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What are the most effective actions for the climate?

Updated: May 26, 2023

If we don’t change course, the lifestyle of every family will result in one climate death. We urgently need ways to prevent global warming from worsening. What are the most promising things we can do personally?

By Stijn Bruers

There's a lot more you can do than take a bike. (Photo: Freepik)

With the many floods and forest fires, plus ever more alarming scientific studies, we can no longer ignore that the climate is changing faster than expected. In the media, we see many disturbing messages about global warming. Please allow me to add to that.

A study in Nature offers an initial calculation of the ‘mortality cost of carbon’. The author looked only at temperature deaths, i.e. the extra number of people who die due to higher temperatures and heat waves (minus the number of people who die less due to milder winters and fewer cold waves). Without additional climate action, some 80 million people could die from climate change by the year 2100. That is as many as the number of deaths in World War II.

Now, let’s take an average family of four in Belgium, the country where I live. The total amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases that those family members emit over their lifetimes causes an extra climate death this century due to more extreme temperatures.

I repeat: for every family, there is one climate death.

With climate change, we are facing the equivalent of a world war.

When we are given frightening news, we tend to become fatalistic. Unless … the message is accompanied by a clear, concrete, achievable action perspective

Yet many people still seem to doubt whether things will turn out so catastrophically. They seem immune to alarming messages in the media. In fact, precisely those messages could well be counterproductive, fuelling climate doubt.

Psychological research shows this. When we are given frightening news, we tend to become fatalistic and bury our heads in the sand. Unless … the message is accompanied by a clear, concrete, achievable action perspective. When faced with disaster, we want to be able to do something meaningful. If we do not know what to do, we feel so helpless that we passively accept fate and even dare to question the disaster.

When reporting on the worrying trends in global warming, the media should pay more attention to what we can do against climate change. For example, agriculture and industry can take all kinds of measures, and the government could introduce a carbon tax and support villages and cities against floods and heatwaves.

But let’s also take a look here at what ordinary individuals like you and me can do. We can eat a more plant-based diet instead of meat, cycle more often than take the car, waste less food, and use energy more sparingly by turning the room temperature down a degree and using more fuel-efficient appliances. These are actions that cost next to nothing. They are achievable for everyone, and will reduce our climate impact. These actions alone can save more than a tonne per person of CO2 every year.

The big advantage of these actions is that they are not only free of charge, but save money. The average Belgian wastes hundreds of euros a year on energy, so we are talking about similar savings through individual behavioural measures.

Now, what if we donated that saved money to the most effective climate goals? If we did, we would have a double positive impact on the climate.

Just a few simple actions anyone can do will save money which we can then spend on the most effective climate goals

This brings us to ‘effective environmentalism’, a movement within the more established school of effective altruism that looks for the measures with the most impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Research shows that a small minority of climate actions are easily dozens of times more cost-effective than the rest. It appears that with the same amount of money, we can reduce CO2 emissions roughly 100 times more if we spend it on the most effective climate goals.

To put a concrete figure on it: the most effective climate action can avoid one tonne of CO2 in the atmosphere at a cost of one euro.

An amount of 1,000 euros can then be enough to avoid as much CO2 as an average Belgian emits over her entire life. That means that 4,000 euros could save someone’s life from heat death due to climate change. That’s pretty cheap.

Sometimes I think back to the climate victims of the 2021 floods in my home country. Several dozen people died as a result of climate change. Suppose you were able to save a drowning person during that flood, but you lost your wallet during the rescue. How many euros are you willing to lose to save that life?

I bet you’d be willing to spend as much as 4,000 euros. That’s one euro a week over a lifetime of 80 years – less than what an average Belgian wastes on energy and food every week.

The most effective climate measures include organisations that promote research and development of ‘clean technologies’, i.e. those that are climate-friendly

What are the most effective climate measures? They include organisations that promote research and development of ‘clean technologies’, i.e. those that are climate-friendly.

One big climate culprit is fossil fuels, so we’ll need clean energy. Carbon-free energy sources like wind, solar and nuclear power, and storage systems like batteries, can ultimately replace fossil fuels.

Another big climate culprit is animal husbandry, so we’ll need ‘clean protein’. Animal-free proteins such as cell-cultured meat can replace animal-based foods such as meat, eggs and dairy.

If this interests you, I suggest you check out the Founders Pledge Climate Change Fund, Let’s Fund and the Good Food Institute.

A final simple effective strategy against climate change is talking to your elected representatives to convince them to introduce a meat tax or phase out fossil fuels subsidies. If the government uses that money to fund research into climate-friendly energy and animal-free food, we get a double bonus for the climate.

Stijn Bruers is an economist and chairman of Effective Altruism Belgium. On his Rational Ethicist blog, he writes about topics such as animal rights and environmental justice. Some of his posts are in English. Previously on RePlanet's website, Stijn wrote about how technology can liberate animals.


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