionable — artist once sang ‘if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself then make a change’. And that’s the perfect mantra for tackling climate change.
What better time to start than today? There’s no need to take things to extremes, just do what you feel you’re able to. A large number of people making smaller changes can have a greater impact than a small number of people making drastic changes.
Here are 5 ways you can make a big impact in the fight against climate change. You might even save yourself money and improve your health in the process.
1. Consider switching your retirement savings to an ESG fund
Although you probably rarely think about it, your largest single investment other than your home, is likely to be your retirement savings fund (e.g. pension, superannuation or 401(k)). If you are invested in the default option, chances are you are inadvertently funding projects that are inconsistent with limiting climate change, such as new coal mines or coal-fired power plants.
Money talks. Widespread divestment from unsustainable companies will adversely affect their valuations and increase their cost of financing, rendering new projects unviable.
Funds that consider environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors have experienced rapid growth in recent years as awareness of and demand for sustainable investments has increased. For most pension plans, you will have the option to switch your balance to ESG themed investment options. If you don’t, ask your employer why not.
Investing in ESG does not necessarily mean sacrificing investment returns, in fact, the opposite may be true over the long term. ESG data is patchy and historical periods are relatively short, so it is difficult to draw firm conclusions on relative performance at this stage. However, early studies have found that companies that adopt sustainable approaches are more likely to outperform over long-term investment horizons.
ESG conscious investors have had significant wins by influencing heavy polluters to adapt their corporate strategies. For example, asset managers under the Climate Action 100+ coalition co-filed a shareholder resolution, which forced BP to adopt a business strategy that is consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Note: Choosing your investments is an important financial decision and you should consider all of the factors relevant to your situation, such as your risk appetite and investment horizon. This article is not financial advice. Please speak to a financial advisor if you are unsure.
2. Eat less meat
The simple act of putting food on our plates is a major source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The IPCC’s fifth assessment report found that GHG emissions from agriculture, forestry and changes in land use represent 25% of total emissions. Almost half of these emissions are driven by livestock (both direct emissions and land use), despite meat and dairy providing less than 20% of the global calorie intake.
Livestock also uses almost 80% of the world’s total agricultural land and is a major source of deforestation and biodiversity loss. Reducing your meat intake is one of most significant steps that you can take to reduce your environmental footprint.
In 2019, the IPCC released a special report, which estimated the potential annual GHG emission savings by 2050 if the world adopted different diets. A vegan diet would reduce emissions by 8 GtCO2-e per annum. To put that in context, the annual emissions of the USA — the second largest emitter — were just over 6 GtCO2-e in 2018. The global Veganuary campaign is a good opportunity to try a vegan diet for a month.
In practice, a vegan diet is likely to be a step too far for most people. If that sounds like you, then other dietary options can still have a significant environmental benefit (see chart below).
A ‘flexitarian’ diet — where three quarters of meat and dairy consumption is replaced with plant-based alternatives — provides most of the environmental benefits of a vegan diet, but allows occasional indulgence in meat in dairy.
Easier still, simply switching from beef and lamb to less intensive meats like chicken, would achieve almost half of the GHG emissions benefits as a full vegetarian diet. The chart below shows the GHG emissions per gram of protein.
3. Lobby and protest
The year 2020 is a critical one for climate action. The five-year ‘ratchet mechanism’ for Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement will kick in, requiring countries to either update or communicate a new NDC. Under the agreement, the NDCs should be “ambitious” and represent a “progression over time”. In theory then, we should see a round of stronger commitments announced at COP26 in Glasgow at the end of the year. However, it would be healthy to be sceptical that this will occur unprompted.
Currently, the sum of NDCs is inconsistent with the Paris Agreement objective of limiting the increase in global average temperatures to well below 2°C relative to pre-industrial times, targeting 1.5°C. Even if all of the NDCs are met, we are still on course for a 3.2°C increase, which would not avert the worst effects of climate change and may breach tipping points resulting in runaway global warming. Further, most countries are not even on track to meet the low bar of the current NDCs.
Citizens need to hold their leaders to account to ensure that they increase their NDCs in line with the Paris Agreement and that they put in place concrete plans for achieving these targets. In some countries — such as Australia, Brazil and USA — this is even more important given the alarming rhetoric and poor environmental record of their leaders. In the USA, the primary goal would be to immediately reverse the process to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which Trump formally commenced in November 2019.
