“If you’re reading in a textbook that it’s possible to solve this issue through really small actions, like switching from plastic to canvas bags, you might get the idea that climate change is not that big of a deal when it’s actually a very large issue facing humanity,” says Wynes.
Wynes found that swapping out your lightbulbs would reduce CO2 emissions by less than .2 tons per year. Living car free, however? That reduces your CO2 emissions by more than 3 tons. Having one less child reduces climate change impacts by 120 tons of CO2 emissions per year, in part because it’s not only a reduction of the emissions associated with the child, but also means avoiding emissions that their child would have created.
The conclusions aren’t uniform, however.
For example, you might assume that if you can’t go car-free, driving an electric car is the next best thing. After all, vehicles that run on fossil fuel emit carbon every time you drive them. But if you live somewhere where the electricity itself comes from a climactically dirty power source—like coal—it might actually be better for you to drive a hybrid.
Wynes and Nichols caution of the risks of substitution and rebound effects, where by reducing carbon emissions in one area we can end up increasing emissions in another. For example, you might super-insulate your home to decrease your house’s emissions and your energy bills. But if you use the money you saved to go on a vacation that requires a transatlantic plane trip, you haven’t done the planet any good.
At the same time, they recognize that not all emission interventions are going to be possible for everyone. If you’ve already had several children, Wynes isn’t advocating filicide (really, please don’t.)
“We talk about structural barriers that get in the way of being able to adopt some of these changes,” says Wynes. “For some people, those lifestyle changes aren’t going to be possible without relocating, and so there are other options that could be chosen.”
You might lower your large brood’s collective meat consumption, set up a school carpool, and advocate for bike lanes and mass transit in your town, for example.
Wynes is by no means arguing that we should return to the days of incandescent light bulbs, or switch back to disposable bags, or start throwing clothes in the dryer all willy-nilly. Curbing those wasteful actions does help—but we need to make sure we’re mixing those small interventions in with a few big ones.
“Trying to think about that scale and just making the largest steps that you can would be the best way to do it,” says Wynes.
“There’s a saying about being a penny wise, pound foolish,” he adds. “And in this case it’s kilogram wise and ton foolish.”