Jessica Doherty, a University of Maine sophomore, holds up a sign at the Sept. 2019 gathering in Broadway Park in Bangor to protest climate change. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The recently released 2021 report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change about the state of the climate left many feeling hopeless this week. In short, we are almost at the point of no return when it comes to catastrophic climate change.

But, there is hope if people instead see it as a call to action.

First, it’s important to note that most of the responsibility for preventing catastrophic global climate change is not on the individual. A 2017 report from the Climate Accountability Institute found that just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global emissions since 1988 (and fossil fuel companies have long lobbied to control the narrative around climate change to blame individuals). The IPCC report outlines the ways in which policymakers need to regulate greenhouse gas emissions on a larger scale to avoid catastrophic climate change.

That’s not to say that individual choices don’t matter at all. They do, especially when it can lead to collective action, where your choices inspire friends, family and neighbors who inspire their own friends, family and neighbors until the powers-that-be take notice.

Here are eight ways you can take action to reduce your individual contribution to climate change.

Buy less, use less

Most of the advice for reducing your individual contribution to climate change boils down to this: we need to buy and use less of nearly everything, from energy to consumer products.

Let’s focus on the latter. After all, large companies don’t create emissions unless people are buying the products that result from them — an estimated 90 percent of total emissions from the largest emitters come “indirectly” from producing products, according to the Climate Accountability Institute.

According to a 2020 study led by Columbia University, the average product results in carbon emissions of 6.3 times its own weight across its lifecycle. Every time you order a random trinket online, think about the greenhouse gas emissions that were used to make it and get it to you, and consider whether or not you really need it.

Walk, bike or take a train

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, transportation accounts for about 29 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making it the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions.

Opting for low-carbon methods of transportation is one of the best ways to reduce your personal carbon footprint. Walk or bike whenever possible instead of driving. This is easy when you live in a city, sure, but in a mostly rural state like Maine, it’s harder. There is no easy individual solution to this, except to try to carpool when you and where you can.

If you are going on vacation, consider the ways you can travel more sustainably. Instead of flying for longer distances, take the train if you can. Yes, it takes longer and can be more expensive, but trains create about half the greenhouse gas emissions that planes. 

Consider your home energy consumption

According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, the U.S. residential sector accounts for 21 percent of all energy consumption and is responsible for 20 percent of our country’s carbon emissions.

Making efforts to reduce energy usage in the home will help to reduce that contribution. Conduct a home energy audit to see where you are wasting unnecessary energy (and, frankly, money). You can also take steps to make your home more energy efficient.

Consider renewable energy options for your home as well. Maine offers a number of incentives for homeowners to add solar energy systems to their homes. Over time, these systems will save you money as well.

Eat more sustainably

You are what you eat — and so is the planet. Making more earth-conscious diet choices is an effective way to reduce your carbon footprint.

This, unavoidably, means eating less animal-based products. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, global livestock account for 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, even locally-grown, pasture-raised meat can have an outsized carbon footprint. 

In 2019, the United Nations IPCC put out a special report that recommended high-income countries switching to plant-based diets as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even if you can’t see yourself transitioning to a vegetarian or vegan diet, try to incorporate more plant-based meals and alternatives to your meaty favorites when you can.

Eating food that is grown locally also reduces the greenhouse gas emissions that are used to transport food long distances.

Say no to plastic

As the Center for International Environmental Law points out, nearly every piece of plastic begins as a fossil fuel, and greenhouse gases are emitted at each stage of the plastic lifecycle, from refining and manufacturing to managing plastic waste. If plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2050, the cumulation of these greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 56 gigatons, which is 10 to 13 percent of the entire remaining carbon budget.

Saying no to plastic is getting easier in Maine, with plastic bag bans going into effect statewide this year. But the problem doesn’t stop there. Resist the urge to opt for groceries that use excessive plastic packaging. Reduce plastic use in your daily life as much as you can, whether it is in your backyard garden or in your community at large.

Talk to your friends, family and neighbors

As you make changes to your lifestyle, talk to your friends, family and neighbors about why you are doing so. The butterfly effect of individual action is one of the greatest hopes we have to combat climate change.

Talking about climate change has become a partisan issue, which can make it challenging to discuss the topic with people who have opposing views. TED has helpful tips on how to have a conversation about climate change.

Vote and advocate for the planet

When voting at any level — whether it is the city government or the U.S. president — make sure you know where all the candidates stand on issues of climate change. Effective policy that advocates for clean energy, transitioning away from fossil fuels and reducing carbon pollution is the real key to curtailing runaway climate change.

No matter who you are and what you believe, you may be tired of hearing the same advice over and over again. But if the IPCC’s most recent report is any indication, humanity is at an inflection point when it comes to climate change. Now more than ever, it’s time to take that seriously.