In 2019, Greta Thunberg demonstrated how powerful a democratically voiceless cohort of society can be. Imagine what would happen if voters around the world mobilised in the same way as schoolchildren have. We urgently need to strike fear into politicians’ hearts before delegates are sent to COP26 later this year — the planet cannot afford COP26 to be a flop like COP25 was.
There will plenty of opportunities to get involved over the year. Your degree of commitment and your means of protest is entirely up to you — the most important thing is to add your voice to the movement.
Aside from emissions reduction targets, there are plenty of other worthy environmental campaigns to support, such as halting deforestation and limiting single-use plastic. Patagonia has launched a platform to help people find local grassroots campaigns called Action Works.
4. Plant trees and restore ecosystems
Nature can be a powerful ally in the fight against climate change, but only if we let it. Healthy ecosystems can help lock away carbon, reduce biodiversity loss and provide myriad other benefits.
A 2019 study found that planting trees is the cheapest and most effective way to mitigate climate change and identified land that could support 1.2 trillion trees without encroaching on farmland or urban areas.
The concept seems to be catching on, with political parties in the UK having an arms (or limbs…) race on tree planting policies leading up to the December 2019 election. The Tories promised 30 million per year, the Lib Dems and Labour promised 60 million and the Greens promised 70 million. Meanwhile in America, a social media campaign called #TeamTrees successfully raised money to plant over 20 million trees.
It is not just about the number of trees that matters. Planting swathes of monoculture forests on unsuitable land could potentially have adverse impacts on biodiversity and be less effective at absorbing CO2. Widescale planting should involve a mix of (ideally) native trees that are suited to the local environment. New woodland also requires a strategy for regular maintenance.
If you’re lucky enough to have a backyard, you can give wildlife a helping hand and fight climate change by planting native trees and shrubs. If not, you can join a tree planting day or perform conservation work with a local charity. There are plenty of opportunities even in cities, for example, Trees for Cities runs planting events in cities across the UK . These events are always rewarding and are a good outdoor workout.
You can also help from the comfort of your own home by donating to environmental charities, which plant trees, restore ecosystems or combat deforestation. There are a number of worthy charities to choose from, so find one that speaks to you. A few examples are listed below:
· Woodland Trust — plants trees and protects woods in the UK to create havens for wildlife.
· Tree Aid — helps poverty-stricken Africans generate an income through planting trees.
· Eden Projects — works with local communities around the world to restore forests.
The Trillion Tree Campaign has created an app, which provides a list of tree-planting charities along with details such as survival rates. It also includes a tracker of progress against the trillion trees target.
Finally, another simple and free way to plant trees is to switch your search engine to Ecosia. They have planted over 79 million trees to date by donating their profits to projects across the world.
5. Fly less
The concept of Flygskam (or flight shame), which encourages people to fly less, has taken off in recent years. Greta Thunberg helped raise awareness by choosing to travel across Europe by train and to America by sailboat. Given the significant CO2 emissions associated with flying, Greta and the Flygskam movement have a valid point.
A single economy class flight from London to New York emits almost a tonne of CO2, which exceeds the entire annual emissions of an average person in 56 counties. A return trip is equivalent to almost 30% of the average European’s current annual CO2 emissions. It is difficult to see how further growth in the aviation industry can be accommodated at the same time as reducing global emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.
A UN scheme called CORSIA aims to ensure that any increase in international aviation emissions above 2020 levels are offset. However, the scheme will not become mandatory until 2027 — the first voluntary pilot phase starts in 2021. Further, there is debate around what offsets will be allowed and some doubt as to how effective these will be.
Some airlines are responding to concerns by going further than the CORSIA agreement. UK based operator EasyJet became the first major airline to commit to offsetting all emissions across its network. Airlines are also working with aircraft manufacturers to develop hybrid and electric aircraft, although these are unlikely to be commercially viable any time soon.
In the meantime, the best thing that you can do is to avoid unnecessary flights. The second best thing you can do is to pay to offset your flights. That great deal you spotted online may not seem such a bargain once you factor in the cost of emissions.